Music In The Early Christian Era

WHEN Rome was the center of civilization, men sought pleasure, power and riches above all things. During this period was born the Christ, whose message to humanity was diametrically opposed to the prevailing spirit. The classical age, lofty as was its mission and great its perfection, in many ways ignored the claims of humanity. In Rome the rights of the individual were respected even less than in Greece. Class-prejudice was universal. Fidelity was repressed, and therefore art degenerated. Man was nothing; his social position and his wealth were the only things to be considered. No wonder that such messages as “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted,” “Fear not them that kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul,” “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” fell like dew upon the spirits of the oppressed, and like fire upon the heads of the oppressors. Their import in-fused hope and comfort into the hearts of those who suffered under tyranny, and awakened dormant yearnings for love and truth. In the new religion man was directed to search his heart, for from the heart only could arise that which was true and noble. The classic artist imitated and beautified the models he found in Nature, but the new art was to realize the Divine. Plastic art could not delineate inner revelations; it therefore became the handmaid of architecture, and gave place to the art of painting with its representations of the Christ. The painter began to strive to express the emotions, the soul, in the faces of his subjects, and beauty of form was to become a secondary consideration.

The longing for a future existence, for expression of the inner life of man, was to find its most sublime utterance in music, for that alone could express the craving for the unknown. The greatest religious musical works of later years are the outgrowth of this period, and the influence of Christianity is in large part responsible for the emancipation of music from the domination of other arts. Part-writing developed out of the music of the Church. Music, most fugitive of arts, was drawn upon to depict the life beyond the grave, which had been considered the end of man. The motto of antiquity was, “Think ye how to live;” that of the new religion, “Think ye how to die;” and thence arose the “De Profundis,” the “Miserere” and the “Requiem,” followed by the “Gloria in Excelsis” and the “Te Deum Laudamus.” The new doctrine taught man’s equality, and woman’s, before God. This change of the status of woman from a chattel to the equal of man is responsible for the romanticism of later years, which was unknown in the classical age.

In the beginning the worship of the Christian church was modelled either after the Jewish temple service or after Greek ideas and Greek forms. The mythological illustrations used by the Greeks were used over again by the Christians, though under other names, as biblical illustrations. The Greek representations of “Hermes and the goat” thus be-came those of “Christ and the lamb;” “Orpheus surrounded by wild beasts” was transformed into “Daniel in the lions’ den;” and “Arlon and the dolphin” became “Jonah and the whale.” What was true of the pictures was also true of the forms and ceremonies and much of their music.

Philo, a great Jewish philosopher and scholar, thus de-scribes one of the early Christian nocturnal services: “After supper their sacred song began. When all were arisen, they selected two choirs, one of men and one of women, in order to celebrate some festival, and from each of these two choirs they selected as leader a person of majestic form, and well skilled in music. They chanted hymns in honor of God, now singing together and now alternately answering each other.”

They probably chanted antiphonally one of the Psalms, a Hebrew practice recommended by the Apostles, as can be seen from Paul’s letters to the Ephesians. St. Augustine (354—430) also recommends this practice when he says, “One cannot sing to the Lord, unless he hath God in his heart, and no worthier songs could be found than the inspired Psalms of David.”

It is certain that many of the early Christian hymn tunes were selected from the folk-songs of the Hebrews, Greeks and Romans, thus preserving in unbroken sequence the manifestations of the mind of man in his development.

Improvisation, which was common among the Greeks in the banquet-song (the “Skolion”) and among the Hebrews, was undoubtedly also in use among the early Christians. In moments of high religious exaltation they could not help speaking from the heart, and as they spoke very emotionally, they naturally began to chant. The Twenty-third Psalm and the fifteenth chapter of Exodus will give an idea of this form of improvisation.

The Seven Churches of Asia Minor differed considerably in their services and especially in their music. While St. James the lesser, the first bishop of Jerusalem (martyred A.D. 62), is supposed to have written the first Mass, appropriate hymns were used even earlier in the Greek Church and are still continued there. Words and music are said to have been well adapted to one another, and such embellishments as trills, cadenzas, etc. (vocalization), which are indigenous to all Oriental music, were very common and well liked. The result was, that since a crowd or congregation could not do such singing in unison, singers were specially selected for their ability in musical improvisation. After the manner of the Greek orator with his Citharode, the singer was assisted by another who reiterated a given pitch, a stationary tone. That may seem amusing to us, but, crude as it may appear, it was the beginning of a great art, that of polyphony.

