Chapter 2. The Christian Church in the First Millenium

Chapter Outline


The history of music in medieval Europe is intertwined with the history of the Christian church, which was the dominant social institution for most of the Middle Ages. Religious services were mostly sung or intoned rather than spoken. Many aspects of Western music, from notation to polyphony, first developed within church music. Most schools were part of the church, and most composers and writers on music were trained there. Moreover, because notation was invented for church music, that type of medieval music is the best preserved today. 

This chapter traces the development of the church in the West of its music, including the traditions and values that shaped how music was used and regarded, the standardization of liturgy and music as a unifying force, and the development of notation as a tool for specifying and teaching melody. The church drew on Greek philosophy and music theory, but also fostered practical theory for training musicians. 

Chapter Outline: 

  1. The Diffusion of Christianity
    1. Though Jesus of Nazareth (Christ) was a Jew, he charged his disciples to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19).
    2. St. Paul (ca. 20-ca. 67 C.E.) and other apostles brought Christianity to the Near East, Greece, and Italy.
    3. By 313 Christianity was established in most cities of the Roman Empire, despite persecution.
    4. In 313, Emperor Constantine I (r. 310-37) issued the Edict of Milan, legalizing Christianity.
    5. In 392, Emperor Theodosius I (r. 374-95) made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire and suppressed all others, except for Judaism.
    6. By 600, virtually the entire area once controlled by Rome was Christian and organized by the principles of the empire (see HWM Figure 2.1).
      1. Territories were called dioceses.
      2. A hierarchy headed by patriarchs in Rome and other cities included local churches, bishops, and archbishops.
  2. The Judaic Heritage
    1. Some elements of Christian observances derive from Jewish traditions.
      1. Chanting of Scripture
      2. Singing of psalms (poems of praise from the Hebrew Book of Psalms)
    2. sacrifice at the Second Temple of Jerusalem (destroyed by Romans in 70 C.E.)
      1. Ritualistic sacrifice of an animal (usually a lamb) was an integral part of worship services.
      2. During the sacrifice, a choir of Levites (members of the priestly class) sang psalms.
      3. Trumpets and cymbals were also used.
      4. Priests and sometimes worshipers ate some of the offering, depending on the occasion.
    3. Synagogues
      1. Synagogues were centers for readings and homilies rather than worship.
      2. Scripture was chanted to a system of melodic formulas based on phrase divisions of the text (cantillation).
      3. Readings were assigned to particular days or festivals.
    4. Christian parallels with Jewish practices
      1. Much of the Mass (see HWM Chapter 3) includes rituals similar to Jewish practice.
      2. Jesus’ Last Supper, commemorated in the Mass, is a symbolic sacrifice and related to the Passover meal, which is accompanied by psalm-singing.
      3. Singing psalms is a central element of all Christian observances.
      4. formulae used for singing psalms may have derived from Jewish cantillation.
  3. Music in the Early Church
    1. Biblical references to musical activity
      1. Matthew 26:30 and Mark 14:26 refer to Jesus and his followers singing hymns.
      2. In Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16, Paul exhorts Christians to sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.”
    2. Historical references to Christian music
      1. Pliny the Younger, governor of a Roman province, reported Christians singing “a song to Christ as if to a god” in about 112 C.E.
      2. In the fourth century, official acceptance led to public meetings in large buildings called basilicas (see HWM Figure 2.2).”
      3. Egeria, a Spanish nun on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, described services there ca. 400 C.E. (see HWM Source Reading, page 27).
        1. She describes the Sunday morning Vigil, which would later be called Matins.
        2. Priests sang psalms followed by a response from the congregation.
        3. Prayers followed each of the three psalms.
        4. After the psalms, the basilica was filled with incense and the bishop read from the Gospel (the section of the New Testament that relates the history of Christ’s life).
        5. After the reading, the bishop exited to the accompaniment of hymns.
        6. After the bishop’s exit, there was another psalm and prayer.
    3. Early church leaders (known today as “the church fathers”) encouraged music for sacred purposes only.
      1. St. Augustine (354-430) feared music’s ability to arouse strong feelings (see HWM Source Reading, page 28).
        1. In his Confessions, he describes shedding tears at the psalms.
        2. He believed that feeling strongly inspired by a musical performance was a good thing if the inspiration came from the meaning of the words.
