Humanism in music

by Bernhard Reichel

“Here is that Raphael, whom the great mother of all things feared to be surpassed as long as he lived, and to die as he died.”

(Pietro Bembo)

Raphael Sanzio, one of the most important painters of the Italian Renaissance, died on April 6, 1520, at a time when humanism was flourishing in Rome and the Vatican was more open than ever to the secular ideas of his era.

When Giovanni di Medici was appointed Pope Leo X in 1514, he gathered around him the most important artists, humanists and musicians of Italy. Raphael and Michelangelo designed and decorated St. Peter’s Basilica, Pietro Bembo and Baldassare Castiglione advised the Pope on philosophical-theological questions, and musica segreta, the Pope’s private chapel, employed famous musicians such as the lutenist Francesco da Milano.

New ideas and artistic principles emerged from the lively exchange of this intellectual/artistic elite. The theoretical and poetic works of the scholars were immediately reflected in the works of the artists. Raphael became the commissioner for antiquities and decorated the papal private rooms with scenes from Greek mythology and portraits of Greek philosophers, while Cardinal Bembo Cicero commented.


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Less obvious and yet clearly humanism intervenes in music:

In literary terms, Bembism became predominant, named after Cardinal Pietro Bembo, Raphael’s friend and patron, who wrote his epitaph and was probably one of the most important intellectuals of his time.

He was famous for his perfect mastery of the Latin language, played the lute himself and helped Petrarch regain his influence and popularity with a new edition of the canzoniere around 1501.

In his language-theoretical study Prose della volgar lingua, published in 1525, Pietro Bembo defined the Italian language as an artificial language and, in addition to verse, established the onomatopoeic content of the word as an important stylistic tool in poetry. He declared Francesco Petrarca to be the linguistic model for all poetry of the time and his sonnets became the most common material for musical settings.

In this writing, the most important of the 16th century in terms of language theory, Bembo transferred Latin stylistic devices to the Italian language, thus paving the way for the latter to become a literary language on an equal footing with Latin.

This included the decorum, the use of three different stylistic levels of high, medium and low, depending on the subject of the description.

But Bembo complemented contemporary poetry with two additional stylistic features: gravità and piacevolezza.

The special thing about these characteristics was that they were not only aimed at the level of meaning of a word, but also at its sound. In this way, the sound (suono) and rhythm (numero) of the word came more than ever into the poets’ field of vision, and with them came the awareness of the musicality inherent in Petrarch’s poetic language.

The level of meaning of individual words and sentences receded behind their tonal expression, while sound and rhythm became a new means of transporting linguistic meaning.

A third point in Bembo’s theory of poetry was the principle of varietas: the two properties gravità and piacevolezza should alternate again and again to counteract the danger of monotony.


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The reaction of music was “madrigalism” – the tracing of the poetic word through composition and the development of the predominant form of secular music of the Renaissance: the madrigal.

Jakob Arcadelt’s setting of Bembo’s poem “Quand’io penso als martire” is a convincing example of how Bembo’s theory of language and the musical developments of the time go hand in hand. This kind of relationship between text and sound reaches its climax in the madrigals of Carlo Gesualdo and in Monteverdi’s setting of the poetry of Torquato Tasso. For the first time in the history of music, a point is reached where oratorio (text) and harmonia (music) are equally important in enriching a work of art and enhancing its expression for the listener. Previously Harmonia Orationis Domina (the music is superior to the text), then, when the theatrical singing came up, Oratio Harmoniae domina absolutissima (the text dominates the music).

Even Michelangelo Buonarroti practiced poetry in this dolce stile nuovo. In a letter of 1539 he instructed his private secretary to send the sonnets to the composer Jakob Arcadelt. In reply, this Buonarroti set to music the poems “Deh, dimmi amor” and “Io dice che fra”, whereupon the sculptor gave the Tonkünstler as a gift and expressed himself visibly pleased in a letter: “… il canto D’Arcadente è tenuto cosa bella…”.


“…we are like dwarves sitting on the shoulders of giants, so to speak, in order to be able to see more and more distant things than these – admittedly not thanks to our own sharp vision or height, but because the size of the giants lifts us up.

(Johannes of Salisbury)

100 years after Raphael’s death, the idea of humanism, the reception of antiquity, finally reached the world of music.

The “Fiorentine Camerata”, consisting of musicians and humanists, now tried to put the musical traditions of antiquity into practice in their compositions. The new lute instrument, the chitarrone, was conceived after the Greek khitara, the opera was created and its libretti were borrowed from Greek mythology. The “monody” revolutionized the music world – the “Seconda prattica” was born. Instead of madrigalistic interpretation of words, composers concentrated on the representation of mental states, they wanted to create empathy with the means of music, the representation of text became the representation of human emotions, the musician became a performer instead of a narrator. Oratio Harmoniae domina absolutissima.



