Friday, June 1, 2012

"The Fruit of Our Lips": A Cappella Praise through the Centuries (Part 2)

In the previous post on the history of a cappella singing in Christian worship, it was noted that instruments were never introduced in most of the Orthodox churches, and only became widespread in the Catholic church at a fairly late date (12th-13th centuries). For what this historical fact is worth, for the better part of the two millennia since Christ's first advent, the majority of Christian song has been a cappella.

Pope Benedict XIV and the Annus qui hunc (1749)

Even following the introduction of instruments in the West, their acceptance was hardly universal. One of the most detailed and telling accounts of this fact comes from Pope Benedict XIV in his encyclical Annus qui hunc, delivered in 1749--more than five centuries from the time that the organ had come into widespread use. Among other points about the proper conduct of services and the decorum of the places of worship, Benedict made these interesting comments on objections to instrumental music in worship:
3. The third thing we must advise you is that the musical chant [canto musicale, probably referring to polyphony?--DRH] which is brought into the churches today and commonly is accompanied by the harmony of the organ and other instruments, is to be performed so as not to appear profane, worldly, or theatrical. The use of the organ and other musical instruments is not yet accepted throughout the Christian world. In fact (not to mention the Ruthenians of the Greek Rite, who according to the testimony of Father Le Brun in Explication Miss. (Volume 2, p. 215 published in 1749) do not have the organ or other musical instruments in their churches), Our Pontifical Chapel, as everyone knows, while admitting the musical chant provided that it is sober, decent, and pious, has never admitted the organ; as noted by Father Mabillon [(1632-1707)--DRH], saying: "On Trinity Sunday we witnessed the Pontifical Chapel, as it is called, etc. . . . In these ceremonies no use is made of organ music, but only vocal music in a dignified rhythm is permitted with plainsong."(Mabillon, Museum Italico, Volume 1, p.47, §17).

Grancolas reports that even today there are distinguished churches in France that do not use either the organ or canto figurato in sacred services: "However, there are even today famous Churches of Gaul that do not know the use of organs and music."(Grancolas, Commentario storico del Breviario Romano, ch.17). [Jean Grancolas (1660-1732) was a professor at the Sorbonne and well known as a historian of the Roman liturgy.--DRH]
The famous Church of Lyons, also contrary to the innovations, and according to the present day example of the Pontifical Chapel, has never wanted to introduce the use of the organ: "From what has been said, one understands that musical instruments were not admitted from the beginning, or in all places. In fact, even now in Rome, in the Chapel of the Supreme Pontiff, the offices are still celebrated solemnly without instruments, and the Church of Lyons, which does not know the innovations, has always rejected the organ, and has not accepted it yet." These are the words of Cardinal Bona in his treatise De Divina Psalmodia (ch.17, §2, n.5). [Giovanni Bona (1609-1674), whose study on psalmody was published in 1669. Bona later argues, however, that instrumental music is acceptable in moderation.--DRH]

This being the case, anyone can easily imagine what opinion will be had of us by pilgrims from a region where there is no use of musical instruments, and who, coming to us in our cities, hear it sound in churches as is done in theaters and other profane places. Certainly there are also foreigners of regions where there is singing and the use of musical instruments in the churches, as happens in some of our regions, yet if these people are wise men and animated by true piety, they will certainly feel disappointed not to have found in the song and music of our churches the remedy they wished to apply to cure the evil that rages in their own homes. In fact, leaving aside the argument that sees opponents divided into two camps (those who condemn and detest the use of musical chant and musical instruments in the churches, and on the other hand, those who approve and praise it), there is certainly no one who does not want some differentiation between ecclesiastical and theatrical melodies, and who does not agree that the use of theatrical or profane song must not be tolerated in the churches.

