One of the momentous moments in Western history is the Reformation. The Catholic Church had long been led by truly corrupt Popes and Bishops and the theology of the Church had become little more than a slate of justifications for the absurd power wielded by the upper echelons of the hierarchy.
Others had tried to begin the reforming of the Church but not until Martin Luther, working in the broader context of the Renaissance) that real reformation began. Oddly, the word “reformation” is inappropriately applied to the Protestant churches which emerged during the next half century. Those churches were no longer part of the Roman Church and thus were not truly reformatory.
Nonetheless, the turmoil stirred up by Luther and the Renaissance did bear fruit in substantial and worthy reforms within the Roman Church. We call the period the Counter-Reformation, another misnomer. Because the changes of the Counter-Reformation took place within the Roman Church, they alone are rightly to be called a Reformation of the Church.
One area in which we all benefit from the Counter-Reformation is that of music. We see the beginnings of a new musical richness in the work of Josquin des Prez (1450?-1521), but it’s full fruition came in the amazing beauty of the work of slightly later composers.
My favorites are the Italian Palestrina (1525-1594), the Franco-Flemish de Lassus (1530-1594), and the Spaniard Tomas Luis de Victoria (1548-1611).
As Catholics, they are the heirs of the ancient Gregorian Chants, of course, but their music is enrichened by complex harmonies which would have been rejected as too showy for sacred music. The whole point of church music up to this time (if I may be permitted a bit of overstatement) was to lead the listener outside of himself to be lost in the worship of God. This new music was so beautiful it was sometimes hard to remember it was created as an aid to worship, not as an object of worship.
Today, with our broader range of musical experiences, we can listen to the music of the Counter-Reformation in either of those two basic ways. We can listen while we meditate on the beauty and glory, the love and the grace of God. Or we can listen simply to revel quietly in the sheer beauty of the music itself.
My prayer for you would be that you enjoy the music in both ways. . .