        3. When he was “moved more by the song than by what [was] sung,” it was sinful.
      2. Other church fathers prohibited instrumental music.
        1. Instrumental music, lacking words, could not convey Christian teachings.
        2. They feared evoking pagan practices, such as spectacles involving dancing.
      3. The eternal welfare of the soul was of paramount importance, above earthly enjoyment.
  4. Divisions in the Church and Dialects of Chant
    1. The division of the Roman Empire into two parts in 395 was the most significant division of the early Church.
      1. The Western Empire
        1. Ruled by Rome or Milan
        2. Subject to invasions by Germanic tribes
        3. Collapsed in 476
      2. The Eastern Empire
        1. Centered at Constantinople (formerly Byzantium, now Istanbul)
        2. Survived until Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453.
      3. The western church (Roman Catholic)
        1. Ruled by the bishop of Rome, known as the pope (Italian papa)
        2. After the third century, Latin, the language of the Roman Empire, was the official language of the western church.
      4. The eastern church (Byzantine)
        1. Greek was the official language of the eastern church.
        2. The Byzantine Church is the ancestor of today’s Orthodox churches.
    2. Christian rites
      1. Although each branch of the Church had a different rite, all rites had the same components
        1. A church calendar including special events and times of year
        2. A liturgy (body of texts and ritual actions assigned to each service)
        3. A repertory of plainchant or chant (unison song for prescribed texts)
      2. Chant dialects
        1. Gregorian chant was the most important for the history of Western music.
        2. Other dialects included Byzantine, Ambrosian, and Old Roman.
    3. Byzantine chant
      1. Scriptural readings were chanted with formulas that reflected the phrasing of the text.
      2. Psalms and especially hymns were sung to fully developed melodies.
      3. There were eight modes, or echoi, to classify chants.
      4. Many chant melodies were created from standard formulas through a process called centonization.
      5. Byzantine melodies were the basis for other Orthodox traditions (e.g., Russian), but over time the traditions diverged.
    4. Western dialects
      1. Several European areas had their own rites, with their own liturgy and body of chant.
      2. Milan: Ambrosian chant
        1. Named for St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan from 374-97.
        2. Whether the chants survive from Ambrose’s time is a mystery.
        3. Despite efforts to suppress it, Ambrosian chant survives in Milan today.
      3. Rome was successful in suppressing the chant traditions in other areas.
      4. Gregorian chant is the result of the collaboration of Roman leaders and Frankish (French) kings to codify chant.
  5. The Creation of Gregorian Chant
    1. The Schola Cantorum (School of Singers)
      1. The choir that sang for observances officiated by the pope
      2. Founded in the late seventh century
      3. Helped to standardize chant melodies in the early eighth century
    2. Chant in the Frankish Kingdom
      1. Between 752 and 754, Pope Stephen II traveled through the Frankish kingdom with the Schola Cantorum.
      2. Pepin the Short (r. 751-68), king of the Franks
        1. Ordered the Roman liturgy and chant to be performed in his domain, replacing the native Gallican rite
        2. Codification of chant helped Pepin consolidate the kingdom.
      3. Charlemagne (Charles the Great, r. 768-814)
        1. Pepin’s son
        2. Expanded the kingdom to include present-day western Germany, Switzerland, and northern ItalyBrought singers from Rome to the north to teach the chant.
        3. Pepin’s son
        4. On Christmas Day in 800, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne emperor, initiating the Holy Roman Empire (see HWM Figures 2.3 and 2.4).
    3. Gregorian chant as we know it results from a col lab oration between Frankish and Roman singers.
      1. Some melodies survived unchanged.
      2. Franks may have altered some chants.
      3. Some melodies came from Gallican (regional Frankish) chant.
      4. Some melodies were developed in the Frankish kingdom north after the eighth century.
    4. The Legend of St. Gregory
      1. St. Gregory the Great (Pope Gregory I, r. 590- 604)
      2. Attribution of chant to Gregory I may be due to confusion with Pope Gregory II, r. 715 -731.
      3. The legend claims that the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, dictated the chant melodies to Gregory I (see HWM Figure 2.5).