4. We said that there are some who have disapproved and others who have denounced the use of harmonized chant [canto armonico] with musical instruments in churches. The foremost among them in a way could be considered Aelred the abbot, a contemporary and disciple of St. Bernard, who in book 2 of his work entitled Speculum Charitatis writes: "From whence, despite their being discontinued types and figures, whence are the many organs in the churches, the many cymbals? What, pray, is that breath coming out of the terrible bellows, and that expresses the sound of thunder rather than the sweetness of song? What is this contraction and breaking up of the voice? This one sings with accompaniment, the other one sings alone, a third one sings in the highest pitch, and finally a fourth divides some notes in the middle and cuts them off."(Chapter 23, Volume 23, Biblioteca dei Padri, p. 118). [This is Æthelred (1109-1166), head of the Cistercian order in England.--DRH]

We will not begin to affirm that there was not in any church, at the time of St. Thomas Aquinas, the use of the musical chant accompanied by musical instruments. It can be asserted that no such custom existed in the churches known by the holy Doctor, and for this reason it seems he was not favorable to this kind of singing. In fact, in treating the question in the Summa Theologica (2, 2, quest. 91, Art. 2), "whether one should use song in the praises of God," he says yes. But to the fourth objection that he formulated, that the church is not accustomed to use musical instruments in the divine praises, such as the lyre and the harp, that it may not seem to want to Judaize--according to what we read in the Psalm: "Confitemini Domino cythara, in psalterio decem chordarum Psallite illi, (Give thanks to the Lord with the kithara, sing Psalms unto Him with a harp of ten strings)"--he replies: "These musical instruments excite pleasure rather than having the inner piety; they were used in the Old Testament because the people were more coarse and carnal, and it was necessary to lure them by use of these instruments, as also with earthly promises." He adds that the instruments in the Old Testament had the qualities ​​of a type or foreshadowing of certain realities: "Also because these material instruments represent other things." [For more on Thomas Aquinas's comments, see the previous post in this series.--DRH]

Concerning Pope Marcellus II, it has been handed down from history that he had decided to abolish the music in the churches, reducing ecclesiastical song to plainchant. This can be seen from reading the biography of that pontiff written by Pietro Polidori, just now deceased, formerly a recipient of a benefice from the Basilica of St. Peter, and a man known among the literati. [Modern scholarship has downplayed the involvement of Marcellus in the church music debates of the Counter-Reformation, and has shown that a return to a uniform practice of a cappella Gregorian chant was never very likely in any case. But it is a fact that there were at least some Catholic leaders who favored such a reform, even in the 1500s.--DRH]

In our own day we saw that the Cardinal Tommasi, a man of great virtue and an eminent liturgist, did not want the sound of music in his titular church of San Martino ai Monti on the feast of this saint in whose honor the Church is dedicated. He did not want music at either the Mass or Vespers, but ordered that in the sacred services one was to use plainchant, as is customarily done by the monks. [Giuseppe Maria Tommasi (1649-1713)--DRH]
(A better translation of the entire document is available in Robert F. Hayburn's Papal Legislation on Sacred Music (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1979), but I did not want to take the liberty of quoting such an extended passage. Information in my supplementary comments is from the Catholic Encylopedia Online, 1913 ed.)

In all fairness, Benedict XIV goes on to take up the other side, and reviews the apologists for instrumental music in worship as well. He cites (among others) John of Salisbury (c. 1115-1180), the bishop of Chartres; Antoninus of Florence (1389-1459), a prominent theologian; Cardinal Bellarmine (1542-1621), a noted Jesuit scholar of the Counter-Reformation; Cardinal Cajetan (1469-1534); Cardinal Baronius (1538-1607), an eminent church historian; Silvio Antoniano (1540-1603), an early scholar of Christian education; and Antoine Bellotte (d. 1667), a liturgical historian.

Benedict himself, of course, came down on the side of retaining instrumental music in worship while attempting to reform the more egregious abuses of its usage in his day. But even in this section supporting his view, there are two striking facts against the instrument. In the first place, the only early source he cites that gives unqualified approval to instrumental music in worship is John of Salisbury in the 12th century, whose contemporary Æthelred is even more vociferously opposed to the practice. Almost all his supporting sources are from the Renaissance and later.

In the second place, even the authorities Benedict cites in favor of using instruments in worship, frequently qualify their statements as though excusing the practice rather than endorsing it. Bellarmine says that "as the organ should be retained in the churches for the sake of the weak, so other instruments should not be casually introduced." Cajetan admits that the organ is an "innovation," but likewise excuses it for the sake of those "who are still carnal and imperfect." Baronius airily claims that "no one can justly disapprove, after so many centuries, that the church has introduced the use of organs." Silvio Antoniano makes virtually the same statement. This is really no argument at all, and besides, it had been only a few centuries at that time, compared to the centuries during which a cappella singing was nearly universal. Finally, Bellotte introduces this familiar assertion: "One should see no impropriety in the musical instruments themselves, if the church has made ​​use of singers in the music, but of musical instruments only in recent centuries. The reason is only that the pagans [of the early Christian era--DRH] used such musical instruments for lewd and immoral purposes, specifically in the theaters, at feasts, and at sacrifices." The more well-informed research of the Catholic scholar Dr. James W. McKinnon (1932-1999) has given the lie to this assumption--see his Music in Early Christian Literature (Cambridge University Press, 1989).

