The Roman Catholic Church underwent some major changes in the 16th century. These reforms were due to the growing dissatisfaction with the Church as well as the rise of Protestantism.
One of the most important councils that took place during this time was the Council of Trent. This council convened in 1545 and lasted twenty years until 1565. Its main purpose was to restore faith and order in the church, specifically focusing on reforming ecclesiastical discipline, doctrine, and worship.
Among other things, it defined official doctrine regarding papal authority, justification, and sacraments. It also prohibited certain teachings and practices that were prevalent at that time, such as relying purely on external forms of piety (such as pilgrimages) or earning temporal rewards for spiritual gifts.
This article will focus on one composer who responded to these reforms in an exemplary fashion: Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750).
The influence of the Council of Trent on composers
The Council of Trent lasted for twenty years, from 1545 to 1565, and from 1551 to 1560 it was the dominant religious authority in Europe. Hence, the changes it implemented in music had a lasting effect.
It is difficult to talk about composers and music without mentioning the Roman Catholic Church. This is because so many great composers have been influenced by religion: some have written music about religion, others have used religious themes in their work, and still others have been paid by religious institutions to produce music for them.
None other than Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) was one such composer who wrote music specifically for a church institution: the Leipzig Collegium Musicum (Leipzig College of Music), which was funded by the city’s council. Bach worked for this institution from 1729 until his death seven years later.
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina
Although there was already a clear shift away from the style of music popularized by Guillaume de Machaut and his contemporaries, the Council of Trent officially abolished many of the musical practices of the Medieval era.
The council issued decrees on liturgy, worship, and music that restricted musical elements and influence. For example, instruments were now limited to certain approved ones.
Palestrina (1526–1594) was a famous composer who lived during this time of change. He rose to prominence during the papacy of Julius III (1550–55), a pope who encouraged artistic reform.
By studying Palestrina’s music, we can see how he adapted to conform with the new standards set by the Council of Trent while still maintaining his own style and identity as a composer.
History of composition during the Renaissance
The history of composition during the Renaissance is not very long. It can be divided into two major periods: before and after the Council of Trent.
Before the Council of Trent, music was being changed by two major external forces. The first was the spread of printed music. Music became more available, and this increased innovation and experimentation with it.
The second was the reform movement within the Catholic Church. This reform included several rules for clergy, one of which was a prohibition on music made for entertainment purposes.
As a result, many composers left the church to pursue other opportunities. Some became freelance musicians, while others worked for courts or towns outside of the church. This period ended when the Council of Trent reestablished faith within the church, restoring faith in music as well.
History of composition during the Baroque era
The Baroque era was characterized by a move away from the Renaissance-era notion of perfection, and the Classical-era ideal of balance. Instead, Baroque artists emphasized the artistic expression of raw emotion.
Music was not judged based on how well it represented mathematical perfection, nor was it judged based on how balanced it was. Music was judged instead on how much emotion it conveyed.
This is clearly seen in the works of composers like Bach. His music is known for being very expressive, with many different layers that interact with each other to create unique emotional responses in listeners.
Other notable Baroque composers include Handel, Monteverdi, and Purcell. All of these composers contributed to the development of music during this era, making a significant impact on the art form as a whole.
Comparison between composers and the Council of Trent
The Council of Trent, held between 1545 and 1563, was a gathering of Catholic clergy where reforms to the church were discussed and enforced.
These reforms pertained to the worship service, doctrine, and discipline of the church. Worship service referred to changes in how mass was conducted, doctrine referred to changes in what was taught about Jesus Christ, his role and his nature, and discipline referred to changes in how people were disciplined.
Many composers of this time period were not very influenced by the Council of Trent. For example, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1526–1594) is considered one of the greatest composers of the Renaissance period. While he did not directly respond to the Council of Trent in his music, there are some subtle hints that he may have been influenced by some of its teachings.
The Council of Trent imposed strict regulations on music and musicians, regulating even the smallest details of composition. All aspects of music were scrutinized and regulated, from the number of notes in a piece to the number of voices singing.
Many composers responded to these new regulations in different ways. Some fully embraced them, others partially did so, and some completely rejected them. Those who fully embraced the new rules could not have accomplished such a task without having thorough knowledge and experience with them first.
The best example of a composer who exemplarily responded to the reforms of the Council of Trent is Monteverdi. He had great musical knowledge and experience which enabled him to understand and apply the new rules in an appropriate fashion. Moreover, his later works show that he still was able to break some rules in a justified manner.
It is important for composers today to understand both the old standards as well as the new ones imposed by religious bodies like the Catholic Church. By doing so, composers can continue to develop music within appropriate boundaries.