The Reformation was a revolution in music as well as in theology, ritual, ethics, and art. Catholic liturgy was aristocratic, a stately ceremonial rooted in inviolable tradition and standing frankly above the people in language, vestments, symbols, and music. In that spirit the clergy defined itself as the Church, and thought of the people as a flock to be shepherded into morality and salvation by myth, legend, sermon, drama, and all the arts. In that spirit the Mass was an esoteric mystery, a miraculous intercourse of the priest with God, and the music of the Mass was sung by the priest and a male choir set apart from the worshipers. But in the Reformation the middle classes asserted themselves; the people became the Church, the clergy became their ministers, the language of the service was to be the vernacular of the nation, the music was to be intelligible, and in it the congregation would take an active, finally a leading, role.
Luther loved music, appreciated polyphony and counterpoint, and wrote enthusiastically in 1538:
When natural music is sharpened and polished by art, then one begins to see with amazement the great and perfect wisdom of God in His wonderful work of music, where one voice takes a simple part and around it sing three, four, or five other voices, leaping, springing round about, marvelously gracing the simple part, like a square dance in heaven.... He who does not find this an inexpressible miracle of the Lord is truly a clod, and is not worthy to be considered a man.10
At the same time he aspired to a religious music that would move the people by its fusion of faith with song. In 1524 he collaborated with Johann Walther, Kapellmeister to the Elector Frederick the Wise, to produce the first Protestant hymnal, which was expanded and improved through many editions. The words were taken partly from Catholic hymns, partly from the songs of the Meistersinger, partly from Luther’s own roughly poetic pen, partly from folk songs transformed to religious themes; “the Devil,” said Luther, “has no right to all the good tunes.”11 Some of the music was composed by Luther, some by Walther, some was adapted from current Catholic settings. Lutheran churches continued for almost a century to include polyphonic Masses in their ritual; but gradually Latin was replaced by the vernacular, the role of the Mass was reduced, singing by the congregation was extended, and the chants of the choir moved away from counterpoint to an easier harmonic form in which the music sought to follow and interpret the words. From the choir music composed by Luther and his aides to accompany the recitation of Gospel narratives came the noble Protestant church music of the eighteenth century, culminating in the oratorios of Handel and the Masses, oratorios, and chorales of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Not all the founders of Protestantism were so favorable to music as Luther. Zwingli, though himself a musician, excluded music altogether from the religious service, and Calvin forbade any church music except unisonal singing by the congregation. But he allowed polyphonic song in the home; and his Huguenot followers in France took part of their strength and courage from family singing of hymns and Psalms set to music for several voices. When Clément Marot translated the Psalms into French verse Calvin so liked the result that he condoned the polyphonic settings arranged by Claude Goudimel, and the fact that this Protestant composer was slain in the Massacre of St. Bartholomew made his Psalter a doubly holy book. A century after Marot a Catholic bishop expressed his envy of the role these translations and settings had played in the French Reformation. “To know these Psalms by heart is, among the Huguenots, a sign of the communion to which they belong; and in the towns in which they are most numerous the airs may be heard coming from the mouths of artisans, and, in the country, from those of tillers of the soil.”12 The democratization of religious music marked the lands of the Reformation, covering the darkness of the creed with the releasing joy of song.