Sistine Chapel Choir

Among other interesting holdouts against the use of instruments, the most notable institution mentioned in this document is the pope's own private singers, the Schola Cantorum Romana or Sistine Chapel Choir. This group dates back at least as far as 6th century, when Gregory the Great made arrangements for a permanent group of select singers attached to the Church of St. John Lateran; these singers accompanied all services conducted by the pope, and traveled with him when he went abroad. When the Sistine Chapel was completed in the 15th century, all papal services were conducted there, and the choir has been associated with that worship space ever since.(Otten, "Sistine")

Josquin's signature on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel
Graffiti from the Sistine choir loft
dating back to the Renaissance.
Josquin des Prez signature at center.
Though the choir has had its ups and downs over the centuries, it is difficult to overstate the importance of this instution to the history of music in the Renaissance and Baroque. In an era when the most steady work for musicians was with the church, the Sistine Choir frequently boasted the best singers and composers of a generation. (It continued to have great singers and composers in later centuries as well, but increasing opportunities in secular music meant that churches no longer had such a monopoly on talent.) And though there was by that time a tradition of using instruments to double voices in sacred music, it was still the practice--as Benedict XIV witnesses--to sing a cappella in the pope's own "cappella." Some of the most beautiful unaccompanied choral music ever written came from these composers. 

Josquin des Prez (c. 1450?-1521), a member of the Sistine Choir from 1489-1495, was one of the key figures in the transition to the mature Renaissance style. Standing on the shoulders early Renaissance giants such as Johannes Ockeghem, Josquin took the beautiful yet still somewhat medieval sounds of the 15th century and refined them, with his systematic approach to counterpoint, into something much more modern. At the risk of bland over-generalization, it is not too much to say that without Josquin, there would have been no Palestrina, and without Palestrina, no Bach, at least as we know them; the development of harmonic counterpoint, one of the crowning achievements of Western classical music, lies in a direct road back to Josquin.

The video below is the Agnus Dei from Josquin's Missa L'Homme arme (mass based on the secular tune "The man at arms"). It is one of his works that is fairly definitely dated from his time with the Sistine Choir. In a mass, the Agnus Dei is sung during the breaking of the communion bread by the priest. The text is an elaboration on John 1:29, repeated three times:
Agnus Dei,
qui tollis peccata mundi,
miserere nobis.

Agnus Dei,
qui tollis peccata mundi,
miserere nobis.

Agnus Dei,
qui tollis peccata mundi,
dona nobis pacem.
Lamb of God,
who takes away the sins of the world,
have mercy on us.

Lamb of God,
who takes away the sins of the world,
have mercy on us.

Lamb of God,
who takes away the sins of the world,
grant us peace.

In the middle and late 1500s, the Sistine Choir was graced with the composer who more than anyone defined the classic a cappella style in Catholic church music--Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594). His actual membership was rather short--a new pope, Paul IV, insisted on enforcing the rule that all papal singers be in holy orders, and Palestrina as a married man could not comply.(Otten, "Palestrina") But his compositions were sung by the choir, and held in such high esteem by the popes that his work became an examplar in the church music debates at the Council of Trent. In later generations his music was held up as the standard of Renaissance counterpoint, and became the foundation of the "species" method of counterpoint still taught today.

The legends of Palestrina's saving Western music from the hands of the extremists in the Council of Trent have been shown to be overstated. There were some on the council who wished to revert to the sole use of Gregorian chant throughout the Catholic church, avoiding the questions of modern musical styles. There were even a few who were opposed to any use of instruments. But these were always a minority, and the council's actual decisions reflected very little change. The overall spirit of the times, however, was in favor of Palestrina's approach--clear, careful setting of the text, smooth, flowing counterpoint, and a deliberate adherence to the old modal scales of Gregorian chant. The video below is one of Palestrina's most popular motets among a cappella choirs worldwide. The text is Psalm 42:1, "As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God."

