Before French horns, violins, pianos, and even drums there was the voice – a singular musical instrument common to the entire family of man, yet so versatile that no two cultures developed the same vocal traditions. If you are in a choir today, you’ve probably noticed that much of Western choral music is religious in nature, for example Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Fauré’s Requiem, and countless other works. This is no mere coincidence; today’s choral music owes a significant debt to the vocal and choral traditions of Medieval and Renaissance Europe – traditions that were largely instituted by the church.
Liturgy and the Choral Tradition
One thousand years ago there were no professional vocalists and no concerts as we know them today. Troupes of musicians sang and played folk songs in taverns or in the homes of nobility, but for most people, music lived in the church. In this era the clergy sang the liturgy (also known as the mass) in unison, a style called Gregorian Chant. Music notation was very primitive, giving only a rough indication of duration and interval, but worked well enough for the musically-untrained parishioners. This early setting of the Latin text of the mass to music marks the beginnings of a true choral music tradition.
Because of great distances between the western and eastern borders of the continent, liturgical choral music varied widely. Charlemagne, leader of the Holy Roman Empire, saw that unification was essential to maintaining order both politically and culturally. In an effort to unify his people, he disseminated manuals containing the Latin mass complete with musical notation, mandating their use by the clergy. The proliferation of these manuals is directly responsible for the standardization of European choral practices as we know them today.
In our time, art, politics, and religion may be interrelated to a degree, but in the 16th century, their relationship was much more formal. Artists were subject to the rigorous strictures of the church, whose authority was absolute. In the centuries following the widespread adoption of Gregorian Chant, composers became much bolder in their music, even drawing on secular songs for inspiration. This practice was put to an end by the Council of Trent in 1562, a gathering of church elite that aimed to reduce the cross-contamination of the secular with the sacred. Their decision further enmeshed choral music with religion, a bond which still persists to this day.
Choral Music from the Baroque to the Modern Day
It may be hard for us to understand the importance of the church in Europe of hundreds of years ago; religion was an intimate part of each person’s daily life. Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and many more, wrote religious choral works not only because it was conventional, but because they were religious and saw it as a way of expressing that aspect of their character.
Today these masses are monuments of a bygone era. Though still sung with regularity, the world in which we live is very different than the one that produced these works. Although the church no longer interferes directly with the creation of art, we can still appreciate the depth and spirituality that liturgical music evokes.