Music Of The Romans — The Early Church

THE art history of the world makes it clear to us that when the art of a country turns to over-elaboration of detail and mechanical dexterity, when there is a general tendency toward vividness of impression rather than poignancy and vitality of expression, then we have the invariable sign of that decadence which inevitably drifts into revolution of one kind or another. Lasus (500 B. C.), who, as previously mentioned, was a great flute and lyre player as well as poet, betrays this tendency, which reached its culmination under the Romans. Lasus was more of a virtuoso than a poet; he introduced into Greece a new and florid style of lyre and harp playing; and it was he who, disliking the guttural Dorian pronunciation of the letter S, wrote many of his choric poems without using this letter once in them. Pindar, his pupil, followed in his footsteps. In many of his odes we find intricate metrical devices; for instance, the first line of most of the odes is so arranged metrically that the same order of accents is maintained whether the line be read backward or forward, the short and long syllables falling into exactly the same places in either case. The line “Hercules, the patron deity of Thebes,” may be taken as an example. Such devices occur all through his poems. We find in them also that magnificence of diction which is the forerunner of “virtuosity”; for he speaks of his song as “a temple with pillars of gold, gold that glitters like blazing fire in the night time.”

In the hands of Aristophanes (450-380 B. C.), the technique of poetry continued to advance. In “The Frogs,” “The Wasps,” and “The Birds” are to be found marvels of skill in onomatopoetic* verse. His comedies called for many more actors than the tragedies had required, and the chorus was increased from fifteen to twentyfour. Purple skins were spread across the stage, and the parabasis (or topical song) and satire vied with the noble lines of Aeschylus and Sophocles for favour with the public.

Meanwhile, as might have been expected, instrumental music became more and more independent, and musicians, especially the flute players, prospered; for we read in Suidas that they were much more proficient and sought after than the lyre and kithara players. When they played, they stood in a conspicuous place in the centre of the audience. Dressed in long, feminine, saffron-coloured robes, with veiled faces, and straps round their cheeks to support the muscles of the mouth, they exhibited the most startling feats of technical skill. Even women became flute players, although this was considered disgraceful. The Athenians even went so far that they built a temple to the flute player Lamia, and worshipped her as Venus. The prices paid to these flute players surpassed even those given to virtuosi in modern times, sometimes amounting to more than one thousand dollars a day, and the luxury in which they lived became proverbial.

During this period, Aristophanes of Alexandria (350 B. C.), called “the grammarian,” devised a means for indicating the inflection of the voice in speaking, by which the cadences which orators found necessary in impassioned speech could be classified, at least to some extent. When the voice was to fall, a downward stroke was placed above the syllable; when the voice was to be raised, an upward stroke / indicated it; and when the voice was to rise and fall, the sign was A , which has become our accent in music. These three signs are found in the French language, in the accent aigu, or high accent, as in passe; the accent grave, or low accent, as in sincère; or circonflexe, as in Pháon. The use of dots* for punctuation is also ascribed to Aristophanes; and our dots in musical notation, as well as the use of commas to indicate breathings, may be traced to this system.

As I have said, all this tended toward technical skill and analysis; what was lacking in inventive power it was sought to cover by wonderful execution. The mania for flute playing, for instance, seemed to spread all over the world; later we even hear that the king of Egypt, Ptolemy Auletes (80-51 B. C.), Cleopatra’s father, was nicknamed ” the flute player. ”

In Rome, this lack of poetic vitality seemed evident from the beginning; for while Greece was represented by the tragedy and comedy, the Romans’ preference was for mere pantomime, a species of farce of which they possessed three kinds: (r) The simple pantomime without chorus, in which the actors made the plot clear to the audience by means of gestures and dancing. (2) Another which called for a band of instrumental musicians on the stage to furnish an accompaniment to the acting of the pantomimist. (3) The chorus pantomime, in which the chorus and the orchestra were placed on the stage, supplementing the gestures of the actors by singing a narrative of the plot of the pantomime, and playing on their instruments. The latter also were expressive of the non-ideal character of the pantomime, as is indicated by the fact that the orchestra was composed of cymbals, gongs, castanets, foot castanets, rattles, flutes, bagpipes, gigantic lyres, and a kind of shell or crockery cymbals, which were clashed together.

