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Christian Music

Music is a form of communication, albeit nonverbal and hence without exact meanings. It has aspects analogous to spelling, grammatical structure, and in its more spacious forms syntax. It consists of sounds explicable by the natural phenomena of acoustics, which are no more inherently moral than mathematics. Nonetheless the power of music to call forth strong emotional response has many witnesses from antiquity to the present. Ancient mythologies credited it with supernatural powers, often therapeutic. The classical Greek concept of ethos clung to Western thinking to a degree that the rise of rationalism failed to erase except in part, and it still colors the thinking of many today.

Western music today exists in three “dimensions”. The first of these is rhythm, the most essential to music of the three and the one that provides the strongest and least intellectual stimulus to the hearer. Melody, the second dimension, can hardly be said to exist without some recurrent stress patterns of a rhythmical nature. Harmony, as we know it in Western music since the Middle Ages, arose in the context of Christendom and until late Renaissance times found its theoreticians almost exclusively among the clergy. It was primarily the clergy who evolved our system of notation to preserve the revered music of the Gregorian tradition.

Gregorian chant, which is identical with plainsong, consists of a vast repertory of monophonic (i.e., in pure, unharmonized melody) music with Latin text. Every aspect of the Roman liturgy for both Mass and office is provided for. Contrary to tradition, Gregory I had little connection with any of this music, although he had much to do with the liturgical reforms of his day. The music comes from many sources, as we know today, from the simple chant formulas (psalm tones) that the early church inherited from the synagogues of the Middle East in Roman times; the music of the Ancient Byzantine Church; the Old Roman chant, the Gallican chant of pre-Carolingian times; and the elaborate and beautiful creations of unknown monks at such centers as St. Gall in the eighth and ninth centuries. Indeed, the repertory continued to grow even after this “golden age” was passed.

Although the Greeks employed a form of musical notation, the musicians of the church had no exact pitch symbols at their command until the advent of staff notation about the eleventh century. Much elaborate melody of earlier times was lost or greatly modified, since its retention depended upon the memory of the singers, with at best a few rhetorical accent symbols (staffless neumes) above the words to refresh the executant's mind. It seems reasonably clear to scholars now that the bulk of the melodies that come down to our day do so in the form they assumed in the Frankish domains of Charlemagne and his heirs, rather than in the Rome of Gregory's time. Plainsong is preserved in nonmetrical neumes upon a four-lined staff, a system referred to as “Roman choral notation.”

Gregorian chant is essentially sacerdotal music. It was evolved for the use of trained singers: monks in the canonical hours of the abbeys; choirs and celebrants in princely chapels, larger city churches, and cathedrals. It exhibits a great variety of forms: simple recitation tones for prayers, Epistles, and Gospels, with their slight terminal inflections; the chants for the Psalms and canticles; the slightly more elaborate antiphons that relate the Psalms to the ecclesiastical calendar; the largely syllabic tunes of the hymns of the office and the sequences of the Mass; the luxuriantly melismatic melodies that abound in graduals and alleluias of the proper; and in many settings of the Kyrie and Agnus Dei in the ordinary. There are also the responsaries, processionals, and tracts-all with characteristics of their own.

Other systems of Christian chant must be mentioned. In Milan there persisted the Ambrosian chant, which is somewhat similar to but distinct from the Gregorian. The Byzantine chant of the Greek Orthodox Church presents another great system of considerable antiquity. In Russia there developed the Znamenny chant. The Syrian, Armenian, and Coptic churches likewise possessed other types. All represent priestly liturgical repertories. The Roman Church developed and encouraged scholae cantorum from before the time of Gregory I to train singers for the performance of the music of the liturgy.

The beginnings of polyphony, the simultaneous performance of more than one melodic line, came at least by the ninth century. At first the practice consisted of singing a plainsong with one or more voices duplicating the melody four or five scale-steps below or above. Soon the added part took on a melodic independence, and still later would sing several notes in the time space allotted to each note of the original melody. With such music, notation indicating exact pitches became indispensable. Such music was known as organum and seems to have been limited to the participation of a few skilled singers performing those sections of graduals and certain other parts of the proper of the Mass that were normally sung by a single voice. Organum developed primarily in France at Limoges and came to its highest development at Notre Dame in Paris about 1200, where a third, and even a fourth, part was added above the original plainsong.