The Oriental Greek Catholic Church has scarcely altered its early musical customs, their manner of song being somewhat similar to that of the Orthodox Hebrew Church of to-day.

In the churches of Rome much care was exercised in the selection of singers. At a very early date it was ordained that only those who had been baptized should be allowed to sing in the services, and this privilege was therefore highly prized. Oriental ornamental singing gradually crept in, and there arose a demand for skilled singers. No definite notation being in existence, singers were also needed for the antiphonal chants and hymns; and, since their preparation for this work required time and labor, it was found necessary to pay them for their services. Even then, however, the church could not find enough singers. As a result, Pope Sylvester, in 320, started a singing-school in Rome to train adult singers for the services; but, as they were ill-paid, the undertaking was not a success. Pope Hilary in the year 350 founded a sort of orphan asylum for boys, who were cared for, educated, and trained in the music of the Church — an idea carried on through many succeeding centuries, even to the days of Haydn and Schubert.

The Syrian Church founded by St. Paul and St. Barnabas had several divisions, but the center of Syrian Christianity was the church at Antioch. Here the first heresies, religious as well as musical, appeared. Here we find the first Gnostics, who wanted to make a bible of their own; and poets who wrote new Psalms in imitation of those of David. One of these poets, Ephraim, a highly gifted man, was given the surname of “the Harp of the Holy Spirit,” and many of the Syrian churches even to-day have an annual feast, or holy day, in honor of his memory. He was a monk, born in Mesopotamia, and converted at the age of eighteen. His writings on the Syriac version of the New Testament are considered so important, and are so often consulted by theological students, that they were translated into German within the last century. His hymns are very poetic, and full of Oriental imagery.

As there was no definite notation in those days, the form of church singing was handed down from priest to neophyte or from teacher to pupil, and that in vogue in the Syrian Church was quite different from that practised in Rome. Even the form of the Mass was different, the Syrian Mass having neither Kyrie nor Gloria.

The services of the Armenian Church, founded in the third century, were so like those of the Eastern Greek Church that their further consideration is unnecessary.

The African Church is historically and ethnologically probably the most interesting. Its liturgy was written either by St. Basil or St. Mark. It was there that folk-songs were used chiefly in the religious services. Since these folk-songs contain countless repetitions and were much embellished, the services were sometimes very long. They had also the method of “vocalization” which has been mentioned, and this habit of singing many tones on one syllable or word often caused the vesper services to last four hours or even longer.

The peculiar style, called “vocalization,” this making of many turns and runs (coloratura singing), in later years assumed high importance in the vocal art. Handel’s works present many examples of this form of embellishment; so do the early sonatas and old Italian operas. It was an early manifestation of man’s love for beauty of musical outline and form, and beauty of voice and tone. When Handel wrote his oratorios on biblical subjects dealing with ancient Jewish history, he was historically correct in employing these embellishments, because they were peculiar to the singing of that people.

Even in those early days, however, there were in each of these churches some persons who objected to the “mutilation of the text” in singing, and objections finally became so numerous that the great council of the Catholic Church, having representatives from all the different churches, and meeting at Laodicea, took notice of them.

From what precedes it may be seen that music in the early Christian Church was in an unsettled state, and that the time was ripe for reform. The first of the reformers and great leaders of the church, St. Ambrose, was born A.D. 338, in what Caesar calls Gaul, in the city of Treves. He was thoroughly educated at home and then went to Milan to study law. In 369 he was appointed prefect of that city, and thus held a semi-military, semi-civil position, which implied the government of upper Italy as well as that of Milan. In 374 he was chosen Bishop of Milan, where he ruled with vigor, and enforced church regulations and church discipline. He began reform in church music by brushing aside much of the cumbrous theory of the Greek modes, with their quarter-steps and chromatic tones, which have been mentioned in a previous chapter.

