The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

A Study and Critical Commentary

of Piæ Cantiones

A Sixteenth-Century Song Collection



Eileen Hadidian

June 1978





Education in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance

    From the time of Charlemagne in the eighth century, monastic schools became the center for learning, especially for the clergy. In Ireland in particular, monasticism made its greatest contribution to the preservation and enrichment of culture. The monastic school, with emphasis on the study of the trivium (grammar, rhetoric and logic) and the quadrivium (geometry, arithmetic, music and astronomy), though Italian in origin, exerted its greatest influence upon the continent of Europe through the work of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon monks. They developed schools open to the laity as well as the clergy, keen students of the classics as well as of their native language and literature.1

    The great monasteries, with their cultivation of the arts and of encyclopedic learning, flourished in the tenth and eleventh centuries. In the following century, however, a reaction set in, a more general acceptance of the authority of the church in matters of belief, conduct and education, characterized by a return to the ascetic idealism of Benedict and Gregory: the monastic schools closed their doors to outsiders and devoted themselves solely to the study of divine works, to the exclusion of clerical learning.

    Although study of chant was continued in the monasteries, there was now less emphasis upon music as part of the quadrivium — music as a speculative science. From this time on, encyclopedic studies were pursued largely in the cathedral schools, schools founded by the bishops, usually in conjunction with a cathedral. Pupils who attended these schools learned their future occupation as clerics: they learned Latin, learned to sing the service, and were initiated into the holy writings. Advanced studies included the liberal arts, trivium, quadrivium and lastly, philosophy.

    With their separate divisions for singing, grammar, the arts and theology, the cathedral schools embraced a dichotomy with regard to music, because they were on the one hand a continuation of the Gregorian schola cantorum and on the other an outgrowth of the episcopal schools for the training of monks and the noble laity in theology and the arts. The schola cantorum provided instruction in singing, Latin grammar, elementary arithmetic and the elements of music. Along with this went participation in the many liturgical activities — masses, Offices and special services — which required young voices and which actually gave the song schools their raison-d'être. Musical instruction in these schools also included the study of musical sounds and their relationship to mathematical numbers, consonant and dissonant intervals, and the formation of scales. Instruction in all these aspects of music must have followed the favorite scholastic method of question and answer between master and pupil, if one may judge from the treatises written in this form.2

    In general, from the twelfth century to the rise of the universities in the thirteenth and fourteenth, only in the schools of the greatest cathedrals did encyclopedic studies find a place.

    As the medieval universities developed from the cathedral schools, the latter lost some of their best scholars and teachers, and higher studies were discontinued. It was left to the universities in the thirteenth century to continue the tradition of the seven liberal sciences, music among them as an integral part of the mathematical quadrivium and as a living art. The cathedral schools, however, maintained their practical musical training well into the sixteenth century, as is evident by the many practical treatises and song books which appeared during this period.

    Then came the Reformation, and the immediate effects of the religious controversies of the sixteenth century on education were disastrous. The secularization of ecclesiastical property often absorbed the endowments of the schools, so that, in both Germany and in Scandinavia, the majority of grammar schools either disappeared or continued a starved existence with diminished funds. The doctrine of salvation by faith alone and the futility of good works dried up the source from which such endowments had flowed, such as special services commissioned for the souls of the departed, and generous gifts given to the church.

    In some aspects these results were only transitory. Under the influence of Luther and Melanchthon, universities were reorganized, new ones founded for the study of classical letter and theology, and secondary schools reestablished in protestant German states.

    In secondary schools with programs instituted by Melanchthon, music had a place of paramount importance. Many of the important text books of music at the time were written by students of his: Spangenberg, Heinrich Faber and Lucas Lossius. In reorganizing a new musical liturgy, Luther worked through the schools. Under the new rulings, children were to be instructed in plain song, figural music, and the elements of music theory. Choirs were formed from among the students to perform in the church and on special occasions. With the inauguration of this system of music instruction for the schools, the position of the Cantor became increasingly important, second only to that of the Rector. This position called forth highly educated men, well versed in Latin grammar and literature. Both Rector and Cantor were men trained in the most famous universities. The influence of the universities in bringing about this musical flourishing was therefore strong, for they furnished leaders to direct the reorganization of the schools, placing music at the very center of the curriculum, and building up in each student a wide background of musical experience and appreciation.3

Latin song in Sweden and Finland

    As in the cathedral schools on the continent, singing in Swedish and Finnish schools in the Middle Ages and up to the early seventeenth century had a great importance as a branch of study. The schools were for the most part in the service of the church and the students had to participate in the many services and religious festivals.

    One of the best-known Swedish church historians of the eighteenth century, Bishop Rhyzelius of Linköping, said concerning the curriculum in medieval Swedish schools:

Thet mästa och förnämasta, som förhades och yrkades then tiden in Linköpings schola, war Songen...Uthi then s.k. Cathedral-Skolan war fuller Songen then mästa och förnämasta studium.4

The greatest and most important activity pursued in the schools of Linköping was singing... In the so-called cathedral schools singing was the most important and primary study.

    On the eve of the Reformation, the singing of services had taken over a good part of the daily schedule in the schools, and with the commissioning of many special services it was in the church's economic interest to have music be the primary subject of study in the cathedral schools.