      4. The English may have originated the legend.
        1. They adopted Roman chant earlier than the Franks.
        2. They revered Pope Gregory I as the founder of their church.
    5. After the Franks adopted Gregorian chant it spread throughout western Europe.
    6. Chant in Rome: Old Roman chant
      1. Manuscripts from the eleventh and twelfth centuries show a different chant being used in Rome.
      2. Texts are the same as Gregorian.
      3. Melodies are more elaborate.
      4. Scholars still dispute whether this tradition represents the original, more elaborate, chant from which Gregorian derived, or a later embellishment to a Gregorian tradition.
  6. The Development of Notation
    1. Oral transmission
      1. After ancient Greek notation had been forgotten, chant was transmitted from memory.
      2. Writer Isadore of Seville (ca. 560-636) wrote that “Unless sounds are remembered by man, they perish, for they cannot be written down.”
      3. Simple melodies may have been memorized.
      4. Complex melodies may have been improvised within strict conventions, like Jewish cantillation and Byzantine centonization.
        1. Other oral traditions use formulas to re-create melodies, e.g., Balkan epic singers.
        2. Some chants seem to have been composed in this way (see HWM Example 2.1).
          • Although each verse is different, they all have the same outline.
          • same cadential formula closes each verse.
        3. When melodies were written down, formulaic structures remained intact.
    2. The earliest chant notation
      1. The attempt to standardize chant depended on reliable transmission from person to person.
      2. Notation, a way to write down music, may have been in use by Charlemagne’s time.
      3. The earliest surviving books of chant with music notation date from the ninth century.
      4. Signs called neumes (Latin neuma, meaning “gestures”) were placed above words (see HWM Figure 2.6).
        1. Neumes may have derived from signs for inflection and accent, similar to accent marks in modern French.
        2. Neumes designated melodic direction, not specific notes.
        3. Melodies were still learned by ear, but the neumes served as reminders.
        4. In the tenth and eleventh centuries, scribes (see HWM Music in Context, page 40) placed heighted or diastemic neumes at varying heights to indicate relative sizes of intervals (see HWM Figure 2.7).
      5. Lines to indicate specific pitches
        1. A horizontal line scratched in the parchment in diastematic notation helped orient the neumes around a specific note.
        2. In some manuscripts the line represented the location of the semitone in the chant, i.e., either F or C, and would be labeled with these letters (the origin of our clefs).
      6. Guido of Arezzo, a monk in the eleventh century, developed a system with additional lines (see HWM Figure 2.8).
        1. Red ink for F, with the letter written in the left margin
        2. Yellow ink for C, with the letter written in the left margin
        3. Between each line would be one note.
        4. This system evolved to a four-line staff, the precursor of the five-line staff still in use today.
        5. Although specific notes were indicated, there was still no sense of absolute pitch.
    3. Solesmes chant notation
      1. In 1903, Pope Pius X proclaimed modern editions created by the monks of Solesmes as the official Vatican editions.
      2. HWM Examples 2.2 and 2.3 show the same chant, the gradual, Viderunt omnes, in Solesmes notation and in transcription.
        1. Example 2.2 begins with an indication of the type of chant (Grad. for gradual), the mode (5), and the first letter of the chant in large typeface (V for Viderunt).
        2. Example 2.3 uses the modern conventions for chant transcriptions-stemless notes, with slurs to indicate notes grouped as neumes in the original.
      3. Features of Solesmes notation
        1. Four-line staff
        2. Either C or F clef (but pitch is relative)
      4. Each note or notegroup is called a neume.
        1. A neume may not have more than one syllable of text.
        2. Composite neumes (notegroups) are read left to right. (E.g., ter- of terrae, which notates c’-a’-c’)
        3. Repeated single-note neumes are sung as if tied or slightly pulsed. (E.g., -te of Jubilate)
        4. Diamond-shaped notes in descending groups are the equivalent of square notes. (E.g., o- of omnes and the final three notes)
        5. Small notes indicate voiced consonants sung with a partially closed mouth. (E.g., -tum of Notum and con- of conspectum)
        6. The quilisma, a wavy neume, may have indicated a vocal ornament in original sources.
      5. Flat and natural (but not sharp) could be notated.
        1. Accidentals are valid until the beginning of the next word or vertical division line.
        2. On omnis both occurrences of B are flatted.
        3. In the following word, terra, a natural sign is not needed because the flat sign from omnis does not carry to a new word.
