Sacred and Secular: The Society Inhabited within Renaissance Music

By Kathleen C.

Beethoven once wrote, “Music is the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life.” Looking back to the Renaissance, we can certainly  see (and hear) this mediation; and we can come to understand that Renaissance music’s progression and growth involved a palpable tension between sacred and secular music.  These tensions caused a ‘blurring’ of musical social structures.

An example of such a blurring emerged from what the Church considered ethical. According to clerical practice, women were not allowed to participate musically. However, the use of castrati to supply that feminine tonality for liturgical music, was deemed quite acceptable.  The castrati—men castrated before puberty for the purpose of keeping their voices high-pitched—allowed a temporary solution to women being banned from performative functions. After all, even though women were being trained as madrigal singers, difficulties existed in such tutelage and questions emerged regarding where to board female students given that most male pupils boarded with their male teachers (Roselli, 158). This problem, however, was a socially constructed problem. As John Rosselli points out, “the popular taste for the castrato voice reflected in the singers chosen for opera was largely created by church practice” (158). He furthers reports that the castrati could be viewed as ‘enforced celibate’, as a monk is, thereby turning the moral objections to castration into a ‘religious good’—a positive choice for God within the Church. Paradoxically however, the practice of castration was generally not talked about and even denied in many cases (Derrick, 48). Even more social problems existed in regards to the castrati, for although they fulfilled a role the Church created, they had no other place, thereby creating an unintended sub-class of society. By the late seventeenth century, the castrati were an embarrassment to the Church.

In 1575, the Jesuit general in Rome issued an ordinance regarding music, banning indecent and ‘vain’ music while retaining motets, masses, and hymns. David Crooks notes that “Church authorities justified their involvement in censorship on the basis of their responsibility to protect doctrinal and moral purity” (Crook, 2). Despite the ban, secular music still thrived in aristocratic circles. Madrigal music, a combination of several different, distinct tonalities, not only offered women opportunity to participate, but in fact required it. To combat the growing popularity of ‘vain’ music, many church writers adopted secular songs and changed the lyrics. Crooks discusses an example of one of these adaptations, specifically, “Anna mihi dilecta”. The song has two parts: a declaration of love and a response. The first part roughly translate as, “Anna my beloved, come, my only delight,/from whose mouth honeyed essence drips/nymph, may you deign to give me a little kiss” (Crooks, 27).

In Munich, an anonymous poet adapted the lyrics, redirecting the erotic love for a woman into a spiritual love for Christ. The new lyrics read, “Christ, child of God, my hope and my only delight,/from whose mouth honeyed essence drips, behold!” It seems strange that the poet would choose to keep such highly erotic lyrics in a hymn, but, as Crooks comments, “However great their disdain for the original lyrics, they would not be denied the music’s power to ‘ravish’ the soul and salve its ‘diverse wounds’” (Crooks, 27). We can justify this choice by seeing it as an expression of equating the desire to experience God physically to erotic love, which shows up often enough in Renaissance paintings.

In sacred and secular, the Church established and imposed difficulties on music; in both composition and performance. The attempts to resolve these difficulties resulted in a blending of the sacred and secular or opened an entirely new section.


Image: Ockeghem, Johannes. Kyrie.  Digital image, Wikimedia.

Crook, David. “A Sixteenth-Century Catalog of Prohibited Music.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 62.1 (2009). Print.
Henry, Derrick. The Listener’s Guide to Medieval & Renaissance Music. New York, NY: Facts on File, 1983. Print.
Roselli, John. “The Castrati as a Professional Group and a Social Phenomenon, 1550- 1850.” Acta Musicologica 60.2 (1988): 143-79. Print.


About MGN

Miranda Garno Nesler is a specialist in early material culture, gender, textuality, and animal studies. View all posts by MGN

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