In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the new art of polyphony made great strides. From organum grew the motet, in which each voice-part (usually three) had its own text. The lowest, or tenor, which was almost always a rhythmatized passage of plainsong, was probably performed instrumentally. Much of this music would seem to have filled a social or ceremonial function away from the church, but it must not be overlooked that a seemingly secular text could have had for that day a religious symbolism not apparent to a modern observer. Nevertheless, the fourteenth century has left us little church music. The thirteenth century also produced the polyphonic conductus. Unlike the motet, these pieces usually do not make use of plainsong tenors, and require all voice-parts to sing the same text as in a modern chorale. The texts are usually moralizing or ceremonial, and conductus seems to have been intended for religious or other ceremonial processions.

More popular religious music must surely have existed, but little that did not have ecclesiastical or political status was committed to parchment. Many princes and not a few clerics read not at all, and fewer could read music. Religious lyrics that are clearly intended to be sung spring from Francis of Assisi and his followers. These laude show to some extent the influence of the love-lyrics of the Troubadours. Similar songs of flagellants and pilgrims have survived in some number both in Italy and Germany, and in their wake such songs as would be called carols* today. Some such songs, often with mixed Latin and vernacular, of slightly later vintage, influenced Luther (e.g., In dulce jubilo) and were adapted into the vast Lutheran hymnody. In areas of Calvinistic influence they were not welcome.

In the fourteenth century, polyphonic settings of the choral sections of the ordinary of the Mass begin to appear, most of them anonymous. About 1360 Guillaume de Machaut, most widely known as a literary figure, composed an extraordinary and elaborate Mass in four-part counterpoint, containing the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. Curiously, no other such works are known until the beginning of the next century.

If the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries produced little music for the church, in the fifteenth century there began a great tide that continued to rise and swell on into the seventeenth and beyond. The second quarter of the fifteenth century saw a great change in the texture of music. The Englishmen, notably John Dunstable,* who were drawn to France in the wake of Agincourt brought to the Franco-Burgundian composers a new richness of sound. The musical intervals of the third and sixth increasingly replaced the austerity of late medieval sound, and the triad became the basis of harmony. Though cultural historians have generally written little of music, it no less than literature and the visual arts entered upon a period of unsurpassed creative vitality. With few exceptions, its composers of genius were churchmen who devoted to the music of the liturgy their highest powers, though secular music of merit was also abundant.

Composers from the French-speaking Netherlands almost completely dominated the European scene from about 1420 until the middle of the sixteenth century. The Vatican choir and the great churches and courts of the Italian states were full of them. Leonel Power, an Englishman, has left us the oldest known cantus-firmus Mass, in which the famous “Alma Redemptorus Mater” melody forms the tenor of each of its sections. It was the Burgundian Guillaume Dufay* (d.1474) who made the cantus-firmus Mass the touchstone of musical creative achievement for nearly a century and anomalously often employed a secular melody as his tenor! In his numerous works the techniques of the late Middle Ages are fused with the new spirit and manner of the Renaissance. The motet becomes a vehicle of high religious devotion, as in his dedicatory work for the Florentine Duomo, or in the touching simplicity of his office hymns. Ockeghem,* his junior by some thirty years, in his few carefully wrought masterpieces achieved a richer texture and deeper sonority. One of his Masses is in five voice parts of extraordinarily low range.

Of the many distinguished Franco-Netherlandish composers of the later fifteenth century, Josquin Desprez* more than any other individual displayed leadership and mastery in the composition of both Masses and motets, exhibiting to perfection all the technical procedures of the mature Renaissance. The four pitch- ranges of soprano, alto, tenor, and bass become normative, with imitative counterpoint becoming a pervasive structural principle. The sixteenth-century motet is a choral setting of a text, usually liturgical, but not from the ordinary of the Mass. Contrary to widely held opinion, unaccompanied performance was by no means the norm in the sixteenth century. Instruments as often as not supported the voices or substituted for missing ones.

A great multitude of talented composers were active at courts and in larger churches during the sixteenth century. The invention by Petrucci in 1501 of music printing from movable type, and the introduction of copper engraving later in the century, vastly accelerated the dissemination of music. The works by such geniuses as Lassus* and Palestrina* were known from Stockholm to Naples and from Warsaw to Lisbon, and were even carried to the Spanish colonies of the New World. Such music required the presence of skilled choirs of boys and men, and were largely beyond the possibilities of the ordinary parish, where plainsong prevailed if indeed any music was performed. The influence of humanism caused composers to strive for careful accentuation of the text, and the Counter-Reformation called for more homophonic part-writing in the interest of making the words more audible to the listeners. The Spaniard, Victoria, and the Italian, Palestrina, were among the leading figures influenced profoundly by the latter movement. Palestrina composed over one hundred Masses, and his music continued to be regarded as representative of the best sacred style long after his time.

