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Early Church Music

( Originally Published 1913 )



Because music is not suggested by nature, but is a creation of man's mind, it has developed more slowly than the other arts. The painter and the sculptor look to nature for their models; even architecture is related to the natural in its utility, though not in its expression; and poetry is symbolic of human experiences. Music, alone of all the arts, has had no models from which to copy, and it is for this reason that she has so slowly found her modes of expression.

Many theories have been advanced as to the probable origin of music-none of them wholly satisfactory. The subject at best is one of conjecture, and, though of interest, is not of importance to the student of music. It may safely be assumed that music began in some mysterious impulse and dates back to prehistoric times, probably before the need of a language was felt.

With the Savage and the Ancient alike, music was but one phase of the religious and social life, and was so inseparably bound up with the dance, and later with poetry, that its indi vidual development was rendered impossible. We are often led to suppose that the Hebrews had a highly developed music, but it was, in fact, very simple and noisy, and was entirely subordinate to the dance and poetic repetition. "There is no reason to suppose that music among the Oriental monarchies ever progressed much beyond its condition among barbarous peoples of the present day. Music was not a free art, but was held in almost complete dependence upon poetry, dancing and religious ceremony. It was rude, simple and unprogressive. Harmony was evidently unknown and musical rhythm conformed to that of verse and dance step. The effect of music upon the mind and its efficiency in education and worship were largely due to the association of certain melodies and instruments with moral, religious and patriotic ideas."

Greek music alone attained any degree of refinement and delicacy. To the Greeks we owe a scale system which has descended to the present day, and they were the first to con ceive of music as an independent art. "They developed a rational scale system based on a knowledge of acoustic laws; their philosophers subjected the aesthetics of music to a minute examination, they devised a tolerably accurate system of notation which has survived. The Greek musical system was the precursor of that of the early Christian church, and the line of descent is unbroken from Greece, through Rome, to the Middle Ages and modern times. " Rome made no contributions to the art. Her instruments and melodies were borrowed chiefly from the Greeks, and her music was a degenerate form used in the theatre and circus.

It is correct to call music a Christian art, for while it had been known to men before the beginning of the Christian era, it was not until that epoch that it began to find definite forms of expression.

With this as a starting point it is possible to trace the history and development of the many phases which make up our modern music, and to see how it has come to be regarded as an uplifting and necessary factor in the social world today.

The age of the apostles offers a most interesting field for study to the musical student. It is not to be supposed that there was any sharp distinction between the music of this period and that which had been used by the Ancients in their temples, for the change was gradual and the development slow. The study of the music of this period is so closely allied with that of the ritual of the early Roman church, that a knowledge of one necessitates a familiarity with the other. Interest is centered in the rise of liturgies and ceremonies, their alliance with music, and the origin of hymns and chants. In tracing the development of these forms, one notes an ever-increasing tendency on the part of the clergy to create an elaborate ritualistic system, and steady decrease in the part the laity took in the church service.

In the very nature of the case a new spirit was needed in the art of music when it came to be employed in the ministry of the Christian religion, for a new motive had entered religious consciousness. The Christian lavished upon his newfound faith a devotion that far surpassed any loyalty to family or country. "This religion was emphatically one of joya joy so absorbing, so completely satisfying, so founded on the loftiest hopes that the human mind is able to entertain, that even the ecstatic worship of Apollo or Dionysus seems melancholy and hopeless in comparison. Yet it was not a joy that was prone to expand itself in noisy demonstrations. It was mingled with such a profound sense of personal unworthiness and the most solemn responsibilities, tempered with sentiments of awe and wonder in the presence of unfathomable mysteries, that the manifestations of it must be subdued to moderation, expressed in forms that could appropriately typify spiritual and eternal relationships. And so, as sculpture was the art which most adequately embodied the humanistic conceptions of Greek theology, poetry and music became the arts in which Christianity found a vehicle of expression most suited to her genius."

New forms were needed to express the new emotions, but these could not be created at once to meet the novel demands. More than a motive is required to bring an art to its perfection, and the mastery of form is of slow and tedious growth.