The Roman theatre itself was not a place connected with the worship of the gods, as it was with the Greeks. The altar to Dionysus had disappeared from the centre of the orchestra, and the chorus, or rather the band, was placed upon the stage with the actors. The bagpipe now appears for the first time in musical history, although there is some question as to whether it was not known to the Assyrians. It represents, perhaps, the only remnant of Roman music that has survived, for the modem Italian peasants probably play in much the same way as did their forefathers. The Roman pipes were bound with brass, and had about the same power of tone as was obtained from the trumpet.

It is easy to see that an orchestra thus constituted would be better adapted for making a great noise than for music, while the pantomime itself was of such a brutal nature that the degradation of art may be said to have been complete. As the decay of art in Egypt culminated under Ptolemy Auletes, so in Rome it culminated in the time of Caligula (I2-41 A. D.), and Nero (37—68 A. D.).

The latter, as we learn from Suetonius, competed for prizes in the public musical contests, and was never with-out a slave at his elbow to warn him against straining his voice. In his love of magnificence he resembled a Greek flute player, with unbounded means to gratify it. His palace, the “Golden House,” had triple porticos a mile in length, and enclosed a lake surrounded by buildings which had the appearance of a city. Within its area were corn fields, vineyards, pastures, and woods containing many animals, both wild and tame. In other parts it was entirely overlaid with gold, and adorned with jewels and mother-of-pearl. The porch was so high that a colossal statue of himself, one hundred and twenty feet in height, stood in it. The supper rooms were vaulted, and compartments of the ceiling, inlaid with ivory, were made to revolve and scatter flowers; they also contained pipes which shed perfumes upon the guests.

When the revolt under Vindex broke out (68 A. D.), a new instrument had just been brought to Rome. Tertullian, Suetonius, and Vitruvius agree in calling it an organ. This instrument, which was the invention of Ctesibus of Alexandria, consisted of a set of pipes through which the air was made to vibrate by means of a kind of water pump operated by iron keys. It was undoubtedly the direct ancestor of our modern organ. Nero intended to introduce these instruments into the Roman theatre. In planning for his expedition against Vindex, his first care was to provide carriages for his musical instruments; for his intention was to sing songs of triumph after having quelled the revolt. He publicly vowed that if his power in the state were reestablished, he would include a performance upon organs as well as upon flutes and bagpipes, in the exhibitions he intended to institute in honour of his success.

From a musical point of view, Suetonius’s biography of Nero is interesting chiefly on account of its giving us glimpses of the life of a professional musician of those days. We read, together with many other details, that it was the custom for a singer to lie on his back, with a sheet of lead upon his breast, to correct unsteadiness in breathing, and to abstain from food for two days together to dear his voice, often denying himself fruit and sweet pastry. The degraded state of the theatre may well be imagined from the fact that under Nero the custom of hiring professional applause was instituted. After his death, which is so dramatically told by Suetonius, music never revived in Rome.

In the meanwhile, however, a new kind of music had begun; in the catacombs and underground vaults, the early Christians were chanting their first hymns. Like all that we call “new,” this music had its roots in the old. The hymns sung by the Christians were mainly Hebrew temple songs, strangely changed into an uncouth imitation of the ancient Greek drama or worship of Dionysus; for example, Philo of Alexandria, as well as Pliny the Younger, speaks of the Christians as accompanying their songs with gestures, and with steps forward and backward. This Greek influence is still further implied by the order of one of the earliest of the Church fathers, Clement of Alexandria (about 300 A. D.), who forbade the use of the chromatic style in the hymns, as tending too much toward paganism. Some writers even go so far as to identify many of the Christian myths and symbols with those of Greece. For instance, they see, in the story of Daniel in the lions’ den, another form of the legend of Orpheus taming the wild beasts; in Jonah, they recognize Arion and the dolphin; and the symbol of the Good Shepherd, carrying home the stray lamb on his shoulders, is considered another form of the familiar Greek figure of Hermes carrying the goat.

Be this as it may, it is certain that this crude beginning of Christian music arose from a vital necessity, and was accompanied by an indomitable faith. If we look back, we note that until now music had either been the servant of ignoble masters, looked upon as a mathematical problem to be solved scientifically, or used according to methods prescribed by the state. It had been dragged down to the lowest depths of sensuality by the dance, and its divine origin forgotten in lilting rhythms and soft, lulling rhymes.

