Thursday, April 19, 2012

"The Fruit of Our Lips": A Cappella Praise through the Centuries (Part 1)

One of the regrettable misconceptions held about, and even sometimes within the Churches of Christ, is the idea that a cappella singing in worship is one of "our" peculiarities, as though it were a novel and recent development. Nothing could be further from the truth. Though all do not defend the practice on the same doctrinal grounds, a cappella praise in Christian worship is really the historically dominant practice, and can be found not only in the past but in our own times. In this series of posts I want to highlight some of the great Christian a cappella traditions, past and present.

Chant in the Early Church

There is no real question that the early church sang a cappella. This is the only practice of church music clearly taught by the apostles (Colossians 3:16, Ephesians 5:18-19), and confirmed by their example (1 Corinthians 14:15) and by the example of Jesus Christ himself (Matthew 26:30). The Jewish Christian would be unlikely to have carried over the instrumental practices of the temple into the early church; these were seen as proper to the temple itself (2 Chronicles 29:27), so historically the singing of the synagogue was unaccompanied. The video below is the 22nd Psalm sung according to the Yemenite Jewish tradition.

Perhaps Greek Christians could have adapted the tradition of hymns to Apollo, which were accompanied by the harp-like kithara; but though there may be some influence from the overall style of this genre (Pliny the Younger, c. 112 A.D., described them singing "a hymn to Christ, as to a god"), there is no evidence they used the instrumental accompaniment. (For more on the histoy of a cappella singing in the early church, see the work of musicologist James W. McKinnon.)

The earliest known Christian hymn (so far) for which we have music is the Oxyrhynchus Hymn, found on a scrap of papyrus during the 1918 excavations at the Egyptian city of that name.

A portion of the Oxyrynchus Hymn. The small marks above the line
of Greek text are modified letters indicating notes of the scale.

The text as reconstructed in The MacMillan Book of Earliest Christian Hymns reads:
May none of God's wonderful works
Keep silence, night or morning.
Bright stars, high mountains, the depths of the seas,
Sources of rushing rivers:
May all these break into song as we sing
To Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
May all the angels in the heavens reply:
Amen! Amen! Amen!
Power, praise, honor, eternal glory
To God, the only giver of grace.
Amen! Amen! Amen!

This hymn was an unusual find, because very little music in the ancient Greek letter notation has been found at all. It would be centuries before the modern system of graphic notation (notes moving up and down on a staff) would develop, and for much of this earliest period we simply have lyrics alone. Comparison of surviving oral traditions to the existing manuscript version from later eras sometimes allows a fairly good reconstruction of the music.

Chant in the Orthodox Churches of the Mediterranean World

As Christianity spread, a number of different musical traditions emerged. The biggest difference, of course, was that of language--Christians in the eastern part of the Roman Empire used Koine Greek, whereas the western Christians began to use Latin as their common language. Within each of these areas there were regional traditions as well, and traditions in the vernacular languages of different regions.

The churches in the east remain a cappella to this day, with the exception of the Coptic and Ethiopian churches. There are several different liturgies (written-out orders of service including prayers, scripture readings, chants, etc.) still in use that date back to very early times. The oldest still in use is probably the Liturgy of St. James, which traditionally is said to reflect the practice of the early church in Jerusalem. It is still used by the Syriac Orthodox church (headquarters in Damascus), and occasionally by the other branches of Orthodoxy. The next video shows students from the Malankara (Indian) branch of the Syriac tradition, learning to chant the ancient service.

The Eastern Orthodox churches in the heartland of the old Byzantine Empire used Greek koine liturgies, usually those attributed to John Chrysostom and Basil of Caesarea, both incredibly important figures in the eastern churches of the 4th century. Over the centuries, a great many chants have been added, and the harmony has become more complex, though remaining within the bounds of a certain solemn simplicity. The next video is the 1st ode for Christmas Day, written in the 8th century by Cosmas of Jerusalem. The text was translated by John Mason Neale in his Hymns of the Eastern Church, whom the English-speaking world owes a great debt for the rediscovery of this treasure trove of hymns.

The music in the previous video has the very simplest kind of harmony--long, low notes supporting a more rapidly moving melody in a higher register. This is one of the most common ways to add other voice parts to a melody, and is seen in many different kinds of vocal and instrumental folk music around the world. Decorating chants in this fashion is documented in western Europe toward the end of the first millennium, and was an important stage in the development of more complex harmony singing; but it is very beautiful in its own right!

Chant in the Orthodox Churches of Eastern Europe

Missionary efforts from within the Byzantine Empire established Christianity throughout the near East and eastern Europe, and thus there are a cappella Orthodox musical traditions in many other languages besides those of the Mediterranean world. Each country brought its own musical style to bear on the simple framework of harmonized chant; western ears will particularly note the use of a rich variety modal scales, far beyond our typical experience of major and minor! The video below presents the first three Psalms sung by monks of the Romanian Orthodox church.

Many of these Orthodox churches of eastern Europe are well represented in the Americas, in particular the Russian Orthodox community. The different traditions of singing of the Old Slavonic liturgy (shared by many countries) seem to have in common a performance practice that uses very thick harmonies supported by incredibly low bass singing. The lowest notes in this next video go into as many as three ledger lines below the bass staff.