There are to be found but few direct allusions to music in the New Testament. In his Epistles, St. Paul speaks of "psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, " and again makes refer ence to a peculiar usage known as "glassolalia," or "speaking of tongues." This is described as an emotional, inarticulate warbling brought about by intense religious excitement, and must have been quite unintelligible to the hearer. However, out of this crude musical utterance grew the hymns, in which the deeds and powers of Christ were directly commemorated. We are told that the Christian folk-song began to appear in the first century, rude and primitive in melody and form, but embodying the religious spirit of the age.

Of the very few hymns and fragments of songs that have come down from this early period, the most perfect is a twilight hymn sung every evening in the ceremony of lighting the lamps. This has been made known to English readers through Longfellow's "Golden Legend":

"O gladsome light
Of the Father Immortal, And of the celestial Sacred and blessed Jesus, our Saviour!
Now to the sunset
Again thou hast brought us; And, seeing the evening Twilight, we bless thee, Praise thee, adore thee !
Father omnipotent! Son, the Life-giver! Spirit, the Comforter! Worthy at all times Of worship and wonder!"

The period in which the laity were allowed to participate in any but the simplest offices of the church was brief, and their share in hymn singing seems to have been confined to responses at the end of the verse, which was sung by some one appointed to the office. Gradually, but surely, the growth of ritualism deprived the general body of believers of all initiative in the services and centralized the offices of worship in the hands of the clergy. The clergy came to be but a medium through which divine grace was transmitted, and were no longer the servants of the people.

Little by little a few chief men gained control of things, and out of this system grew the offices of Bishop, with his assistant priests, and over all the Pope. Certain forms became systematized and fixed by law, and music shared in this ritualistic movement.

By the fourth century congregational singing had almost disappeared, being supplanted by official choirs. The chief reason for this was the fear that heresy might creep into the church if the people were allowed to sing the hymns, and so it was desired to keep the whole service in the hands of the clergy. It was feared that a relaxation in one part of the service might lead to a loosening of the whole.

The distinction between the liturgical and non-liturgical song must be kept clearly in mind, for it was only from the former that the laity were excluded. By liturgical hymns is meant those melodies that became a part of the fixed liturgy, while the songs, subject to change, which were interspersed throughout the service, were known as non-liturgical. Of the early Christian chants only a few have survived, and it is from these that we get our ideas of the music of the period. Among 'them are the well-known Gloria in Excelsis, Gloria Patria, Te Deum, Magnificat (Song of Mary), and the Benedictus (Song of Zacharias). It is probable that most of the melodies were taken from the old Greek service, but they were materially altered, for while the Greek and Roman poetry was metrical, that of the early Christians was most unmetrical. Then, too, the pagan melodies were sung to instrumental accompaniment, while the music of the Christians was largely vocal.

There has been some question in the minds of historians ,is to the place musical instruments occupied in the early Christian worship. Generally speaking, they were condemned be cause the pagans used them in their temples, and their use was connected with the corrupting and revolting scenes of the theatres. Probably they were used to a greater extent in the Greek churches than in Roman.

The separation of the Eastern and Western branches of the Churches was completed in the eighth century. The influence which the Eastern church has exercised over the onward course of religion has been so slight that it has almost dropped from the sight of church historians. It is in the Western branch alone that we find development of the liturgical and musical form.

As the Western church boasts of its title "Catholic," the Eastern glories in the title "Orthodox." "The Western theology is essentially logical in form, and based on law. The Eastern is rhetorical in form and is based on philosophy... Let any one enter an Oriental church and he will at once be struck by the contrast which the architecture, the paintings, the very aspect of the ceremonial, present to the churches of the West. There is no aiming at effect, no dim religious light, no beauty of form or color beyond what is produced by the display of gorgeous and barbaric pomp."

The fact that the literature of the Eastern church has no universal text, but has been written in several languages, is in a large measure responsible for this oblivion. Latin has been retained as the language of the liturgy of the Church of the West because it was the language found in the Roman empire when the Roman church was established. The very conception of the Catholic church involves the use of a "catholic," or universal, form of utterance. The expression of a liturgy in national languages can only lead to national differences in the churches themselves.

