Early Christian Music

Christianity is an ocean into which have flowed the tributary streams of Hebraism and Hellenism, and it is not astonishing that in its music the traces of both are to be found. From the Greek it took over, not with entire comprehension, the system and nomenclature of the modes; from the Jews it took the Psalter, with all its large and fertile implications Probably in the first generations religious music was generally spread among the faithful, and expressed itself in the " psalms and hymns and spiritual songs " enjoined by St. Paul (Eph. v. 19; Col. iii. 16). As the service became more ritualised the musical part was divided between priests and people, as it is in the early Liturgiese.g. that of St. Mark used in Egypt, and that of St. James used at Jerusalemand in the antiphonal singing which was introduced, according to tradition, by no less an authority than St. Ignatius. Then, by a natural continuation of the process, the share allotted to the people gradually diminished, until in the fourth century the Council of Laodicea actually ordained that no one should sing in Church " except the appointed singers who mount the ambo and read from the book." The exact nature of this injunction is a matter of controversy; in any case it is an early symptom of a change which we shall find operating in the Church music of the Middle Ages.;

The forms of the liturgical chant, on which our Church music was largely founded, probably came, in the first instance, from Jewish sources. Greek music was in decadence, its most accomplished exponent the Emperor Nero, and the belief that the chant came from no origin, but was " invented as a Christian folk-song," is merely the aberration of writers who wish to emphasise the warfare between Christianity and Judaism. St. Augustine, writing in the fourth century, gives two interesting accounts of its varieties. At Alexandria, he says, " it was more like speaking than singing "a sort of dry recitative without any melodic life or character: at Milan, he describes, in one of the most famous passages of the Confessions, the delight with which he was ravished by the choir of St. Ambrose. It must be remembered that in religious music alone were the Christians allowed to find a vent for artistic desire. The incredible debasement of the Roman spectacula caused a reaction of asceticism which prohibited, not only the theatre, but all its accessories. " A Christian maiden," said St. Jerome, " ought not to know what a lyre or a flute is or what it is used for "; and even St. Ambrose, the father of all musical Churchmen, pours open scorn upon those who would play on harp or psaltery instead of singing praises to God. In such an atmosphere it was natural that music should be a plant of slow growth, and that it should retard its flowering and the coming of its fruit.

Meanwhile the congregation, ousted little by little from active participation in the service, found its consolation in the non-liturgical hymns, of which a vast number were written and composed during the fourth and fifth centuries. Among the Syrian hymn-writers were Ephraeus and Synesius, among the Greek St. Cosman and St. John Damascene, among the Western St. Hilary, St. Ambrose,, St. Augustine, Fortunatus, and Prudentius, to all of whom our modern hymnologists are in greater or lesser degree indebted. Of the tunes we have none certainly earlier than the tenth century; none, that is, which can be used for contemporary evidence.

It may be of interest to mention some of the hymns in our current use which may be assigned to these early writers. The two Easter hymns, " Come, ye faithful," and " The day of resurrection," are translated from St. John Damascene; " Lord Jesus, think on me," adapted from Synesius; " Hail, gladdening Light," of uncertain authorship, is probably earlier than either. " 0 come. Redeemer," and " The eternal gifts of Christ the King," are from St. Ambrose. " The Royal banners forward go," and " Sing, my tongue, the mystery telling," are from Fortunatus. "Of the Father's love begotten," "Sweet flowerets of the Martyrs' band," and " Earth hath many a noble city," are from Prudentius. These are but few out of many: the Greek hymns, according 'to Neale, were numerous enough to fill eighteen volumes; the Latin authors were hardly less prolific. It is a striking example of vitality and creation at a time through most of which the Church was struggling for bare existence.

So through its early centuries it held up the lamp of Music, which would otherwise have been shattered between Roman luxury and Gothic barbarism. It is not only the religious side of our civilisation which we owe to these early Churchmen; it is in a great measure the artistic side also. Through troubled seas of hostility and persecution they steered their difficult and dangerous course; the reward of their endurance came when, in the year 590, the helm was taken by the firm hand of St. Gregory. To his genius and his power of organisation is due the early establishment of our liturgical music, and so intimately did he infuse it with his own personal zeal that the system which he inherited from St. Ambrose is still currently associated with his name. The extension of the Ambrosian to the Gregorian modes is not in itself a matter of much importance; what is of moment is that the greatest Pope whom the Church had yet seen should lay his seal on the scheme and practice of ecclesiastical music, and should give it direction and authority over the whole extent of his spiritual dominion.


Our chief authorities for Greek Music are Aristophanes (c. 444-380 b.c.); Plato (c. 428-347 b.c.), especially the Republic and the Laws; Aristotle (385-323 b.c.), especially the end of the Politics and Bk. XIX. of the Problems; Aristoxenus (pupil of Aristotle); Plutarch (1st century a.d.); Aristides Quintilianus (end of 1st century a.d.); Ptolemy (2nd century a.d.), and Athenaeus (3rd century a.d.), especially Bk. XIV. Martianus Capella (5th century) and Boethius (6th century) are inheritors of their traditions. Aristoxenus, Aristides Quintilianus and most of the other Greek musical theorists are accessible in the edition of Meibomius. Burney devotes his first volume to Ancient Music, largely Greek and Hebrew. Among recent work special attention should be given to " The Modes of Ancient Greek Music," by D. B. Monro, and a very interesting attempt at reconstruction by Professor Albert Stanley.

Apart from the Old Testament, our most accessible authorities on Hebrew music are Burney, Vol. I., Stainer's " Music of the Bible," Dickenson's " Music in the History of the Western Church," Ch. I., an admirable article by Aldis Wright in Smith's " Dictionary of the Bible," Vol. II., and an equally valuable paper contributed by F. L. Cohen to the Anglo-Jewish Exhibition, London, 1887.