Music in pre-reformation and post-Tridentine generation


The Protestants reformation from the Roman Catholic Church began on the 31st of October in 1517, by sampling two significant composers of the pre-reformation and the post reformation era, it will be possible to connect historical changes and political events that happened in the first part of the 16th century and how the changes reflected different attitudes towards setting words on music. By analyzing their auto biographies it will be possible to verify that biographical facts partly accounted for the way they composed. (John.D, 1) In this light two composers shall be put in to perspective namely, Antony Busnois (Busnoys) he existed from (1430 to 6th November 1492) which is roughly the time before the reformation took place. The other composer to put into consideration is William Byrd born in (1540 or at the end of1539 – 4th of July 1623)

Biography of the composers

Antony Busnois

Antoine Busnois was French, whose profession was composing and poetry during the early period of renaissance. (John.

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D, 4) His early details remaining highly conjectural, it is believed that he probably hailed from Bethune in France. He could have been a relation of an aristocratic family in Besnes, He obtained musical education that was of an excellent nature from a church school choir most likely located in the central or the northern part of France. His links to an aristocratic family can be used to explain his close associations with the royal office (court), references dating back to 1450 testify of this. He was appointed chaplain in 1462 at Tours (John.D, 4), later he moved from his post at the cathedral and joined the St.

Martin collegiate Church which is still in the same town here he was appointed as a subdeacon in the year of 1465, there He met a treasure at the church named Johannes Ockeghem, it was apparent that the two were well quittances of each other this treasurer was also a composer, later in the same year Busnois relocated to Poitiers, where he worked as a choirboy master and attracted a great number of gifted singers from the region, it is apparent that by this time news had spread about his competence as great tutor, student and composer. None the less he did not stay long in Poitiers, there is no known reason as to why he left within such a short period (1466). In the year of 1467 Busnois was at the Burgundy court, where he started to compose for the members of the court just before Charles became the Duke on 15th June. Charles was a lover of music hence appreciated and gave employ to Busnois, besides composing and being a singer Busnois gave his company to Charles’ military campaigns.

During one of Charles’ military campaigns in the battle of Nancy (1477), Charles lost his life, halting the enlargement of Burgundy. However Busnois continued to work in the court until the year of 1482, there is very little being known between then and 1492 when he passed away. (John.D, 4) Busnois had a remarkable reputation as far as contemporary composition was concerned; it is most likely that in Europe he was the most famous musician at the period of Guillaume and Johannes Ockeghem.

Busnois did both secular and sacred compositions, some of his sacred work includes masses of cantus firmus and motets, eight of his motets can still be accesses currently

William Byrd

Knowledge of William Byrd has been improving with time, since much was not known about him, following the discovery of a document dating back to 2nd of October of 1622 found by (Harley, 1997) stated the age of Byrd to be around 58 years which denotes that he born in the year 1540. William Byrd was born in the city of London, his father was Thomas Byrd of whom little is known about, William had six siblings of whom two were boys (John and Simon, and four sisters). It is clear from references that William Byrd schooled at Royal chapel choir, his tutor was Thomas Tallis , Byrd was an associate singman with two others namely: John shepherd and the other being William Mundy. Being a Sarum liturgy’s item it is most likely that it was done at the end of the rule of Mary Tudor (1553 to 1558). Mary Tudor’s believes were catholic and hence impelled her to reinstitute practices that were liturgical in her brief period of ruling. With this scenario in mind it likely to speculate that William was a chair boy in the Royal Chapel.

(John.D, 5) William’s first known formal employment is being an organist and also a choirmaster of the Lincoln Cathedral, a position which he remained from 25th March 1563.His residence was in six Minister Lincoln yard, he continued until the year 1572,. The 1560s were important ears for Byrd as far as his compositing formation was concerned, the protestant ways influenced his formation at this point, putting into mind the Matins of England, Communion and also the Evensong sessions which appear to have been created to align to the demands of the protestant community, this demands include use of straight forward wordings and textures of music that were simple in nature, these compositions might have been developed during the years of Lincoln. It absolutely clear that the compositions of Byrd were for the Anglican Church music, because , Byrd was still being paid a reduced salary by the chapter of the Dean of Lincoln even after he left the chapter, with a condition that would still send his compositions to the respective cathedral. Byrd also achieved great strides as far as instrumental music was concerned, His instrumental works include; Fantasia in the key of A minor which is most likely one of his first most wonderful strands of pavans together with galliards, Byrd had transcribed this Fantasia from a consort that was in five parts, Byrd’s instrumentals display him as a significant figure in the music landscape of Elizabeth.

