Academic journal article Sacred Music

The Council of Trent and the Reform of Gregorian Chant

Academic journal article Sacred Music

The Council of Trent and the Reform of Gregorian Chant

Article excerpt

By the sixteenth century the church had developed almost all of our present chant repertoire, from the simplest forms--litanies, sequences, and hymns--to the most ornate forms--graduals and alleluias of the Mass and the great responsories of the Divine Office. From the thirteenth to the sixteenth century, as polyphonic music developed, the rhythm of the chant was almost certainly affected; many of the subtleties of the original neumatic notation by this time had been forgotten. But following the Council of Trent and as a result of certain directives of the council's final sessions concerning liturgical music, a much more dramatic reform of Gregorian chant would soon commence. Indeed, this beautiful edifice of chant repertoire, which had been evolved and developed, was about to be tarnished over the next few centuries by well-meaning and otherwise well-respected and talented musicians. What was lacking? Why was the chant repertoire perceived to be deficient and even decadent by the church fathers of the sixteenth century?


During the twenty-five sessions of the Council of Trent, which took place over a span of eighteen years (1545-1563), sacred music did not receive precedence; the mind of the church, in reaction to the spread of Protestantism, was preoccupied with points of theology and morality more than on matters pertaining to sacred music. As a result, issues pertaining to music were not discussed until sessions XXII, XXIII, and XXIV, which encompassed the last one and one-half years of the council. In these sessions on music, several "abuses" in the church were discussed: the infiltration of popular songs and dances; unnecessary verbose elaborations in the profusion of tropes, prosae, and sequences; poor declamation of the words in Gregorian chant; confusion of the text in polyphony due to complex counterpoint; disturbing differences between liturgical books found in various nations, provinces, and cathedrals.

The concern for proper declamation of Gregorian chant, as perceived by the council fathers, resulted in a reform so as to bring the church's chant in line with contemporary aesthetic values. Methods recommended to reform the chant include: cutting the melismas on unaccented syllables, "correcting" the rhythmic declamation of the text according to classical principles, applying major-minor tonality in the chant melodies, and other alterations according to contemporary standards. The texts were also challenged, and partially rewritten, to follow the classical rules of Latin prosody and versification.


Secular humanism was a consequence of scholarly interest in Greek and Roman antiquity during the Renaissance period. Theoreticians, like Gioseffo Zarlino and Nicola Vicentino, and humanist prelates, like Cardinal Sileto and Bishop Cirillo Franco, questioned the aesthetic value of Gregorian chant because it ignored the rules of prosody, meter, and Latin versification. (1) Even before the Council of Trent, Zarlino, in his Le istitutioni harmoniche, insisted on proper declamation in Gregorian chant. He stated, "the chants are generally heard with greatest pleasure when the words are properly declaimed." (2)

Giulio Caccini in his Le nuove musiche also discusses the importance of expressing the text in a musical setting:

   the intelligence of the idea of the words, and the taste and
   imitation of this idea, by the use of expressive notes, and a plain
   interpretation of sentiment are more useful than counterpoint. (3)

This further dimension of expressivity and emotion, along with the best comprehension of the text, amplifies the secular attitudes that most influenced the reform of Gregorian chant.

The emphasis on verbal declamation and subjective expressiveness encouraged a more rhythmic and accentual declamation of Gregorian chant; in fact, efforts would soon be made to rewrite the chant with measured rhythm. …

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