    With the Reformation, the church, hitherto an independent economic and political power, came under the tutelage of the king. Church property was confiscated, as in the rest of reformed Europe. Special masses were eliminated and choral directors dismissed, thus cutting back a significant amount of the church income. Liturgical reform followed much the same course as in other Lutheran countries. In secondary schools, training in music was given in accordance with Lutheran doctrines, for Sweden inaugurated a system of schools similar to that established in Germany in the wake of the Reformation. The oldest extant school ordinance (1571) was quite definite in specifying that pupils of all classes sing for an hour after the midday meal, practicing both plain song and polyphonic music, and that they be taught the elements of music theory.

    Concerning church singing, the ordinance says:

Then ordning som behöffues til songen j Kyrkionne, skola Scholemestarenar icke förgäta, uthan altijdh lata tilskicka wissa Officiales, Horistas, Rectores, Lectores, Versiculorios, etc. hwilke sigh ther på j tijdh öffua, så at the magha warda j sakenne ferdighe. Sammalunda och Cantores in figuratiuis, når någor stoor högtides dag tilstundar. Tesse skola icke heller oöffuade framkomma.5

Concerning singing in the churches, the school master should not forget to always teach certain Offices, Hours, Lessons, Versicles, etc which should be practiced each in their proper time, so that they can be performed correctly. In the same manner also Cantores in figuratiuis, when important solemn feast days draw near. This should also not be performed unpracticed.

    In the next school ordinance, entitled Nova ordinantia ecclesiastica, of 1575:

Man skal icke försumma at öffua och siunga i tijderna, Responsoria, Hymner, Antiphoner, Sequentier och Collecter, som medh Gudz ordh öffuer ens komma, och förbättra, om man kan, the som orette ähro. Skola och sadana Hymner, Antiphoner, Responsoria, etc., i Skolerne aff Skolemestare förklaras, at ungdommen mö första then the siugha.6

You should not neglect to practice and sing at the proper occasion, Responses, Antiphons, Sequences and Collects, which have to do with the teaching of God's word, and improve, if you can, any mistakes. Exercises and such Hymns, Antiphons, Responses etc. should be explained by the teacher in the schools, so that the young people understand how to sing them.

    Musical instruction was classified from easy to difficult, from the rudiments of music to the singing of hymns to musica figurativa. The younger students learned simple hymns, while the more difficult gregorian chants such as the antiphons and responses, and polyphonic music were sung by the older students and the Cantor.

    A school ordinance of 1626 presents the following curriculum for the teaching of music.7

    I    Classis: Psalmos Svevicos vulgares canere

    II   Classis: Initiae Musicae et tonus

    III  Classis: Kyrie et responsoria canere

    IV   Classis: Musicae figurativae praeceptorum cognitionem et usum.

    Therefore, first Swedish hymns, then the elements of music theory, gregorian chant, and lastly figural music.

    There is little information about music theory teaching books in the school ordinances. The ordinance of 1611 mentions as a book for Class IV "Musicam H. Fabri". Heinrich Faber had written a small text book in 1548 entitled Compendium musicae pro incipientibus which was used in German schools and appeared in at least thirty-seven printings between 1548 and 1665. A copy is preserved in the Lund University library, published in Greifswald (then part of the kingdom of Sweden) in 1594. Johann Spangenberg's Quaestiones musicae in usum scholae Northusianae, published in Wittenberg in 1551, was also used in Scandinavian schools. The first Swedish music theory book was published in Stockholm in 1622, the Musicae Rudimenta pro incipientibus necesseria, Svetica interpretatione illustrata of Laurentius Laurenus, rector of a secondary school. An elementary instruction book, with the text in both Latin and Swedish, it contains, in question and answer form, definitions of musical terms, of different kinds of music (musica duplex, choralis, figuralis), and rules for simple part-writing.

    Monophonic song in Latin and the vernacular was still very much part of the school curriculum in the sixteenth century. Apart from Piæ Cantiones, a collection of the most popular melodies is found in Laurenti Rhezelius' Någre Psalmer, Andelige Wijsor och Lofsonger, published in Stockholm in 1619. It contains 178 hymns, 58 of them set to melodies. Most of them are translations of old medieval Latin songs. The collection was used in the schools, and many song books are based on it, with titles such as Hymni svetici tum Latini in schola Calmatiensi Usitatissimi which indicate that they were intended for school use.

    Concerning the use of polyphonic music in schools, all school ordinances from 1571 to the eighteenth century talk about musica figurativa. During religious festivals and special services in particular, one could hear rich and sumptuous choral pieces in up to eight parts with the thematic and harmonic treatment of the contemporary polychoral style, by well known composers such as Hassler, Schein, Praetorius and Gustav Dübens, Sweden's most important composer of the seventeenth century.


1. Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th edition (New York: Encyclopedia Britannica Inc., 1910), Vol. VII, s.v. "Education". Return

2. Nan Cook Carpenter, Music in the Medieval and Renaissance Universities (New York: Da Capo Press, 1972), p. 58. Return

3. Ibid., p. 367.  Return

4. Norlind, Latinska skolsånger, p. 1. Return

5. Ibid., p. 3. Return

6. Ibid., p. 4. Return

7. Ibid., p. 23. Return


Return to Chapter I. Historical Background to the Piæ Cantiones

Continue to Chapter III. The Piæ Cantiones Collection

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