A Cappella Chant in Western Europe

The early church in western Europe also had several different chant traditions, but by the end of the first millennium these had largely yielded to a hybrid liturgy combining the Gallic and Old Roman traditions. The standard language of worship in the west was Latin, though with a few Greek holdovers (such as the "Kyrie eleison"). This drive toward a unified liturgy reflected in part a desire for a unified western Europe in the wake of the collapse of the western half of the Roman empire. Powerful leaders such as Pope Gregory the Great (for whom "Gregorian chant" is named) and the emperor Charlemagne took an active interest in establishing a common rite of worship.

In order to replicate this body of chants, it was necessary to put them in written form and have them taught. At first just the words were given, then around the beginning of the second millennium scribes began to place marks above the words to indicate the rise and fall of the melody. With a system of lines to indicate the degree of rise or fall (a staff), and a letter "C" to indicate middle C (the C clef), a the basics of modern music notation emerged.

One area that still lacked, however, was the notation of rhythm. There is still a certain amount of debate about how to perform Gregorian chant because of this, but the free-flowing, unmetered style is what is best known to most listeners. The following recording is by the monks of the Solesmes Abbey in France, one of the most historically significant institutions in the preservation and modern study of Gregorian chant.

Toward the beginning of the second millennium, the practice of harmonizing chant, known as organum, began to appear in the Gregorian tradition. Just as happened in the east, one of the earliest methods was simply supporting a rapidly moving upper melody with long, low notes. Typically the slow-moving lower voice sang the notes of the original Gregorian chant, while a soloist sang the upper part. Organum was seen as a means to glorify the text for a special occasion; most of the music in a service was still sung as unison chant.

As this music became more and more elaborate, certain monasteries and cathedrals became known for their highly developed musical styles and skilled choirs. The most famous in this time was the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. During the late 12th and early 13th centuries, a distinctive school of organum composition emerged there, eventually expanding the practice to include two or even three voices above the original chant in the slow-moving lowest voice. (One result of this development was that it forced scribes to come up with a method of showing rhythmic values, so that the parts could have some hope of staying together!) The four-part organum below is attributed to the Notre Dame composer Perotin, and probably dates from the early 1200s.

In a later post I hope to look at the more "classical" a cappella choral music that grew out of these early beginnings, particularly in the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox traditions.

Postscript: When Were Instruments Introduced in the West?

A question that naturally arises in the discussion of the music of the medieval Catholic church is the date of the introduction of musical instruments. Bartolomeo Platina, head of the Vatican library in the 15th century, claimed in his Vitæ Pontificum ("Lives of the Popes") that Pope Vitalian (657-72) introduced the organ into the worship service, but this is not well supported. The article on "Organ" in the Catholic Encyclopedia notes that "a strong objection to the organ in church service remained pretty general down to the twelfth century," though the author surmises this was owed to the poor quality of instruments up to that time.(Bewerunge) I believe the evidence supports John Caldwell's theory that the introduction of the musical instruments into Catholic worship occurred in earnest in the late 12th century, coinciding with the development of the more complex part-singing seen in the previous video example.(Caldwell, 14) This does not preclude the possibility of isolated instances prior to that time.

Even at that late date, there is good evidence that this innovation was not welcomed by everyone. There is an oft-repeated quote on this subject from Thomas Aquinas: "Our church does not use musical instruments, as harps and psalteries, to praise God withal, that she may not seem to Judaize." This passage, usually quoted from Bingham's Antiquities, is from Thomas's Summa theologiae, and comes from a context that needs explanation. It occurs in the course of answering the question, "Should God be praised in song?,"(see citation below) in which Thomas was defending the practice of singing itself. The statement quoted above is not from Thomas himself, exactly, but is one of his imagined objections raised to the practice of singing:
Objection 4. Further, in the Old Law God was praised with musical instruments and human song, according to Ps. 32:2,3: "Give praise to the Lord on the harp, sing to Him with the psaltery, the instrument of ten strings. Sing to Him a new canticle." But the Church does not make use of musical instruments such as harps and psalteries, in the divine praises, for fear of seeming to imitate the Jews. Therefore in like manner neither should song be used in the divine praises.
Thomas's answer to this objection is interesting for what it does and does not say:
As the Philosopher says (Politics viii, 6), "Teaching should not be accompanied with a flute or any artificial instrument such as the harp or anything else of this kind: but only with such things as make good hearers." For such like musical instruments move the soul to pleasure rather than create a good disposition within it. In the Old Testament instruments of this description were employed, both because the people were more coarse and carnal--so that they needed to be aroused by such instruments as also by earthly promises--and because these material instruments were figures of something else.
Though Thomas's purpose in writing was to defend the practice of singing in worship, we can safely deduce this much about his view of instrumental music in worship: he accepted without comment the imagined objector's assumption that it should not be used. Not only did he make no attempt to defend the practice (which must have been known to him in Paris), but rather used an argument based on type vs. antitype, carnal vs. spiritual (Hebrews 8, Colossians 2), to explain why they were not used in the Christian dispensation.


Pliny the Younger. Letter to Emperor Trajan.

Bewerunge, Henry. "Organ." Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911.

Caldwell, John. "The Organ in the Medieval Latin Liturgy, 800-1500." Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association , 93rd Sess., (1966-1967), pp. 11-24.
Thomas Aquinas. Summa theologiae, Part II, 2nd part, Question 90.

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