On the other hand, the mathematicians, in their cold calculation, reduced music to the utilitarianism of algebra, and even viewed it as a kind of medicine for the nerves and mind. When we think of the music of Pythagoras and his school, we seem to be in a kind of laboratory in which all the tones are labelled and have their special directions for use. For the legend runs that he composed melodies in the diatonic, chromatic, and enharmonic styles as antidotes for moods such as anger, fear, sorrow, etc., and invented new rhythms which he used to steady and strengthen the mind, and to produce simplicity of character in his disciples. He recommended that every morning, after rising, they should play on the lyre and sing, in order to clear the mind. It was inevitable that this half mathematical, half psychologically medicinal manner of treating music would, in falling into the hands of Euclid (300 B. C.) and his school, degenerate into a mere peg on which to hang mathematical theorems. On the other hand, when we think of Greek dances, we seem to pass into the bright, warm sunshine. We see graceful figures holding one another by the wrist, dancing in a circle around some altar to Dionysus, and singing to the strange lilt of those unequal measures. We can imagine the scheme of colour to be white and gold, framed by the deep-blue arch of the sky, the amethyst sea flecked with glittering silver foam, and the dark, sombre rocks of the Cretan coast bringing a suggestion of fate into this dancing, soulless vision. Turning now to Rome, we see that this same music has fallen to a wretched slave’s estate, cowering in some corner until the screams of Nero’s living torches need to be drowned; and then, with brazen clangour and unabashed rhythms, this brutal music flaunts forth with swarms of dancing slaves, shrilling out the praises of Nero; and the time for successful revolution is at hand.

The first steps toward actually defining the new music took place in the second century, when the Christians were free to worship more openly, and, having wealthy converts among them, held their meetings in public places and basilicas which were used by magistrates and other officials during the day. These basilicas or public halls had a raised platform at one end, on which the magistrate sat when in office. There were steps up to it, and on these steps the clergy stood. The rest of the hall was called the “nave” (ship), for the simile of “storm-tossed mariners ” was always dear to the early Christian church. In the centre of the nave stood the reader of the Scriptures, and on each side of him, ranged along the wall, were the singers. The Psalms were sung antiphonally, that is, first one side would sing and the other side would answer. The congregations were sometimes immense, for according to St. Jerome (340–420 A. D.) and St. Ambrose (340–397 A. D.) “the roofs reechoed with their cries of `Alleluia,’ which in sound were like the great waves of the surging sea.”

Nevertheless this was, as yet, only sound, and not music. Not until many centuries later did music become distinct from chanting, which is merely intoned speech. The disputes of the Arians and the Athanasians also affected the music of the church, for as early as 306 A. D., Arius introduced many secular melodies, and had them sung by women.

Passing over this, we find that the first actual arrangement of Christian music into a regular system was attempted by Pope Sylvester, in 314 A. D., when he instituted singing schools, and when the heresy of Arius was formally condemned.

Now this chanting or singing of hymns was more or less a declamation, thus following the Greek tradition of using one central note, somewhat in the nature of a keynote.

Rhythm, distinct melody, and even metre were avoided as retaining something of the unclean, brutal heathenism against which the Christians had revolted. It was the effort to keep the music of the church pure and undefiled that caused the Council of Laodicea (367 A. D.) to exclude from the church all singing not authorized from the pulpit.

A few years later (about 370 A. D.) Ambrose, the Arch-bishop of Milan, strove to define this music more clearly, by fixing upon the modes that were to be allowed for these chants; for we must remember that all music was still based upon the Greek modes, the modern major and minor being as yet unknown. In the course of time the ancient modes had become corrupted, and the modes that Ambrose took for his hymns were therefore different from those known in Greece under the same names. His Dorian is what the ancients called Phrygian, dominant, A; his Phrygian was the ancient Dorian, dominant, C; his Lydian corresponded to the old Hypolydian, dominant, C; and his the old Hypolydian, dominant, C; and his Mixolydian to the old Hypophrygian, dominant, D. These modes were accepted by the church and were called the Authentic modes.

Almost two centuries later, Gregory the Great added four more modes, which were called Plagal or side modes (from Plagios – oblique).

It is easy to see that these so-called new modes are simply new versions of the first four; although they are lowered a fourth beneath the authentic modes (hence the hypo), the keynote remains the same in each instance. Still later two more modes were added to this list, the Ionic, dominant, G, which corresponded to the ancient Greek Lydian; and the AEolian, dominant, E, which, strange to say, was the only one of these newer modes which corresponded to its Greek name-sake. Naturally these two newly admitted modes were also accompanied by their lower pitched attendant modes, the Hypoionic, dominant, E, and the Hypoœolian, dominant, C.