(John.D, 10) When Robert Parsons passed on, after drowning inside the Trent River a place situated near the small town of Newark, Byrd became the Gentleman of the Royal chapel (1572) which was a prestigious position, this was on the 25th January, 1572. Putting in to consideration that being an organist was not an assigned position but an occupation that any member of the chapel could carry, if they had the capacity, hence Byrd used this opportunity to widen his musical capacity by composing and also to making contacts within the court. From (1558 to 1603) Queen Elizabeth was the ruler she was of the reformation movement so she upheld some practices of the reformation she was also fond of composition and also could use the piano very well. Byrd compositions for the Anglican Church are interestingly minimal, although they do strain the limitations of an elaborate presentation, of which the reformed Protestants believed that highly complex compositions were a stumbling block as far as the word of God was concerned. In 1575 Byrd and a companion of his were give rights for copywriting of all music, and remained in that state for two decades From the early period of 1570s onwards Catholicism absorbed Byrd, receiving scholarship from Catholic at this period meant great influence on personal creativity and style.

It is most likely that Byrd’s parents were Protestants but the question of whether Byrd joined catholic from the influenced by his own passion or an issue of convenience is not clear, hence from the year of 1570 Byrd is found in company of well known Catholics for instance Thomas Paget who was a Lord. (John.D, 8) In the wake of Papal Bull (1570) which was responsible for absolving the subjects of Elizabeth, preventing them from paying their allegiance to her and also succeeded in making Queen Elizabeth an out law as far as the Catholics were concerned. Thomas Pagent (catholic) an associate of Byrd was suspected of being involved in the scheme of Throckmorton (which was a plot to kill Queen Elizabeth) and also for transferring funds to Catholics that were abroad, Byrd’s involvement with the Catholic royalist society caused him to rub the authorities the wrong way, causing his membership at the court to be suspended for a period, movement restrictions placed on him and his house searched. Byrd’s association with the catholic’s had great impact on the way he composed his motets, that are estimated to be fifty (1575-1591).

Comparison of Samples composed by Antony Busnois and William Byrd

Antony Busnois’ Missa L’homme arme

Antony’s Missa L’homme arme is numbered as one of the most famous compositions of Busnois which are mesmerizing and also exhilarating. Missa L’homme arme is a secular composition that is attributed to Antony Busnois, though he might not have been its original composer. Busnois strived to achieve self expression, despite the piece portraying itself as a unique piece, there is a lot of influence as far as the Roman Catholic church is concerned, alluding form a fact that sponsorship from the Catholic church would always impact composers’ way of creativity and style, this is to state that although Antony Busnois tried to express his personal interpretation of music, there was an underlying foundation of the Catholic impact, this is made evident by the level of technicality found in the piece Missa L’homme arme. (John.D, 13) Antony’s laterally skills were excellent, being competent in Latin which was a language encouraged by the Roman Catholic as a medium of communicating written fine arts. Missa L’homme arme was not a very easy song to sing alluding from the fact that it would contain a Base dip climbing all the way to the top F( 2nd part of Gloria). This piece requires a lot of confidence on the part of its singers due to the its level of technicality, technicality is not what interested Antony, his sense of timing that was able to merge elements like points of tension, pacing and the way he was able to manipulate Rhythm, pitch and his way of counterpointing was complex with the intension of mesmerizing the ear, drawing his listeners unconsciously forward. The melodic line would gently climax by using reduce passages done by the voice.