These difficult modes were discarded by Ambrose, who then reestablished the early, simple Greek modes, using only half-steps and whole steps between successive degrees. The half-steps between E and F, and B and C, were usually unchangeable, but occasionally B was changed to B-flat, because the early musical ear found no melodic pleasure in a succession of three whole steps, the triton. There is considerable dispute among historians as to the names of the Ambrosian modes, as they are applied differently from those of the Greeks,

Comparison with Ex. 12 will show that the Greek Lydian scale, corresponding to our C-major scale, was omitted by Ambrose, as it was deemed the modo lascivo (the vulgar mode), associated with earthly, sensual love. The similarity between these Ambrosian scales or modes and those of the Greeks may be seen in the exact repetition of the forms of the two tetrachords which make up the scales, with the half-steps either in the middle, at the beginning, or at the end. Ambrose also reestablished the Greek custom of al-lowing the natural rhythm of the text to furnish the rhythm for the hymn.

In the ninth chapter of his ” Confessions” St. Augustine tells how he first heard church music in the Ambrosian style, and describes the deep impression it made upon him.

In spite of the firmness with which the Church at Milan, St. Ambrose’s church, maintained the musical practices instituted by its Bishop, during the next two centuries abuses crept in through the introduction of local secular melodies with profane associations. Many of the fathers of the Church tried to reform these abuses, but apparently without success.

Perhaps the greatest of the reformers of early Christian times was Gregory, after whom is named the Gregorian Chant of the Catholic Church of to-day, a grand revival of which has been in progress during recent years. Gregory was born in 540, became Pope in 590, and reigned as such for fourteen years. What that man is said to have accomplished in that time is almost incredible. That he did many things, we know, but he is undoubtedly credited with others simply because nobody knew to whom else to ascribe them. He did not begin his reforms until 599, and had but five years to put them into practice, but their results are still visible. Tradition has it that he was the first to apply the names of the first seven letters of the alphabet to the seven tones, using the Greek letters, beginning with gamma (G) as the lowest tone. His system was founded on the division of the octave into a fifth and a fourth, and he considered the fifth the most important, next to the octave. To the four Ambrosian scales or modes he added four others by beginning them a fourth below what we should call their tonic and ending on the fifth above that tonic, say from a up to d and from there up to a, the tonic being d {as in the Dorian mode); and he called them the hypo-modes (the modes below). By this arrangement Gregory not only extended the scope of the scales, but gave them a wholly different character.

It is, however, safe to assume that several other Popes, both before and after Gregory, had a hand in the reformation and establishment of the Catholic musical services. For ex-ample, the vocal service of the Canonical Hours is known to have been established, in practically the present form, as early as 540; and Gregory possibly neither composed anything nor invented the alphabetical nomenclature of the seven tones.

In the following illustration of these new so-called “Plagal” (oblique) scales, placed as derived from the Ambrosian, or “Authentic” (primary) scales, the half-note indicates what we have just called the tonic, or final tone:

Melodies in the plagal modes seem to have an upward tendency, while those in the authentic modes seem to have the character of rest, repose, because they always return to their tonic. The former have therefore been likened to the mediaeval pictures of saints with the'”upward glance” of adoration, sometimes called the “Catholic expression,” while the latter have been considered to express faith, hope and peace. As a further illustration of the formation of melodies in these different modes, it may be of interest to compare the first theme of a Trio by Schubert with the first theme from the Eroica Symphony by Beethoven.

It will be seen that both themes lie within an octave, but one might be said to be in the authentic mode and the other in the plagal mode, both having the same tonic, or final.

The chant of the church as revised by Gregory and others also differed from the Ambrosian chant in that it was no longer recited in a rhythmic manner, governed by the length of the syllables of the words in speech, but consisted of continuous melodies whose tones varied but little in length. In the Ambrosian chant the natural inflection of the speaking voice in exalted utterance formed the basis of the intonation. Illustrations may make this clear. When we utter the prayer, “Lord, have mercy upon us,” there is a natural falling of the voice upon the last word which might musically be expressed when chanted in conformity with this natural falling, as follows;

Here we note a fall of a minor third, and a rise of a major second, and also a rhythmical utterance evidently inherent in the text. This form of musical expression was common among some semi-civilized nations of antiquity, and was the beginning of the chant.