Now all these lower, or derived modes, Hypodorian, Hypophrygian, Hypolydian, etc., received the name Plagal modes, because there was but one tonic or keynote in the scale; consequently a melody starting on any degree of the scale would invariably return to the same tonic or keynote. They differed from the authentic modes, inasmuch as in the latter a melody might end either on the upper or lower tonic or keynote. Thus the melody itself was said to be either authentic or plagal, according to whether it had one or two tonics. The theme of Schumann’s “Etudes symphoniques” is authentic, and the first variation is plagal.

Between the sixth and tenth centuries there was much confusion as to the placing of these modes, but they finally stood as given above. The Greek names were definitely accepted in the eleventh century, or thereabouts; previously, they were known also as the first, second, third, etc., up to the twelfth, church tones or Gregorian modes.

At this point it is necessary to refer again to Ambrose. Apart from having brought the first four authentic modes into church music, he composed many hymns which had this peculiarity, namely, that they were modelled more on the actual declamation of the words to be sung than had hitherto been the case. We are told that his chants — to use the phrase of his contemporary, Francis of Cologne — were “all for sweetness and melodious sound”; and St. Augustine (354-430 A. D.), speaks of them with ecstasy. The words in these hymns were used in connection with small groups of notes; consequently they could be understood as they were sung, thus returning in a measure to the character of the music of the ancients, in which the word and declamation were of greater importance than the actual sounds which accompanied them. But now a strange thing was to happen that was to give us a new art. Now, at last, music was to be separated from language and dance rhythms, and stand alone for the first time in the history of civilization as pure music.

To appreciate the change made by Gregory (540-604 A. D.), it is necessary to bear in mind the state of the church just before his time. As the Ambrosian chant had brought something of the old declamation and sweetness back into the church ceremonial, so also in the church itself there was a tendency to sink back into the golden shimmer that had surrounded the ancient pagan rites. Already Paul of Samosata, Bishop of Antioch (26o A. D.), had striven to bring a certain Oriental magnificence into the church ceremonials. He had a canopied throne erected for himself, from which he would address his congregation; he introduced applause into the church, after the fashion of the Roman theatres; he also had a chorus of women singers, who, as Eusebius tells us, sang not the Christian hymns, but pagan tunes. Later, in Constantinople, even this luxury and pomp increased; the churches had domes of burnished gold, and had become gigantic palaces, lit by thousands of lamps. The choir, dressed in glittering robes, was placed in the middle of the church, and these singers began to show the same fatal sign of decadence that we saw before in Rome and Greece. According to St. Chrysostom (347—407 A. D.), they used unguents on their throats in order to make the voice flexible, for by this time the singing had become a mere vehicle for virtuosity; when they sang their tours de force, the people applauded and waved their handkerchiefs, as they did also when the preaching pleased them. The pagans pointed the finger of scorn at the Christians, as being mere renegades from the old religion, and said, plausibly enough, that their worship was merely another form of the Dionysus tragedy. There was the same altar, the same chorus, the priest who sang and was answered by the chorus; and the resemblance had grown to such an extent that St. Chrysostom (350 A. D.) complained that the church chorus accompanied its singing with theatrical gestures, which, as we know, is simply the first step to-wards the dance.

This was the state of things when Gregory became Pope in 590 A. D. His additions to the modes already in use have been explained. His great reform lay in severing the connection between the music of the church and that of the pagan world before it. Casting aside the declamation and rhythm, which up to now had always dominated pure sound, he abolished the style of church singing in vogue, and substituted for it a system of chanting in which every tie between the words and music was severed.

The music was certainly primitive enough, for it consisted merely of a rising and falling of the voice for the space of many notes on one single syllable.

The difference between this and the Ambrosian chant is evident if we look at the following; and we must also bear in mind that the Ambrosian chants were very simple in comparison with the florid tours de force of the Byzantine church.

Now this reform could not be carried out at once; it was only through the medium of Charlemagne (742—814 A. D.), a hundred years later, that the Gregorian chant was firmly established. Authorized by a synod of bishops, called together from all parts of Europe by Pope Adrian I, Charlemagne, in 774, caused all the chant and hymn books of the Ambrosian system throughout Italy to be burned. So completely was this accomplished that only one Ambrosian missal was found (by St. Eugenius at Milan), and from this work alone can we form any idea as to the character of the music used by the followers of Ambrose, who were much retarded by the lack of a musical notation, which was the next factor needed to bring music to an equality with the other arts.