The Reformation and subsequent counter-reformation encompass some of the most sweeping religious, social, and political transitions of the Renaissance era. Both movements exert a profound influence on the music of that time. We will actually explore some of the effects of the Protestant Reformation on music, specifically those put forward by Martin Luther, a little later when we study the cantatas of J.S. Bach in the Baroque. For now, an overview of the Reformation will suffice. As you read here, notice the mention of the role of the printing press and the Catholic Church’s response, the counter-reformation. The next page will focus on the counter-reformation and its effects on Renaissance music, specifically that of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina.
The Protestant Reformation, often referred to simply as the Reformation, was the schism within Western Christianity initiated by Martin Luther, John Calvin, Huldrych Zwingli and other early Protestant Reformers.
Although there had been significant earlier attempts to reform the Roman Catholic Church before Luther—such as those of Jan Hus, Peter Waldo, and John Wycliffe—it is Martin Luther who is widely acknowledged to have started the Reformation with his 1517 work The Ninety-Five Theses. Luther began by criticizing the selling of indulgences, insisting that the Pope had no authority over purgatory and that the Catholic doctrine of the merits of the saints had no foundation in the gospel. The attacks widened to cover many of the doctrines and devotional Catholic practices. The new movement within Germany diversified almost immediately, and other reform impulses arose independently of Luther. The largest groupings were the Lutherans and Calvinists, or Reformed. Lutheran churches were founded mostly in Germany, the Baltics and Scandinavia, while the Reformed ones were founded in France, Switzerland, Hungary, the Netherlands and Scotland. The new movement influenced the Church of England decisively after 1547 under Edward VI and Elizabeth I, although the national church had been made independent under Henry VIII in the early 1530s for political rather than religious reasons. There were also reformation movements throughout continental Europe known as the Radical Reformation, which gave rise to the Anabaptist, Moravian, and other Pietisticmovements.
Although the core motivation behind these changes was theological, many other factors played a part, including the rise of nationalism, the Western Schism which eroded people’s faith in the Papacy, the corruption of the Curia, and the new learning of the Renaissance which questioned much traditional thought. On a technological level the spread of the printing press provided the means for the rapid dissemination of religious materials in the vernacular.
The Roman Catholic Church responded with a Counter-Reformation initiated by the Council of Trent. Much work in battling Protestantism was done by the well-organized new order of the Jesuits. In general, Northern Europe, with the exception of most of Ireland, came under the influence of Protestantism. Southern Europe remained Roman Catholic, while Central Europe was a site of a fierce conflict, culminating in the Thirty Years’ War, which left it massively devastated.