One final highlight from this golden age of a cappella music in the Sistine Chapel must be mentioned--the lovely Miserere setting by Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652), written for the Sistine Chapel services on Good Friday. In an era when copyright laws were loose or nonexistent, and plagiarism was a high compliment, this music was closely guarded as the exclusive property of the Sistine Choir for use in that service once each year. Legend purports that it was forbidden to be written down, but was instead taught by rote from generation to generation. The earliest written copy was supposedly made by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who reportedly wrote it down from memory after attending the Good Friday service in Rome. (It is totally believable that Mozart could have done this, but the copy written in his hand has never turned up.) Not surprisingly, there are several conflicting versions of this work, and the most popular one today--with the soaring high C--is probably the result of modifications to Allegri's work by later composers and by the singers themselves.(Byram-Wigfield)

Though this was well into the early Baroque, Allegri wrote this work almost as a "throwback;" the verses of the Psalm alternate between unison chant and a simple, hymn-like style of harmonization that might have been heard in earlier centuries.  This setting of the 51st Psalm, one of King David's most heartfelt expressions of penitence, is a haunting and moving reminder of the reason Jesus went to the cross.

King's College Choir, Cambridge

The Anglican A Cappella Tradition

To say that positions relative to instrumental music in worship were diverse in the Church of England during the Reformation is to state the obvious; positions on practically everything were up in the air, as a divided nation tried to find a national religion. The Catholics and "high church" nobility wanted to retain instruments in worship; the rising Puritan party did not. The latter may have been influenced as much by anti-Romanism as by any doctrinal argument, but once John Calvin and others had raised the question of Scripturalness and of the restoration of primitive Christian practice, it was generally true that the more reform-minded a person was, the less likely to favor instrumental music in worship.

What is rather surprising is the degree to which the a cappella position took hold during the Elizabethan era. Jonathan P. Willis, in his excellent new work Church Music and Protestantism in Post-Reformation England, has done painstaking study of surviving documents on the use of organs in English churches, and concludes:
It is reasonably likely that in the 1560s and early 1570s, where churches ceased documenting expenditure on organs which had been regularly maintained up until that point, we are witnessing a de facto removal of the instrument, at least from regular use, as at Holy Trinity Coventry, Wandsworth, Banwell, and St Philip and St Jacob Bristol.(Willis, 93)
And it was not only in the parish churches that this trend took root. Willis notes the banning of the organ in services at Winchester College by Bishop Horn in 1571, and at York Minster by Archbishop Holgate in 1552. In 1570 the church authorities at Lincoln Cathedral ordered their choirmaster to use the organ only for giving the singers their pitches.(Willis, 140-141)

Neither was this just a hobby among reactionary Puritans, though it has often been portrayed as such. Percy Dearmer, in his Everyman's History of the Prayer Book, notes that in the 1562 Convocation of the Clergy which produced the 39 Articles, the lower House of Convocation came within one vote of passing a resolution abolishing instrumental music in worship. He calls this "the insanity of a wild reaction," a "madness which fastened upon England."(Dearmer, ch. 8) But Willis notes that this "madness" included Dean Nowell of St. Paul's Cathedral and Dean Sampson of Christ Church Cathedral, both of whom also voted for a cappella music in 1562.(Willis, 140)

The career of Thomas Tallis (whose famous canon appears in Praise for the Lord #21, "All praise to Thee, my God, this night") demonstrates the complexity of religious loyalties in English church music of this period. Though he remained a Roman Catholic throughout, he served the Chapel Royal under the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary, and Elizabeth I, adjusting his musical style to suit the prevailing mood. He composed many of the earliest musical settings for the reformed services under Archbishop Cranmer, and even contributed a set of tunes for use with Archbishop Matthew Parker's new metrical Psalter. Tallis's setting of the 2nd Psalm, "Why fum'th in fight the Gentiles spite" is a haunting use of the Phrygian mode (E-F-G-A-B-C-D-E), and was the basis of Ralph Vaughan Williams's famous Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis.

Though Tallis himself probably had no compunction about instruments in worship, he led the way in the development of the a cappella English anthem. Below is one of his most popular works in this genre, based on Christ's reassuring words in John 14:15-17a.