The Catholic liturgy is the established ritual of the Church, a collection of authorized prayers of divine worship, fixed and immovable. It must not be supposed that this is the work of any one man or of one age, or that its present form was even anticipated by its originators. At first it was very simple. Gradually new services were added, parts of the old cast aside, until finally from this germ grew the complex liturgy of the present day. The sixth century marked the completion of this wonderful religious poem, than which there is nothing more perfect in form and language in all the world of literature. It is a masterpiece of ecclesiastical art in which dogma, poetry and drama are welded into expressive unity.

"This great prayer of the Catholic church is mainly composed of contributions made by the Eastern church during the first. four centuries. Its essential features were adopted and transferred to Latin by the Church of Rome, and after a process of sifting and rearranging, with some additions, its form was completed by the end of the sixth century essentially as it stands today. The liturgy is, therefore, the voice of the Church, weighted with tradition, resounding with the commanding tone of her apostolic authority, eloquent with the longing and the assurance of innumerable martyrs and confessors, the mystic testimony to the commission which the Church believes to have been laid upon her by the Holy Spirit. It is not surprising, therefore, that devout Catholics have come to consider this liturgy as divinely inspired, raised above all mere human speech, the language of saints and angels, a truly celestial poem; and that Catholic writers have well-nigh exhausted the vocabulary of enthusiasm in expounding its spiritual significance.

"The insistence upon the use of one unvarying language in the Mass and all the other offices of the Catholic Church is necessarily involved in the very conception of catholicity and immutability. A universal Church must have a universal form of speech; national languages imply national churches; the adoption of the vernacular would be the first step toward disintegration. The Catholic, into whatever strange land he may wander, is everywhere at home the moment he enters a sanctuary of his faith, for he hears the same worship, in the same tongue, accompanied with the same ceremonies, that has been familiar to him from childhood. This universal language must inevitably be the Latin. Unlike all living languages it is never subject to change, and hence there is no danger that any misunderstanding of refined points of doctrine or observance will creep in through alteration in the connotation of words."

The word mass is derived by some from the Hebrew word "missah," which means an offering. Others trace it to the word "missa," which is used to announce the end of the serv ice. We find it today in our words Candle-mas and Christmas. Cardinal Gibbons says of this office:

"The sacrifice of the Mass is the consecration of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, and the oblation of this body and blood to God, by the ministry of the priest, for a perpetual memorial of Christ's sacrifice on the cross. The sacrifice of the Mass is identical with that of the cross, both having the same victim and High Priest-Jesus Christ. The only difference consists in the manner of the oblation. Christ was offered up on the cross in a bloody manner, and in the Mass He is offered up in an unbloody manner. On the cross He purchased our ransom, and in the Eucharistic sacrifice the price of that ransom is applied to our souls. Hence, all the efficacy of the Mass is derived from the sacrifice of Calvary."

This conception is the very foundation of the whole ritual, and all the prayers, chants and collects are arranged to prepare the hearer for this mystic event. Those who are not familiar with the service in the Catholic church may find some assistance in the following outline of the High Mass, which is taken as a type.

The service opens with the recitation of the forty-second Psalm, which is followed by the Confession of Sin, after which is chanted the Introit-usually a single verse taken from a psalm. Then the choir sings the hymns, which never vary, Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison, and Gloria in Excelsis. Then follow in succession the Collect (group of short prayers appropriate to the day), the reading of the Epistle, Gradual (psalm verse) and Gospel. If a sermon is given it is inserted at this point and is followed by the Credo (creed), sung by the chair.

After the Offertory comes the most impressive ceremony in the Mass, the Oblation of the Host and Chalice. It is in this ceremony that the bread and wine is prepared for its sacred use, by the offering of prayers and incense. Then follows the Preface, varying with the season, but always ending with the Sanctus and Benedictus, sung by the choir. The Commemoration of the Dead is succeeded by a series of prayers, after which the choir chants the Agnus Dei. Communion is then administered, and the service is concluded with the Post-communion (short prayer), the Dismissal and Benedictus, and fourteen verses of the Gospel of St. John.

Although all the liturgy is set to music, there is a distinction between the office of Mass and the musical composition known by that name. The five hymns, Kyrie Eleison, Gloria in Excelsis, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei, which do not vary from day to day, compose the musical Mass. This is but a part of the office of the Sacrifice of the Mass, and the two terms must not be confused.

