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  • Writer's pictureTim Braithwaite

The Practices of ‘Lascivious’ Church Musicians as Described by Heinrich von Nettesheim (1532)

Updated: May 22, 2021

‘Today, music has such great license in churches that even along with the canon of the mass certain obscene little ditties sometimes have equal share; and even the divine offices themselves and the sacred prayers and petitions are performed by lascivious musicians hired at great price, not to make the hearers understand or for the elevation of the spirit, but to incite wanton prurience, not with human voices but with the cries of beasts: boys whinny the descant, some bellow the tenor, others bark the counterpoint, others gnash the alto, others moo the bass; the result is that a multitude of sounds is heard, but of the words and prayers not a syllable is understood; the authority of judgment is withdrawn from ears and mind alike.’

‘Hodie vero tanta in ecclesiis musicae licentia est, ut etiam una cum missae ipsius canone obscoene quaeque cantiunculae interim in organis pares vices habeant ipsaque divina officia et sacrae orationum preces, conductis magno aero lascivis musicis, non ad audientium intelligentiam, non ad spiritus elevationem: sed ad fornicatriam pruriginem, non humanis vocibus sed belvinis strepitibus cantillant, dum hinniunt discantum pueri, mugiunt alii tenorem, alii latrant contrapunctum, alii boant altum, alii frendent bassum: faciuntque ut sonorum plurimum quidem audiatur, verborum et orationis intelligatur nihil, sed auribus pariter et animo iudicii subtrahitur autoritas.’


Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim, De Incertitudine & Vanitate Scientiarum, & Artium Atque Excellentia Verbi Dei Declamatio (Cologne: 1532). Translation from Hyun-Ah Kim, Humanism and the Reform of Sacred Music in Early Modern England : John Merbecke the Orator and the Booke of Common Praier Noted (1550) (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008).

The image below is by Lucas Cranach the Elder painted in the 1520s, depicting the ‘Messe des hl. Gregor mit Kardinal Albrecht von Brandenburg’


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