Aarhus Baroque Choir, Denmark

During the (relatively brief) a cappella period at Lincoln Cathedral, mentioned above, the choirmaster who used the organ merely to sound the singers' starting notes was no less than William Byrd (1540?-1623), Tallis's star pupil and the next great English composer of the Tudor era.(Willias, 141) Like his teacher, Byrd was a practicing Roman Catholic who nonetheless composed according to the dictates of his employers. Though he also wrote accompanied sacred works, and was also a major figure in secular music, he made a lasting contribution to the Anglican a cappella tradition.

One of Byrd's works written around the time of the a cappella restriction at Lincoln was "O Lord, make Thy servant Elizabeth our queen," an adaptation of Psalms 21, 2, and 4.(Bray, 62) This beautiful prayer for God's blessing on the monarch was not only patriotic, but personal; Byrd was no doubt eager to enter the Chapel Royal where his mentor Tallis had found haven for so many years. He did so just a few years later.

Russian Orthodox Choral Music

As mentioned in the previous post on this subject, the Orthodox churches with very few exceptions have retained the a cappella practice down through the centuries, developing unaccompanied music of various types according to the influences of their own native musical styles. The music of the Russian church, however, took a distinctive turn owing to its unique cultural position facing both to the West and to the East. In the middle part of the 16th century, the powerful Russian patriarch Nikon brought about sweeping changes in the liturgy, and encouraged the cultivation of church music written in contemporary European styles--though retaining the a cappella practice.

This period of reform in the church was followed by the Western-oriented and modernizing reign of Peter the Great, and the new style of choral church music became firmly established. In addition to those composers who devoted most of their work to church music, it was quite typical for more secular-oriented composers to write a cappella choral works for the church as well. Many of the most famous names in music history participated in this tradition.

The video below is a setting by Nikolai Diletsky (c.1630-c.1680) of the first of the canticles for Easter, a text dating back to John of Damascus (d. 749). The lyrics are as follows: "Resurrection day, let us be radiant, O peoples! Pascha, it is the Lord’s Pascha; for Christ God has brought us from death to life, and from earth to heaven, as we sing the triumphal song."

Kiev Chamber Choir

Diletsky was probably Ukrainian, educated in Poland, and worked in various countries; he was also prominent as a music theorist.("Diletsky") His work demonstrates a balance between the Slavic traditions of harmonized chant and a Western-oriented counterpoint and disposition of voices; this would be characteristic of the new choral tradition.

Dmitri Bortniansky (1751-1825) is representative of the next phase of the Russian Orthodox choral tradition, receiving his training in Italy and firmly entrenched in a Western style of composition. Though tastes would change after his time from Italian to German, a Westernized approach tended to prevail until late in the 19th century. Ironically, it was a setting of the Chrysostom Liturgy by Tchaikovsky--usually a rather Western-oriented composer himself--that signaled a move back toward the Slavic roots of the style.(Moody)

The following video is Bortniansky's setting of the "Cherubs' Hymn," which translates as follows:
We, who mystically represent the Cherubim,
And chant the thrice-holy hymn to the Life-giving Trinity,
Let us set aside the cares of life
That we may receive the King of all,
Who comes invisibly escorted by the Divine Hosts.
(Translation from
Tchaikovsky's particular contribution to the tradition was to embrace the rich beauty of the thick harmonies of the old chant style, as seen in his setting of the Lord's Prayer.

Since that time, a more distinctly Slavic approach has been followed. Some major names in this beautiful a cappella tradition in the early 20th century (before the official suppression of the church in the USSR, but continuing abroad) were Gretchaninoff and Archangelsky, and also composers more well known for their secular music, such as Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky.


Otten, Joseph. "Sistine Choir." Catholic Encylopedia (1913) Online.

Otten, Joseph. "Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina." Catholic Encyclopedia (1913) Online.

Byram-Wigfield, Ben. "Allegri's Miserere." Ancient Groove Music, 2009.

Willis, Jonathan P. Church Music and Protestantism in Post-Reformation England: Discourses, Sites and Identities. St. Andrews Studies in Reformation History. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, 2010.

Dearmer, Percy. Everyman's History of the Prayer Book. London: A. R. Mowbray, 1912.

Bray, Roger. "William Byrd's English Psalms." Psalms in the E

"Nikolay Diletsky." Wikipedia.

Moody, Ivan. "An Outline History of Russian Sacred Music."

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed your post. So much info.Thanks for the good work