Missa L’homme arme Translation

French, Original language and English translation L’homme, I’home arme | The man, the armed man, L’homme arme | The armed man L’homme arme, doibt | The armed man should be feared, On doubter | Be feared On a fait partout crier | Every where it has been proclaimed Que chascun se viengne armer | that each man shall arm himself D’un hauregon de fer. | With a coat of iron mail

William Byrd’s Browning

William composed browning, alluding the ripening process of fruits during harvest, although it was composed just prior to the year of 1580, Browning gives us a perfect sight in to his variation of technique that he applied on instrumentals, he was known to be a good piano player, Byrd creates contents of motive and rhythm that are contrasting, regular imitations or repetitions with homophony explosions coupled with gesture of melody that was not common with renaissance singers during that period, The base part is given priority at the introduction of Browning melody, later joined by the other four voices, he later puts nineteen statements including them in four music sections, that extendended into four bars, in each portion of the bar each voice is given a chance to do a melody at least once in every section except for the base which is restrained to compensate the opportunity it was given at first statement of Browning, though the appearance of these voices is not predictable it is clear that he had a clearly defined objective. The Rhythmic growth interestingly contradicts movement of the voices and the plan of the motive, this is because the rhythm progression is not similar to the pattern of the four voices describes above. As the piece unwraps the music undergoes an increasing pace that is fully typical of Byrd’s way of composing instrumentals, resulting to a passage of rapid triplet. (John.D, 13)

What has changed between pre- reformation period and post-Tridentine?

Changes that took place during the pre-reformation to the to the post-Tridentate period cannot be understood fully without bringing in to perspective the Luther (protestant) movement, which lead to radical developments as far as fine arts were concerned. Among many of dissatisfactions that the protestant movement had against the Roman Catholic, one the way music was being applied.

The protestant idea of music was that it should have been a vessel used to carry God’s message to the people, they were opposed to the complexity attached to composition of music at that time. Complexities in music included; the language used to compose and the complexity of structure for this music, the protestant movement felt that these complexities fueled prejudice against the common mass that had no or little education, songs in the Roman catholic church were sung in languages that were mostly unfamiliar to the local communities, hence the mass that had no understanding of these languages, could not participate fully in musical activities. Luther sought to implement music that was done in local languages and its structure manageable by common masses. In the light of these happenings the catholic church later initiated a counter reformation (Trent), Counter reformation was not to reinstate the its former nature but to sustain Catholicism and also put into consideration issues that caused the split that saw the emergence of the protestant movement.

It is clear that these changes caused ripples on issues of how music was to be composed. From the analysis of Antony Busnois’ Missa L’homme arme and William Byrd’s Browning, it is clear that the complex nature of Busnois’ Missa L’homme arme (pre-reformation) is as a result of Catholic’s influence on the composer that it sponsored (because the Catholic Church had the last say on how music for the public was to be composed), hence the complex nature of Antony Busnois’ Missa L’homme arme. On the other hand the composition of William Byrd’s Browning, (John.D, 14) (post-Tridentine period) done in English language and its repeated nature made it is easy to listen to and be understood by the local population, it shows elements of the impact of the post-Tridentine period.

Can these changes be connected to the historical and political changes?

The answer to whether the historical and political happenings at this period changed the attitudes and the way music was composed, the answer is yes, The years at which the concept of reformation transversed Western Europe, music and art could only be found within the boundaries of the church, this is because the art in Europe was financed and also inspired by the church before the reformation, the church conception of art was that it had to be pedagogical, for the reason that laity had no say in accessing the written word of God. The church believed that art was the tool that would be used to release scripture in a controlled fashion to the masses.

At this time the catholic members were of the aristocratic class, who were viewed to be above others, their language, music, vestment and symbolization were of a tradition that was inviolable. In this kind of description the clergy gave itself the definition church and hence the concept that the rest of the masses was to be guided in to salvation by means of using myths, legend, music and other forms of art. These are the factors that led to the reformation movement. It is important to state that there was another occurrence (Renaissance) which means rebirth; it saw the fine arts take a turn away from the influence of the church.

Protestant movement supported a form of music that was freer and allowed emotions that was almost similar to what was happening in the Renaissance to an extent that it attracted large following to it. (John.D, 14) With these events in mind it probable that composers during this period had capacity for self-expressionism, the Catholic influence and the reformation influence. Later the Lutheran movement had great impact on composers like Handel and J.S.Bach who created largely emotional composition having traits of complexity that was associated with Catholic Church.



“The Impact of the Reformation on the Fine Arts.” Faculty publications and presentations. Jan.-Feb. 2006:1-14.


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