Music in the Church: Pre-Reformation, Post-Reformation, and Today

By Kennemur, Amy | Social Studies Review, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Music in the Church: Pre-Reformation, Post-Reformation, and Today


Kennemur, Amy, Social Studies Review


Sunday morning at the local church is a time of tradition and religion. A large, solemn, pew-filled sanctuary with stained glass windows slowly fills with dress-- and suit-clad members, filing solemnly to their regular places in the rows of pews. Organ music plays slowly in the background. The tune is well-known, but surely the composer meant for a faster tempo. The people seem to be comfortable with this type of music, and the well-worn hymnals in front of them are filled with this type of slow, intricate, complex, traditional music. Is this a picture of a church in today's times? Most likely, this is a very different picture from what is seen in a modem day church. However, neither is this description an accurate example of a Sunday morning church service directly before or after the Reformation, which can be defined as a religious movement taking place at the time of the split of the church of England in 1517. Perhaps this example falls somewhere between the Reformation and today. However, the atmosphere, as specifically set by the music, was quite different in churches directly before and after the Reformation, as well as in today's society. Throughout history, music has been subject to constant changes as society and the style of church worship have evolved. The artistry-based style of worship before the Reformation was completely changed to a simpler, more worship-friendly form of music after the Reformation and is still changing today as a result of the effects of the Reformation.

Before the Reformation, music in churches was praised for artistry. Writers of music would compose extremely difficult songs filled with complicated combinations of musical intonation. Though the continent of Europe had adopted a simpler form of church music by the time period directly before the Reformation, England had not. According to Dennis Arnold in the New Oxford Companion to Music, "the English had retained the older cantusfirmus techniques and favored extremely florid polyphony, full of dynamic rhythms and ornamental melody" (629). This statement describes the form of music directly before the Reformation. "Cantusfirmus" informs the reader of the very old, traditional, and religious sound of the music. Tradition was very important to the people of the church, so this form kept the people comfortable with the music. "Florid polyphony" refers to a very ornate and intricate style of music in which different forms of music are blended together. "Dynamic rhythms" adds emphasis to the intricate style of music already described by the preluding phrases. As stated in the previous quote, the music written for churches in the time period directly before the Reformation was extremely intricate in style as well as sound, combined with a traditionalism which kept the people comfortable with the music in the churches.

Music was also not written entirely with the praise of God in mind. Many of the songs which were sung in churches in England before the Reformation had originally been secular songs, but the words had been changed to make the songs proper for the church (Arnold, 629). Attending church in this time period was an issue of politics and most people attended so they would not be looked down upon for being "heathens" or for "going against the Almighty." For this reason, people in the church are the ones who made certain songs and types of music popular, therefore they wanted to hear these same forms of music in the church, also. These songs would only be proper to be found in the church if the words were religious, so people changed the words in order to be able to find these types of music in the church. Also, though the verses of the songs were very religious, the themes of battles and drinking were praised along with the God of peace, the whole purpose behind going to church (Arnold, 629). Appearance suggests worshipping God was not all on the minds of the people in church on Sunday morning.

Church was considered very important and prestigious before the Reformation. …

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