The deliberate plainness (we might even call it Puritanism) of the early Counter–Reformation quickly dissipated into the emotional turbulence of Baroque architecture and design, as the Catholic Church realized that dramatic artistic statements were one of its best weapons against the restrained Protestant aesthetic. This progression from elaboration to restraint and back again was equally true of music for the liturgy.
The early Baroque period was replete with all sorts of different trends in music, and this was no less
true of sacred music, notwithstanding various efforts aimed at making it more intelligible and therefore more relevant. Thus, alongside
traditional plainsong and sober Palestrina–like polyphony,
Sani, ‘Singing in the Church’
(Wikimedia Commons) church musicians exploited newer techniques like monody and concerted music. Rather than being frowned upon, as the above author points out, such practices were encouraged, even taught, by those bent on proving that only the one true Church could reflect heavenly splendour here on earth.
Already more or less conventional by the turn of the century was the practice of falsobordone, named from an earlier, vaguely related old French technique called faux bourdon (“false bass”). Portions of a plainchant melody, especially the reciting tone and cadential formula, were harmonized as a succession of chords, but otherwise keeping the incantation of the words intact, except for the closing cadence. Various passages in Monteverdi’s Vespers, the Dixit Dominus, for example, are clearly based on it.
Theorists and commentators, Banchieri among them, also
mention contrapunto alla mente (“mental counterpoint”) as being equally popular. It was based on a
cantus firmus in
(Wikimedia Commons) the bass voice comprising a plainchant melody in long sustained notes, over which ‘chords’ were sung. One singer might sing descending figures in moving between the notes of a chord, i.e. passing notes or auxiliary notes, while another did the same with ascending figures. Although as the harmony was static over each note, yet other voices could jump from one chord note to another with syncopated rhythms. Except for the actual chords themselves, the technique was entirely improvised, producing theoretically objectionable consecutive fifths and octaves along with dissonant intervals. According to Banchieri, these were tolerated, even savoured, as part of the piquancy of an extemporized performance.