What sorts of music did worshipers use?

THE EARLY CHRISTIANS faced a musical dilemma. They were surrounded by pagan spectacles featuring lavish choral singing, instrumental music, and dancing, and these were often associated with lust-provoking drama (performed in the nude) and the notorious roman blood combat. For obvious reasons, the north african teacher Tertullian (c. 160–c. 220) argued that Christian converts should shun the “shows” that had once given them such pleasure. and besides, all such entertainments were dedicated to pagan gods—or as Tertullian put it in typically blunt fashion, demons. To indulge in such events was inconsistent with a Christian’s baptismal vow to eschew all things belonging to the devil.

The bad taste left in early Christians’ mouths by such corrupt amusements in turn created controversy over worship music: Large choruses, instruments, and elaborate musical settings seemed too much like the old “shows” of the coliseums. As music historian Donald Grout writes, “Until the feeling of pleasure attached to these kinds of music could be somehow transferred from the theater and the marketplace to the church, they were distrusted.” Even the use of the psalms was controversial, since they contain references to some musical instruments—psaltery and harp, for example—forbidden in Christian worship.

From unison chanting to choirs and cantorsInstead, as far as scholars can reconstruct, early Christians either sang in unison or offered extemporaneous solos as their musical forms of worship. The same Tertullian writes that during the agape meal, “each is urged to come into the middle and sing to God, either from sacred scriptures or from his own invention.” In addition to the psalms, which despite their questionable content were chanted in worship just as they had been in the Jewish tradition, the early Christians sang hymns and antiphons (short refrains) at both daily public prayer and at the eucharist. As the fourth-century nun egeria notes (see “Worship in the newly legalized church,” p. 8), these songs were always “appropriate to the place and the day.” After the legalization of Christianity, a more formal attempt was made to appoint choirs and cantors to lead congregational singing. These roles were open to women, who served both as cantors and in “choirs of virgins,” though this, too, caused controversy since women were notoriously prominent in pagan worship ceremonies. Boy choirs were used as well; the Testamantum Domini (5th c.) refers to “the virgins alternating with the boys responding to the one who sings the psalms in the church.”

Let’s enjoy the singing . . . but not too much

Augustine (354–430) helped to formulate more definitive thoughts about church music, as he did about so much else, in his treatise On Music (387). in his commentary on the psalms, he defines a hymn as “a song containing praise of God. if you praise God, but without song, you do not have a hymn. if you praise anything which does not pertain to the glory of God, even if you sing it, you do not have a hymn. Hence a hymn contains the three elements: song and praise of God.”

Yet despite his obvious admiration for sacred song, a little of the old fear of the pleasures of music lingered with Augustine. He writes in his autobiographical Confessions: “When I call to mind the tears I shed at the songs of Thy church, at the outset of my recovered faith, and how even now i am moved not by the singing but by what is sung, when they are sung with a clear and skillfully modulated voice, i then acknowledge the great utility of this custom. . . . yet when it happens to me to be more moved by the singing than by what is sung, I confess myself to have sinned criminally, and then I would rather not have heard the singing.”

But the real father of Western church music was Ambrose (c. 340–397), the bishop of Milan who was so instrumental in augustine’s own conversion. eastern Christians were already singing hymns in their worship, but when Ambrose became bishop in the late fourth century, he introduced these kinds of songs to the church in Milan. in fact, he composed the texts to many of these himself, including “O splendor of God’s Glory Bright.” He writes, “They say that the people are led astray by the charms of my hymns. Certainly, I do not deny it. This is a mighty charm, more powerful than any other. For what avails more than the confession of the Trinity, which is proclaimed daily in the mouth of all the people?”

These hymns, and the other music sung in worship, were chanted, with one melodic line that rose and fell in an attempt to follow the natural pitch of the human voice. Chanting developed out of a form of synagogue speech called cantillation that attempted to heighten speech for dramatic effect. Although we often hear the term “Gregorian Chant,” Pope Gregory the Great (540–604, pope 590–604) did not invent Western chant, let alone compose all the music used by the Western church as later legends insist (some icons picture the Holy spirit in the form of a dove dictating the melodies to him). However, Gregory was a great systematizer, wanting the whole church to use the same liturgy and music for worship. To that end, he began a movement to absorb existing Western liturgies and musical traditions (Mozarabic, Gallican, ambrosian, and Celtic) into the liturgy of rome, an effort that was largely successful.

Unison chanting ruled the day until the late Middle ages, when some churches introduced polyphony—music in which more than one part is sung at a time. Because much of polyphonic church music was based on secular tunes, it carried its share of controversy. This, coupled with the fact that people often had difficulty understanding the words, meant that polyphonic music was slow to catch on.

Much of what we associate with church music today did not become part of medieval music until the later Middle ages. Chant only began to be regularly notated (written down on paper) in the ninth century, and organs appeared around the eleventh century but were not regularly used to accompany liturgical singing until the thirteenth. Other instruments were sometimes used, but not approved of—we know this because rules began to appear against using them.

Chanting the hours

The lion’s share of singing in the medieval church went on in monasteries and convents, where the monks and nuns chanted psalms as they moved through their daily schedule of services, called the divine office: matins (“morning”), lauds (“praises”), prime (“first hour”), terce (“third hour”), sext (“sixth hour”), none (“ninth hour”), vespers (“evening”), and compline (“completion”). Ideally this schedule would begin before dawn and continue about every three hours until sundown; Mass would also be celebrated each day. All 150 psalms were chanted through every week, each with its own antiphon. Hymns were also sung at each office and at Mass, and the scripture readings were chanted. All of this was in latin, although some countries (Poland was one) developed a tradition of vernacular hymns as well, which were, as James White puts it, something “in which layfolk might engage themselves while the priest went about his business at the altar-table.”

Originally, the ordinary, or unvarying, texts of the Mass were set to simple tunes that everyone could sing, while the proper, or seasonally changing, texts (scriptures and prayers for the day, for instance) were sung by trained singers. Eventually almost all the music for the Mass and the office became too difficult for any but trained musicians in monasteries and cathedrals. Despite this shift away from congregational song, theologians still maintained the importance of music in fostering lay devotion; eleventh-century commentator John of avrances writes, “at feasts, the cantor gives the water covered with a linen cloth to the deacon, which the deacon mixes with wine; for by the sweet music of the cantor, the people are inflamed with pious devotion and divine love, and thus run to the lord, and one body in Christ is made.” CH

By Jennifer Woodruff Tait

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #102+ in 2012]

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Issue 102+

History of Worship Guide

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