The Counter Reformation

A visual representation of Polyphonic and A Capella music inspired by the Counter Reformation. Digital art by Edward Kliszus

The Counter Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries was a time when the arts were energized to bolster interest in the Roman Catholic Church. Consequently, composers like Giovanni Palestrina and Thomas Tallis mobilized to create magnificent music to promote the Church’s beliefs. Indeed, it was an era when art, religion, and politics converged, thus paving the way to create music that inspires and challenges to this day.

Polyphony and A Capella

Some may assume music of the 16th and 17th centuries is ancient, stuffy, indecipherable, or irrelevant. But did you know that musical ideas like polyphony and a capella from those times can create music that touches the most cynical hearts? Perhaps Ebenezer Scrooge or the Grinch could have used a few doses.

Let’s first throw out some simple definitions of these ten dollar words. Polyphony is music with two or more melodies heard simultaneously. A capella, which in Italian literally means “in a chapel or choir” has evolved to describe music sung without an instrumental accompaniment. 

Polyphonic Music

Listen to this beautiful a capella performance of polyphony (aka polyphonic music) of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah performed by the amazing singing group Pentatonix. Impress your friends as you explain brainiac terms like a capella and polyphony.

Readers may also enjoy our reviews of Timbre in Music, Melisma in Music, and Melody in Music.

Now that you’ve heard a modern example of a capella polyphony and deciphered the fancy definitions, check out Palestrina’s Sicut cervus performed by the Grammy nominated VOCES8.

Spiritual Fulfillment

As you listen, close your eyes (assuming you’re not crossing Sixth Avenue at Bleecker Street), light a candle, dim the lights and relax. One might argue that the soul flourishes in the rich harmonies of Sicut cervus. The text depicts a beautiful comparison between a thirsty deer and the yearning of a soul for spiritual fulfillment. 

As you reflect on these two recordings, imagine how music indeed stirs the soul and evokes emotions. Perhaps these pieces serve as a reminder to pursue spiritual fulfillment and move closer towards a spiritual journey.

Monophonic Music

Now that you understand polyphonic and a capella, it’s likely you can guess the meaning of the term monophonic. Yes, its just a single melody being sung, and if the performer is alone, it’s also a capella.

Let me treat you to a performance by the fabulous Marvin Gaye as he sings a capella his hit I Heard It Through the Grapevine without a band or backup singers. It was written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong in 1966.

Readers may also be interested in Polyphony in MusicPérotin and Polyphony, and Madrigal Music.

The Counter Reformation


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Laura K
Laura K
August 26, 2023 9:41 pm

This was so much fun! Thanks for putting this together. Marvin Gaye? A capella?? Yeah!!!!!

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