The advent of the Reformation brought great changes in those countries where it triumphed. Luther introduced the chorale for the congregation to sing after the precedent of the Hussites in Bohemia. He adapted and translated from the traditional Latin hymnody and from the popular nonliturgical songs mentioned earlier. He also wrote hymns himself that were set to tunes composed or adapted by Johann Walther* and other musicians among his supporters. From this beginning developed a vast hymnic literature which reached its zenith with the work of Johann Crüger about 1650. Luther also encouraged the musical training of the clergy and of choirboys in parochial schools. Thus the Lutheran church developed a great musical tradition of congregational song and choral repertory. Along with these grew up an equally great literature of organ music, much of it based on the chorale melodies, and reaching its height of attainment with the creative genius of J.S. Bach* in the eighteenth century.

Very different was the course of music in those areas dominated by Calvin's teachings. Polyphonic composition together with instruments and “hymns of human composure” were totally rejected. The metrical versions of the 150 Psalms by Marot* and Beza* completed in 1562, with its store of tunes edited by Bourgeois* and others, was translated into German and Dutch and long remained the sole church song of the Reformed churches in Europe. The metrical psalms were sung only in unison and without the support of “popish” instruments. Only in Holland did the organ continue in use, and there amid much controversy. There the Genevan Psalter is still used, albeit with a recent redaction of the text-the “Nieuwe Berijming” of 1967.

Both England and Scotland followed the lead of Geneva with complete metrical psalters. The Scottish version of 1564 was replaced by a simpler version in 1650 which still survives. In England the “Old Version” (Sternhold and Hopkins) of 1562 was partially superseded by the “New Version” (Tate and Brady) at the beginning of the eighteenth century, but was fated to be eclipsed by the new hymnody of Isaac Watts* and his successors. Although the British psalters and their American counterparts had some fine tunes, they were much inferior in both text and music to the Genevan. In the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries Huguenot and even some Catholic composers made a great number of polyphonic arrangements of the Genevan psalms. These were not for church use, but provided music-loving citizens with highly artistic music of an edifying character for their recreation. In the English-speaking countries the performance of the Psalms sank to an abysmal level, in which all were “lined out” most unmusically to a handful of well-worn tunes, until the era of Watts and the Wesleys brought new life and reform.

After the Reformation in England, while metrical psalmody prevailed in the parish churches, the chapel royal and the cathedrals continued to share in the great age of Elizabethan polyphony until they were suppressed by the Puritan revolution. The Anglican liturgy found a place for the anthem. At first adaptations of Latin motets were used, but a generation of great composers headed by Tallis* and Byrd* evolved a new genre which is among the glories of the English choral heritage-the cathedral service, consisting of the canticles for Matins and Evensong, and the choral parts of the Communion service inaugurated a new tradition, to which Byrd, Gibbons,* and Tomkins contributed fine examples.

After the restoration of the monarchy, cathedral music was too dependent upon the vagaries of royal taste and suffered from ecclesiastical indifference during the Age of Reason. Apart from Purcell* and the Chandos anthems of Handel,* little of great artistic significance appeared in the English choral repertory for the church until comparatively recent times. The rise of Methodism in the eighteenth century brought congregational hymn- singing to England. The Wesleys (see especially Wesley, Charles) received their impetus from their contact with the Moravians, whose tradition went back to the Hussites and was refreshed by German Pietism. They lacked, however, an outstanding composer, and their tunes were borrowed or adapted from many sources; many tended to be very florid, with many passing notes and verbal repetitions. Hymn-singing spread rapidly throughout Nonconformist groups, and by the early nineteenth century the Anglican Church could no longer resist the demand for hymns among its rank and file. Then an era of avid hymntune composition began, bringing in a simpler, largely syllabic type of tune.

As the century progressed, many tunes tended to depend more upon their harmonic part-writing and seductive chordal progressions than upon the virility of their melodies. These aspects of many of the tunes of Dykes* and Barnby* and much of the music of the influential Hymns, Ancient and Modern (1861) brought a strong reaction at the end of the century. The Yattendon Hymnal (1899) and even more the English Hymnal (1906; rev. 1933) exerted a wide and continuing influence upon hymnbook editors of the major denominations throughout the English-speaking world. Strong tunes with active melodies, often specified for unison singing, have continued to appear-notably those of R. Vaughan Williams.* In fact the hymntune is by far the most important type of church music in Protestant worship.

