Church Music in Northern and Western Europe

  August 16, 2021   Read time 3 min
Church Music in Northern and Western Europe
The story of music in northern Europe at this time gathers about three centers, Austria, the seat of the Hapsburg line of emperors, Bavaria, more or less associated with it, and Saxony, the headquarters of the Protestant Reformation.

The first two were intimately affiliated with Italy and shared in all Italian tendencies, while the last tended to strike - out into new paths in sacred music. It is convenient and valid to consider them somewhat apart. Chronologically it would be better to begin with Austria, but topically it is more useful to turn at once to the rise of Reformation music in Saxony. This will lead on, finally, to a survey of musical progress in . France, the Low Countries and England, all of which were affected by the Reformation.

Lutheran Protestantism began in Saxony and took its name from Martin Luther, a highly educated Augustinian monk, well versed in music, who at Wittenberg, in 1517, publicly protested against the sale of indulgences and other abuses in the papal system as then administered, and who by 1520 had become so outspoken as to be excommunicated. His action was a symptom of a widespread feeling that was waiting for organization. Luther at once attracted able coadjutors, and. under their leadership a complex revolution of thought swept over northern Germany, winning support from all classes.

The issue between the Protestant and the Catholic parties was fully defined by 1520 (the Diet of Augsburg), but was not held to be irreconcilable till about 1550. The progress of the movement during its first century, owing to the extreme partition of Gennany into many petty states, all overshadowed by the Empire, was involved in complicated political entanglements, by which its character was often distorted its well-wishers split into hostile factions, and its advance checked. In consequence, its features escape succinct statement,

From his doctrines of salvation by faith, the right of private judgrnent, and the universal priesthood of believers, Luther deduced radical conclusions regarding public worship, including special emphasis on congregational participation in the service in the vernacular language (instead of Latin). Although holding closely to the outlines of the Roman service, he undertook to reduce some features that he held objectionable and to make the people's part conspicuous. He seized upon common song as indispensable, and in 1523 and 1526, with the aid of Walther and others, issued orders of service with this element emphasized. The hymns provided were as a rule specially written in metrical form. For them melodies were either borrowed from favorite folk-songs or part-songs or were newly written in similar style, thus linking the new style with forms already universally popular. These melodies were later called' chorales.

Though at first the musical treatment of chorales was more or less contrapuntal, with the melody in the tenor, before 1600 the style advanced to a definitely harmonic form, with a solid progression of chords, the melody in the treble and the lines sharply defined by cadences and controlled by a coherent tonality. The chorale became the nucleus of Protestant church music generally, and it is of historic importance because its wide acceptance hastened and popularized the new tendency to base composition on harmony rather than counterpoint, and because from its extensive literature German organ music later derived an inexhaustible fund of suggestion. What the treasures of Plain-Song had been to Catholic music, the new treasures of the chorale style became to Protestant music. This innovation, then, contained the germ of great subsequent developments.

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