7. The tempo of hymns of the Reformation, related to the tempi of polyphonic music in mensural notation

‘Nogmaals de gemeentezang: het tempo van de reformatorisch kerkliederen’ [Congregational singing revisited:  the tempo of hymns of the Reformation], Het Orgel 75 (1979), 446-460.

The article in Dutch you can find here as pdf (805KB).



1. First a short overview is given of the development of mensural notation in connection with tempo during the period from 1300 to 1600.

The tempo of 14th-century ‘Ars Nova’ music is known from the exact data that Johannes Verulus provided in ca. 1330. The minima, as the smallest, ‘indivisible’ note value, had at that time a fixed value:  M. 216. The rhythm was still for the greatest part additive. It may be observed that the perfect semibrevis must then have the value that is normally taken as the average human pulse: M. 72.

In the 15th century the tempo slows. Semiminimae are introduced. The minima is redefined by Gafurius in 1496 as the smallest note value which can take a separate syllable. It is also the largest note value that may be dissonant. (This remains valid in theory during the rest of the 16th century.) According to this author, the imperfect semibrevis now has the value of a heartbeat. In the meantime, however, musical notation has grown more complicated by the introduction of numerical proportion signs and diminution strokes. Note values and ‘measures’ may as a result be shortened to half or two-thirds of their original value.

By observing the treatment of syllables and dissonances we can conclude that around 1500 it became usual to notate tempus imperfectum diminutum instead of non-diminutum, although the notes still have the same values as before. A couple of possible explanations are given.

From ca. 1520 the system of notation is simplified. Instead of the surfeit of mensural signs of the past, only a few are used in practice. In the theory of Sebald Heyden all mensural signs are related to a tactus of constant duration. Rhythm has now become divisive. By observing again the treatment of syllables and dissonances it is clear that that tactus must have had a duration of two heartbeats or two seconds, i.e. the value of a semibrevis with an ‘unshortened’ value. The notation is almost always in diminution, which at that time was taken to mean only to halve the original note values. In binary ‘measures’ a ‘tactus aequalis’ is conducted with equal durations for downbeat and upbeat;  in ternary ‘measures’ a ‘tactus proportionatus’ or ‘tactus inaequalis’ with the upbeat in the last third of the total duration of the tactus. Besides the official tactus of two heartbeats there was another tactus in use that was twice as fast, a half tactus. See Agricola 1532. The terms ‘tactus maior’ and ‘tactus minor’ were used.

In the course of the 17th century the mensural system disintegrated and there was a transition to the modern measure types.

2. We assume that 1) 16th-century hymnal notation indicates the tempo of congregational singing as accurately as possible within the mensural system of the time, and that 2) 16th-century polyphonic settings, especially if they are intended to alternate with congregational singing, also indicate the tempo of congregational singing. For the tempo of Lutheran hymns from the time of the reformation, it was useful to consider Scheidt’s Görlitzer Tabulaturbuch of 1650.

The melodies that evolved in Luther’s circle show a striking uniformity in their mensural notation. The syllables of a line, except the first and last, are normally given the value of a semibrevis in tempus imperfectum diminutum. This semibrevis thus has the value M. 60-72, assuming the use of tactus maior, alla breve.

A number of Lutheran chorale melodies is older, e.g. ‘Christ ist erstanden’, ‘Wir glauben all an einen Gott’ and ‘Jesus Christus unser Heiland … Gotteszorn’. It seems that it was not easily possible to fit these melodies into the prevailing mensural system:  there is uncertainty about the mensural sign that should be used and about the note values to be chosen. There are often both long and short syllables in these songs in binary rhythm. The tempo of the syllables will have been somewhere between the possible official values of M. 30-36 or 60-72 and M. 60-72 or 120- 144, in other words a 15th-century tempo of M. 45-54 or 90-108. The duration of the tactus is then between that of a tactus maior and a tactus minor.

It can be shown to be plausible that for the melodies of Latin hymns and antiphons that were taken over by Luther and his contemporaries, and which were sung ‘aequalistically’ at that time, i.e. in equal note values, the tempo of the individual notes was M. 90-108.

Finally there is a number of Lutheran hymns of which the melody comes from a German folksong or folksong-like art song, e.g. ‘Herr Christ der einig Gotts Sohn’ and ‘Durch Adams Fall ist ganz verderbt’. Just as with a previously mentioned group of songs, there are in binary rhythm both long and short syllables. In this case however these always have the value of a semibrevis or minima in tempus imperfectum diminutum. Their tempo is thus M. 60-72 or 120-144. The general assumption is of tactus minor, alla semibreve.

3. The melodies of the Genevan Psalter also have only semibreves and minimae in tempus imperfectum diminutum. The tempo of the long and short syllables is thus also M. 60-72 or 120-144. Tactus is without exception the tactus minor, alla semibreve. A number of melodies that came from Strasbourg was originally sung slower: M. 45-54 for the binary tactus. The difference in tempo will be related to the difference in character between the French and German languages. The German language is heavier, more strongly accentuating than the French language. It is understandable that in Strasbourg the rests between the lines, so characteristic for the French psalms, are not found. These become necessary for breathing between the lines only at a faster tempo.

4. At the end of the article a further commentary is given on the notation I chose for the mensural melodies in the Liedboek voor de Kerken and I state my ideals for congregational psalm singing.