In the seventeenth century, both Lutheran and Catholic composers continued to produce a great deal for the church. Much of this was in the new concertato manner, with independent and important parts for instruments that both combined and contrasted with the voices. This style had its first important flowering in Venice. Schütz,* the greatest Lutheran composer before Bach, studied there with its greatest exponents at St. Mark's, Gabrieli* and Monteverdi.* From this style developed the Lutheran church cantata. Blended later with the recitative and aria of Italian opera, it reached its fulfilment in the church works of J.S. Bach. A by-product of the new Italian “drama per musica,” or opera, was the oratorio, beginning its existence as religious opera, but developing into a type of work with a dramatic theme, usually of biblical origin, performed without the appurtenances of the stage. Carissimi* developed the form in a definitive manner toward the middle of the century. Schütz cultivated it in his old age in his Story of Christmas and other works. In the following century, Handel wrote his great succession of English oratorios, which led to the later works of Haydn,* Mendelssohn,* and others. Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Walton, and others bring it down to our own day. Oratorio is not church music, but rather belongs in the realm of edifying entertainment.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as the influence of the church decreased and the rationalistic tide of humanism rose higher, fewer composers of first magnitude devoted a significant portion of their creative activity to church music. Indeed, J.S. Bach was the last truly great genius to whom music for the sanctuary was his major concern. The later eighteenth century, the Age of Reason, saw only muddled illogic in polyphony, which Rousseau likened to the simultaneous delivery of several speeches. The affective styles and symbolism of the past were repudiated. Clarity and natural simplicity were the paramount virtues of music. In this “classical” era much church music was written, particularly in the Catholic countries. The aristocratic chapels and metropolitan churches of the Austrian Empire resounded to symphonic Masses and vespers, with skilled soloists, choruses, and orchestras. The music was joyful and spritely, and as such was attacked by the Cecilian movement of the nineteenth century as indecorous if not blasphemous. Pope Pius X expressly forbade their use. Today the Victorian vogue for disparaging as secular and flippant the best music of this era is gone, especially in view of the current trends in religious music. During the Romantic era, religious music of all types continued to be written, but little of it aspired to the artistic significance of former times. Some of it was chaste, some theatrical as with Berlioz, much dolorous and sentimental.

The religious music of the United States largely parallels that of Great Britain, but has enjoyed a degree of freedom from official restraint. Here the folk tradition of the Baptists surfaced and reached print in the shaped-note publications of the South, and the singing-school movement of post-Revolutionary times produced simple congregational music with a distinctive flavor. The “Gospel song” carried to Britain by such figures as Ira D. Sankey* adapted the popular idiom of such writers as Stephen Foster to capture the ear of the unchurched multitudes, and became the normal style of large segments of the less institutionalized churches of Protestantism. This music possesses optimistic rhythms and exceedingly simple harmonies, and lends itself readily to highly improvisatory performance.

An account of the religious music since World War II is almost impossible at this proximity. It remains to be seen whether the present trend toward popularization in religious music will continue, with the acceptance of a closer and closer identification with pseudo-folk and “rock” idioms, not only among younger Christians of evangelical persuasion, but in the larger historic denominations and in the Roman Catholic Church.

While much functional church music which goes little beyond the idioms of the late nineteenth century continues to be written, many professional church musicians are composing in styles closer to the early twentieth century. That these are difficult for any but highly trained musicians must be conceded. “Serious” professional composers of secular art music have never before been so far removed from the general listening public. There is beyond question a need for devoted and gifted composers to provide leadership in this as in all eras, so that the scriptural mandate of singing “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” may be fittingly fulfilled.

See Hymns.

W. Davies and H. Ley (eds.), The Church Anthem Book (1933); P.H. Lang, Music in Western Civilization (1941); G. Reese, Music in the Middle Ages (1946) and Music in the Renaissance (1959); M. Bukofzer, Music in the Baroque Era (1947); E.H. Fellowes, English Cathedral Music from Edward VI to Edward VII (1948); L. Ellinwood, The History of American Church Music (rev. ed., 1953); E. Routley, The Music of Christian Hymnody (1957), Twentieth Century Church Music (1964), and The Church and Music (1967); W. Apel, Gregorian Chant (1958); Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians (5th ed., ed. N. Slonimsky, 1958; suppl. 1965); F.L. Harrison, Music in Medieval Britain (1958); E. Werner, The Sacred Bridge (1959); D. Stevens, Tudor Church Music (1961); W. Douglas, Church Music in History and Practice (rev. ed., 1962); I. Lowens, Music and Musicians in Early America (1964); E. Wienandt, The Choral Music of the Church (1965); R. Stevenson, Protestant Church Music in America (1966); The Treasury of English Church Music (5 vols., various eds., 1966); A.J.B. Hutchings, Church Music in the Nineteenth Century (1967); P. Le Huray, Music and the Reformation in England (1967); W. Apel and A. Davison, Harvard Dictionary of Music (rev. ed., 1969); E. Wienandt and R.H. Young, The Anthem in England and America (1970).