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Humanism gave music back its ethical function.


“It is therefore not surprising that in ancient times and in the present they have always been devoted to music as the best food for the soul. (…) Plato and Aristotle (demand) that a well-behaved human being be given a musical education (…) because it is capable of changing our inner being and awakens the urge for virtue (…).“

(Baldassare Castiglione, Il libro del Cortegiano, 1528)


In the late Middle Ages music was mainly assigned to the praise of God, now it is also supposed to have a direct effect on people and move them.

According to Johannes Tinctoris 1473, music would help to become more pious, to cast out the devil, to inspire religious enthusiasm, but also to make people happy, alleviate hardship and stimulate them to love – whether with music “for itself” through keys, Rhythm and harmonies, or, according to the “Fiorentine Camerata”, through mimesis, which, according to Aristotle, “imitates those who act, not report, causing lamentation and shudder, and thereby purifying from such states of excitement”.

On the occasion of the 500th anniversary of Raphael’s death, I would like to reflect on the value that these basic humanistic ideas still have in music today.

Humanism also pushed man out of his vita contemplativa and transformed him into a homo faber – instead of a life dedicated exclusively to God, we now marvel at the life made by human hands.

As today’s animal laborans, we live in an extremely fast-moving, consumer-oriented, digitalized and media-abundant world in which attention is traded as a commodity.

Can music still have its former effect as a regulating, reflective medium that frees us from bad emotions?


“The culture industry has developed with the predominance of effect, of tangible performance, of technical details over the work that once carried the idea and was liquidated with it.“

(Theodor W. Adorno 1969)


After overcoming the European feudal system, the cultural industry developed – artists had to gradually bow to the demands of the market economy, orienting themselves to supply and demand.

Today, music is offered as a service in the form of goods, the consumer thus acquires a “legal claim to availability”; “the acquisition of a thing is in principle synonymous with being able to dispose of it” (Rosa, 2019).

Where non-material things are acquired, “spiritual” availability must be guaranteed. Through this dictate of availability, music is degraded to mere entertainment, to sensation, effect and pure recreation. As an ornament of life.

The humanistic function, the educational and irritating quality, loses its place. Money is exchanged for entertainment and diversion.

But in times in which capitalism is being challenged by catastrophes such as the climate crisis, the financial crisis and the Corona crisis, many philosophers and sociologists are now recalling the ethical function of music as it was originally disseminated by the ancient philosophers and humanist scholars.


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Hartmut Rosa, a sociologist and political scientist who teaches in Jena, developed the resonance theory within the framework of a “sociology of world relations” as a counter-concept to the omnipresent alienation and speaks in it of everyday experiences of successful, “resonant” world relations.

Music plays a not insignificant role as an axis of resonance. A closer look at this theory reveals, in my opinion, amazing parallels to the teachings of the Humanists.


“What remains of art? We as the changed remain.”

(Robert Musil)


In “Unavailability” (2019) Rosa speaks of “resonance” as a mode of relationship that can be determined by four defined characteristics.

1. the moment of touch: something speaks to us directly, moves us from the outside, irritates us.

2. the moment of self-efficacy: our response to the touch, such as goose bumps, tears in the eyes, the “ruffle of the neck hairs”, the “shiver running down our spine”.

3. the moment of transformation: the transformation, we are influenced, our mood changes, feelings change, our views and affects, whether short or long term.

4. the moment of unavailability: we are transformed, but it is impossible to predict in which direction, in which way, with what depth – it eludes the control and planning of the subjects. We can neither buy it nor make it immediately available to us.

As a further prerequisite for this resonance experience, Rosa establishes the medio-passive state, borrowed from ancient Greek and Hebrew.

In the current cultural industry there is usually a relationship between the active (the musicians) and the passive (the audience). Rosa describes as “medio- passive” an intermediate state, a “being involved”, passive enough to let us be touched or changed, active enough to be able to answer with our own voice and self-effective.

But this state will stay away from us as long as the artist is in the role of a market-oriented service provider and music is seen as a consumer and available commodity.

Could this medio-passive relationship between musicians and the audience be the key to re-establishing the formerly ethical function of music in concert life and to giving the audience experiences that go beyond entertainment and pastime?

If we were to succeed in this, it would probably be entirely in the spirit of Bembos, Platos, Aristotle, Castigliones, Monteverdi, Arcadelt or Gesualdo.

This text is a revised program text of the ensemble “Musica getutscht”. If you are interested, please visit or one of our concerts!
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