The History Of Music In Church Worship

Early history of music of the Church from Greek, Hebrew, and Syrian influences to contemporary Christian music of the 21st century.

Early music in the church was shaped by Greek, Syrian, and Hebrew influences. Only a dozen or so examples of Greek music from the ancient world exist; but from these, music historians can ascertain that music was a part of early Greek religious ceremonies. It was primarily monophonic unison melody, void of any sort of harmony or contrasting counterpoint. This early music did allow for embellishment with instruments. History reveals that Greek music was based on theories concerning the nature of music and certain accepted systems and patterns for musical compositions.

Syrian monasteries and churches were scenes of early musical elements in worship as well. Antiphonal psalmody and hymns were first present in Syria and then spread to Milan and further west. Antiphonal psalmody was also evident in the Jewish temples. Antiphonal singing means that two choruses sing "back and forth" to each other, much as an echo, though not always identical music.

In the case of Jewish psalmody, the text was based on verses from the Hebrew "Book of Praises," the Biblical Psalms. The Psalms were sung every day in ancient Hebrew temples. Another method for their musical presentation was the responsorial chant where the Levite leaders chanted Psalms accompanied by various instruments, singing one line and then waiting for the congregation to sing the next. The chant that was sung as a solo from the altar was called the "verse" and the congregational choral response was known simply as the "respond."

Hymns followed the psalms, adapting melodies from the early chants. Catholicism developed the Canticle, lyrical portions of the Bible that were sung at specified times of worship. Canticles are a part of today's liturgy in the Roman Catholic Church. The first written chants were associated with Pope Gregory and therefore are remembered in history as "Gregorian Chants."

As early as the Middle Ages, the Mass was deemed the worship service most important in the Catholic Church. It was organized into two types: the Proper Mass and the Ordinary Mass. Historically, the Proper Mass was seasonal and the music depended upon the particular feast that was to be celebrated. Its movements included the Introit, Collect, Epistle, Gradual, Alleluia, Evangelium, Offertory, Secret, Preface, Canon, Communion, and Post-Communion. The Ordinary Mass was used for services from week to week, unaffected by holy days or season. The Ordinary Mass remained the same each service with five musical sections: the Kyria Eleison, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei.

Because the Gregorian Chants were considered sacred, they were utilized in every early Mass. The basic chant was always found in the lower part, the bass line, and was called the Cantus Firmus. Musicians and composers altered the chants by changing rhythms, voice, harmony, countermelody, descant, and imitation, but the chants were always present. History records Machaut as changing the rhythms. Leonin added a harmonic second part. This technique was built upon by Dufay, who arranged a mass for three and four parts all singing different melodies against one another but in chord harmonies. Perotin added countermelody and descant. Ockegheim was a master of the technique of imitation, writing Mass arrangements that focused on one voice but allowed for the echo of another voice in a lower or higher register. Ockegheim also added harmonies, primarily in thirds. Desprez introduced counterpoint to the Mass, where two distinct melodies played independently against each other, often a few beats apart.

As more and more composers added and altered the basic Gregorian melody, the music for Mass became more complex. It was hard to pick out the text or understand the meaning of the words. In some instances, the music itself was so difficult that singers balked at performance. The organist then played the music or improvised on the theme, thus introducing liturgical organ music.

At the Council of Trent, church leaders met to address the problem of the difficult and extremely varied music before them. The first official catechism was formulated. It was decided that the music for worship must be within reasonable bounds as far as its difficulty so that members of the congregation could participate.

Pope Marcellus asked Palestrina to simplify the church's music. Palestrina tackled the job with dignity and style, simplifying presentation but retaining the beauty of the melody. He limited counterpoint. He also sought to magnify the text so that the words became the most important part of the music and it ministered in its presentation rather than mystifying those listening by its complexity.

In the 1600's and 1700's, some of the world's greatest composers contributed to the Mass. Bach composed a Mass in all twenty-four keys! His most famous was the "B-minor Mass." Monteverdi used dissonance and word painting to express the emotion of the words in the Mass. A. Scarlatti introduced the cantata, a religious musical with five to eight movements, soloists, ensembles, and choruses. Handel created the oratorio, a sacred opera with a narrator. Handel's most famous religious work was "The Messiah." Schutz composed "The Seven Last Words," a work that centered on the theme of Christ's last days (or passions). Mozart wrote eighteen masses. Mozart's masses were so lengthy, however, that only portions of them can be used within the time constraints of a church service. Haydn penned fourteen Masses, all positive and happy, focusing on faith in God. His most famous religious contribution was his oratorio, "The Creation."

In the 18th century, religious music expanded beyond all bounds that had ever been set for it. Composers "borrowed" common melodies and even secular/popular songs, rewriting religious words to them. During this period were birthed hymns, anthems, and choruses for both Catholic and Protestant churches. It was often the case that the same melody was used as a hymn and a cantata or mass. For example, Bach's Cantata #80 is based on the hymn "A Mighty Fortress is our God." Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and "Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee" share a melody line.

The 19th and 20th centuries introduced freedom of style in what history calls the "Liturgical Movement." Religious music underwent a transformation to suit a changing and evolving congregation. Liturgies were simplified and often translated into the country's own language. The Liturgical Movement sought to preserve the history of the traditional music in the church, yet design a style of music that would meet the needs of a more modern parishioner. Music was not only simplified but integrated, with pastors and composers setting religious texts to folk melodies to encourage congregations to join in the singing. Examples of famous hymns set to popular tunes are "Amazing Grace" and "There is a Fountain."

In the latter part of the 20th century, a new musical idea once again transformed the music of the church - contemporary Christian music. From the folk rock of the 70's with its guitars and drums to the Christian rap groups of the 21st century, Christian music continues to evolve with artists like Carmen and DC Talk who aspire to preserve the message of the church while meeting the needs of an ever-changing world.

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