There are several Masses, the High Mass being the standard. Solemn High Mass is essentially the same, but is given with more pomp and ceremony. Low Mass is given in a speaking voice without the aid of the choir, and is less formal than the other Masses. It is used only in the early morning service. The Requiem Mass differs more, widely from the usual form and many beautiful Requiems have been written by both Catholic and Protestant composers. It takes its name from the first word of the Retroit, and is given for the repose of souls after death. In it the Credo and Gloria are omitted, their place being taken by the great judgment hymn, Dies Irae. The liturgy was completed during the rule of Gregory the Great (590-604) and by the last of the sixth century had been given a complete musical setting. The ideal of pure church music was established by the creators of the ritual, and that this ideal has been rigorously upheld is shown in the fact that today the Roman Catholic can justly lay claim to the purest church music in existence.

The text of the Mass is entirely musical in its theory and conception, and is admirably adapted to its rhythmical setting. From the earliest times the priest has used a chanting voice partly that his tones might carry farther and partly because it appeals to the emotions. Some of the service is chanted all on one tone, with a slight inflex at the end, known as "intoning;" sometimes with the assistance of the organ and choir, but often unaccompanied. To the casual spectator this seems unmusical and even barbarous, but becomes most beautiful as the ear is trained to detect the music in the intonations.

The art of singing these melodies is far more difficult than might be imagined, and requires good vocal ability, as well as clear enunciation of the Latin text. Then, too, the rhythm is difficult, for the value of the notes is not fixed, but is determined by the length of the syllable. The manner of singing is affected by conditions of time and place, degree of solemnity required and the acoustic properties of the building used.

The melodies thus intoned are properly known as "Plainsongs." The term "Gregorian" chants, the one by which these hymns are more generally known, is based on a belief that they were composed by Pope Gregory, but this has been proved to be an error. They were not the work of any individual, but are the results of a gradual growth, an evolution.

We find that records of the chant date back to the year 400, and their compilation was the work of popes of the seventh and eighth centuries. It is true that Pope Gregory aided in this gigantic labor, but probably to no greater extent than many others. Some of the old melodies have undergone changes in the process of repeated copyings, and because their system of notation was so crude, but there has been no material alteration in either the chant or liturgy in the last fifteen hundred years.

The purest and most strictly ecclesiastical music in existence is the chant, because the melody in itself is capable of giving no definite impressions, but is entirely subordinate to the text. "The chant appears to be the natural and fundamental form of music employed in all liturgical systems the world over, ancient and modern. The sacrificial song of the Egyptians, the Hebrews, and the Greeks, was a chant, and this is the form of music adopted by the Eastern church, the Anglican, and every system in which worship is offered in common and prescribed forms. The chant form is chosen because it does not make an independent impression, but can be held in strict subordination to the sacred words; its sole function is to carry the text over with greater force upon the attention and the emotions. It is in this relationship of text and tone that the chant differs from true melody."

It is for this reason that the church fathers have labored to restore and retain the unison chant exclusively. The modern reaction against all modern harmonized forms can never be wholly successful, but is prompted by a truly reverential spirit, and a desire to maintain the ideals of the earliest church music.

The plain-song melodies may be divided into two general classes: (1) Simple chants, those in which one syllable of the text is sting to one note, and (2) Florid chants, those in which there are a number of words to one note. Another convenient classification would be according to the text. The group of melodies used in chanting the psalms is the most important. These "psalm tones" or "Gregorian" tones are eight in number and are exceedingly beautiful in melody. The study of the Gregorian chant and Gregorian modes (scales upon which the chants are based), is most interesting and should receive the careful attention of every musical student.

Singing schools were established in nearly every monastery, for the purpose of instructing the priesthood in the proper rendering of the chant. Special orders of monks gave all their time and attention to this branch of ecclesiastical work, and a familiarity with the church hymns became a necessary part of the training of every clergyman. It was by means of these convent schools that the early music was fostered and preserved in written form, and the labor of these monks cannot be overestimated.

Protestants, as well as Catholics, have found and are constantly finding much of value in the rhythm and melody of the liturgic hymn. The lover of pure church music will not fail to justify the exalting of the Gregorian plain-song to the place it holds in the worship of the Roman Catholic church.



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