Musica Sacra

Sacred and Semi–Sacred Music in Italy

For most of us, separation of church and state is an aphorism granted, at least in the western hemisphere. It may not technically be true in the legal world of consitutions and declarations, and it may work only one way in stopping one faction from interfering in the affairs of the other, but we go about our lives as if it were an axiom. But it was not always that way.

The influence of the Catholic church in seventeenth century Europe had certainly declined, but it was still a powerful organisation. Government and religion in many minds were essentially the same thing: Authority. Rulers ruled by the grace of God and at the pleasure Cruz y corona (Cross and Crown)

Cruz y Corona (Cross & Crown)

(Wikimedia Commons)
of His representative on earth, the Pope. In countries where protestantism struggled or had no hope of surviving, religion ruled every aspect of life. Even in a reformation country like England, the monarch was head of both church and state: indeed, the break with Rome had been almost entirely political in motivation. The distinction between sacred and secular existed, in music as in everything else, but it was nothing like it is today.

Due to its physical and political isolation from the rest of Europe, Italy remained faithful to Catholicism and largely avoided the horror of the Thirty Years’ War. Not everyone conceded papal authority willingly — Venice among other centres, jealously guarded its own liturgical and ritual autonomy — but there were rarely any serious disputes notwithstanding some of the questionable goings–on in Rome.

It is said that Italy had more churches in the first half of the seventeenth century than in any other place or time. Added to them were various convents, monasteries, religious confraternities, schools, hostels, and organizations like the Jesuits, all of which drove a relentless demand for music. In volume, the production of sacred and semi–sacred music easily outstripped the secular as found in political courts and opera houses. An enormous amount of devotional and liturgical music was published during the period, especially in Rome and Venice. So it comes as no surprise that new developments in music happened in much in that arena as in the purely secular.

Monteverdi, Selva morale & spirituale (I)

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