Gregorian Chant was called cantus planus (plain-chant) or cantus choralis; planus because of the even movement of the melody, and choralis because it was to be sung by the many — the congregation or the choir — and not by the priest or soloist. This form of chant was also called canonicus, because all liturgical texts were now provided with special melodies which were to be used by the church singers because they were canonical (fixed by the church law) ; and thus came into use the term cantus firmus (fixed chant), a name which has not changed through all the passing centuries.

Some very interesting things are told about the final adoption of the form of chant which should be used, since some priests preferred the Ambrosian manner and others the Gregorian. Among others the story is told of a meeting of the fathers of the Church at Milan, where this matter was dis-cussed. Failing to reach an agreement, they decided to place both missals upon the altar and to lock the church until the following day. When they reassembled, the Gregorian mis-sal was found torn into many pieces, which were scattered all over the church, while the Ambrosian book lay intact upon the altar; whereupon it was decided that this indicated that the Gregorian form should be scattered all over the earth, into all churches, whereas the Ambrosian form should be used exclusively in Milan. The latter was therefore chained to the altar in Milan in token of its permanent, exclusive use there (which is said to continue until this day), while the Gregorian missal, containing the new songs of the ritual, was chained to the altar at Rome, thereby settling its future unchangeableness.

Melodies in the authentic modes were held to possess a peculiar charm that induced religious fervor; but the same was claimed for those in the plagal modes. In both is to be noted an apparent aversion for the use of what we call the “leading-tone” of the scale, which is avoided by the leap of a third, or even of a fourth or fifth. This avoidance of the leading-tone, especially in ascending phrases, seems to give the Gregorian melodies an undefinable, mystic character. The following opening phrases of ritual chants will further illustrate this statement, especially when heard in a vast church, chanted from the altar.

The liturgic influence has been a continuous source of inspiration, both poetically and aesthetically, and every reform or modification has been for the purpose of affording the congregation a proper musical setting of the text. After a while the melodies that were used in the earliest churches, the folk-songs, again crept into the service, and with them we shall deal in due course.

One of the longest steps in advance made about this time was the emancipation of music from a slavish adherence to the rhythm of the text. The Mass, as then arranged, has remained unchanged to the present day, and is the foundation upon which some of the most glorious compositions have been built. Bach, Mozart, Cherubim and Beethoven, as well as the masters of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, received inspiration from the Gregorian chant.

In order to perpetuate his system, Gregory founded a musical academy in Rome where priests as well as choir-singers were taught by him. These priests, who went out as missionaries, spread the fame of the cantus romanus over the rest of the world, so that it soon became known even in far England. The general acknowledgment of the Pope as the head of the united Catholic Church, which occurred during the reign of Gregory’s successor, assisted in spreading the new form of church-singing.

During the time of Gregory, and even during the fifth century, various writers expounded different theories, or wrote,. upon the subject of music. The most important of these early treatises were those of Boethius, born at Rome about A.D. 475. He was a student of the classics, who received political preferment, in recognition of his knowledge, and was therefore hated by the courtiers of Theodoric, and cast into prison. He wrote five books on the subject of music, one of which deals with the voice as the source of music, another with the relations of intervals, and one that deals wholly with musical practices.

Another writer, Cassiodorus (485-580), in his book “On the Liberal Arts and Disciplines,” suggests a series of fourths and fifths for two voices, a suggestion put into practice later by Hucbald. Still another writer, the Spanish Bishop Isidore (650), mentions ” harmonic music” as “at the same time a modulation of the voice and a concordance of simultaneous sounds,” and speaks of “concordant and discordant sounds.”

Bede, the historian, “the light of the eighth century” and “the glory of the Anglo-Saxons,” does not elucidate the state of music in his day, and deals only in theories.

Most learned writers of the early Christian age continued to expatiate upon the music of the ancients, to speculate upon their systems, and apparently made no effort to give future generations an idea of their contemporaneous music.