Antonio Chemotti: Music at exequies in Italy (1550-1650): official regulations, social meaning, and affects

Trying to reconstruct the history and geography of polyphonic music pro mortuis in Italy between 1550 and 1650, we face a situation full of contradictions, where theory and practice, official regulations and extant sources rarely agree. In order to gain a proper understanding of the role of plainchant, polyphonic music and instruments during death rituals, my research brings together different kinds of sources: liturgical books like caeremonialia and ritualia, diaries of masters of ceremonies, festival books and, obviously, musical sources. Even if official Tridentine caeremonialia forbid the use of polyphonic music and instruments during the liturgy for the dead as such, the reality of liturgical practice was far more complex. On which basis was polyphonic music allowed? Is it possible to identify common trends in Counterreformation Italy? Which parts of the liturgy were more often musically elaborated? Tackling these questions, I address the fundamental issue concerning the role of polyphonic music pro mortuis, reflecting upon the meaning of its presence (and its absence) during death ritual. It becomes clear that a musicological perspective can shed light on some of the goals of the liturgy for the dead in Counterreformation Italy.

Two aspects are fundamental in order to attain a historical-informed understanding of music for the dead, namely its social meaning and its role in shaping the ethos of the liturgy. Although the 16th-century witnessed an increasing presence of polyphony for the dead, this music was still perceived as a social privilege. At the same time, this understanding of music for the dead suggests that lower social classes could have strived for music at their exequies, aiming to imitate the death ritual of the upper classes.

The research on the social meaning of the music for the dead highlights the paradoxical nature of 16th- and 17th-century conspicuous exequies, suspended between austerity and pomp. The liturgy for the dead was a penitential liturgy, but the status of the deceased could lead to celebrations of great complexity and richness. Music for the dead negotiates the relation between penitence and pomp, and it contributes in the definition of the ethos of the celebration. This is confirmed by the analysis of the rhetorical patterns concerning music deployed in funeral books as well as in funeral sermons. It emerges a complex and multifaceted understanding of the affective role of music pro mortuis. This constitutes a unique perspective on early modern liturgical music: as musicologists, we can often reconstruct the liturgical function of a setting, but we can rarely address issues such as the response of the assembly. Additionally, through the analysis of non-musical sources we can partially modify the definition of early modern music for the dead as means of controlling ritual behaviour which was proposed in the classic study by G. Wagstaff (Music for the dead and the control of ritual behaviour in Spain, The Musical Quarterly, 82/3-4, 1998, p. 555):

[…] music in the liturgy for the dead […] was thought to be one way to control weeping and other inappropriate displays of emotions that betrayed people’s feelings – the sadness, loss, and anger over death that were inappropriate in light of the orthodox view of death as the door to the rewards of heaven, after one had passed through the trials of purgatory.

Although Wagstaff’s explanation remains fascinating, it fails to recognise the complex relation between emotions and death rituals, as it postulates a binary contrast between religious happiness and worldly sadness. I demonstrate that music for the dead was not considered ascetically distant from human emotions. Music took an active part in the expression of grief, for which there was space also within the liturgy for the dead.

Antonio Chemotti (

This post forms part of an open mini-series published in preparation of the COST Action IS1301 Training School “Passionate Devotions. Emotions in Medieval and Early Modern Religious Texts, Images and Music” (see announcement with details about submissions here).

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