In answer to the question “Why was the art music of the middle ages predominantly religious?” we need to look at the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. At the height of Roman power there existed what was known as a polyglot church. It was a confluence of different religions, philosophies, and customs that united Rome as a unified entity. During the height of the Roman Empire in the 3rd Century BCE, Christianity began to be popular as a more disciplined and intellectual religion. Rome became a predominant cultural influence throughout Europe and in the area that were covered by the Western Roman Empire.
As Christianity became more established as a mainstream organized religion, it was quickly embraced by the majority of the population as being the only true path to heaven. Music in the Classical period had been defined by an emphasis on classical forms of entertainment such as the symphony. Most composers of the time were Christians.
When Christianity split from Roman control in the fifth century, there was a renewal of polyglot and polyphonic music. This style was most prominent in the area of the Roman frontier during the early Christian era. Its origins are tied to the popularity of the opera. Theosophists, who were primarily worshiping Greek gods, used the ancient symphonies to communicate their ideas to the people.
Renaissance art is also tied to polyphonic and polyglot genres. Most artists during this time period were Christians and their works generally show a strong Christian message. Most Renaissance art is highly detailed, full of vibrant colors, and highly decorative. Some of the most famous works of art in the history of art are the ‘Golden Age’ of the Italian renaissance, the Baroque art of France, and the Art Nouveau movement in Europe. During this time period, most religious art was specifically Christian because of the prevalence of cathedrals with the large numbers of statues of Jesus and Madonna that were installed.
During the renaissance, polyphonic music became popular. Unlike the polyglot style, polyphonic music only included four notes instead of the usual five. Unlike polyglot music which featured only specific genres, polyphonic music included a wide variety of genres. However, this style of music did not disappear after this period as many composers continued to use it in their work.
The dawn of new technology in the fifteenth century brought about the development of new instruments and the rise of what we call ‘folk music’. This type of music developed from popular songs into something more abstract and artistic. Folk music had the essence of its era and also the essence of religion. Its conception began with the development of what we today call folk music in Germany. From there, it moved into what we know today as classical music.
In spite of popular belief, polyphonic and folk music had nothing to do with each other. Both were later derivative creations of the Renaissance and polyglot music was simply an amalgam of the earlier two. As discussed previously, renaissance-type music had a religious meaning and was therefore predominantly Christian. But the evolution of art music did away with the need for words and started to include rhythms and melodic elements which were much more compatible with the human musical form.
Finally, in the seventeenth century, the onset of what we call’Classical Music’ paved the way for ‘Popular Music’. Now the term ‘Pop’ actually refers to music that is predominantly associated with selling oneself, rather than expressing any meaningful social or spiritual ideas. Therefore, while ‘Renaissance’ and ‘Folk Music’ share similar traits, the former cannot be labeled as the latter. The Renaissance was a religious revolution, the Pop Age is entertainment.
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