      6. Solesmes editions were intended for use in church, not scholarship, and therefore have additional signs not in their source manuscripts.
        1. Dots after notes double their value.
        2. Horizontal dashes (present in some medieval sources) indicate a slight lengthening (e.g., the first note of -es of fines).
        3. Vertical lines mark divisions of a melody.
        4. Asterisks show where the chorus takes over from the soloist.
        5. ij and iij indicate repetitions of the preceding phrase, twice and three times respectively (see HWM Example 3.5).
  7. Music Theory and Practice
    1. Two writers transmitted the legacy of Greek music theory: Martianus Capella and Boethius.
    2. Martianus Capella’s treatise The Marriage of Mercury and Philology (early fifth century)
      1. Describes the seven liberal arts
        1. The trivium of the verbal arts: grammar, dialectic, rhetoric
        2. The quadrivium of the mathematical disciplines: geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and harmonics (music)
      2. The section on music is a modified translation of Aristides Quintalianus’s On Music.
    3. Boethius (ca. 480-ca. 524) was the most revered authority on music in the Middle Ages.
      1. Born into a wealthy Roman family
      2. Consul and minister to Theodric, ruler of Italy
      3. He wrote De institutione musica (The Fundamentals of Music) when he was a young man.
      4. His main sources are a long treatise by Nichomachus and Ptolemy’s Harmonics.
      5. Concepts in De institutione musica
        1. The three types of music
          • musica mundana (the music of the universe): numerical relations governing the movement of stars, planets, seasons, and the elements
          • musica humana (human music): unification of body, soul, and their parts
          • musica instrumentalis (instrumental music): audible music produced by voices or instruments
        2. Music’s power to influence character made it important in educating the young.
        3. The study of music through reason was a higher pursuit than the performance of music; therefore, a philosopher of music was the true musician, not a singer or instrumentalist.
    4. Practical theory
      1. In contrast to Boethius’s philosophical approach, many treatises from the ninth century through the later Middle Ages were oriented toward practical concerns.
      2. Musica enchiriadis (Music Handbook) and Scolica enchiriadis (Excerpts from Handbooks)
        1. Anonymous ninth-century treatise with examples
        2. Directed at students who aspired to religious posts
        3. Introduces a system for notating chant
        4. Describes eight modes
        5. Provides exercises for locating semitones in chant
        6. Explains consonances and their use in polyphony (see HWM Chapter 5)
      3. Guido of Arezzo’s Micrologus (ca. 1025-28)
        1. A practical guide for singers, commissioned by the bishop of Arezzo
        2. Covers notes, intervals, scales, modes, composition, and improvisation
  8. The Church Modes
    1. By the eleventh century, the system had achieved its complete form.
    2. Modes can be described as species with different arrangements of whole and half steps in relationship to a final, the main note of the mode and usually the last note in the melody.
    3. Each of the four finals have two associated modes (see HWM Example 2.4a).
      1. Authentic modes range from a step below the final to an octave above it.
      2. Plagal modes range from a fourth or fifth below the final to a fifth or sixth above it.
      3. To medieval singers, each of the eight modes had a distinctive character, even though the two modes on the same final might sound similar to modern ears.
    4. The only chromatic pitch was B-flat, which frequently appears in melodies in modes 1, 2, 4, 5, and 6.
    5. Although the pitch arrangements of the modes seem like octave species (as suggested by HWM Example 2.4b), melodies often exceeded an octave range.
    6. The tenor or reciting tone is the most frequent or prominent note in a chant.
      1. In authentic modes the tenor is a fifth above the final.
      2. In plagal modes the tenor is a third below the corresponding tenor of the authentic mode with the same final.
      3. When the tenor would be a B, it is moved upward to C.
    7. Modes were used to classify chants and arrange them in books for liturgical use.
      1. Many chants fit the theory well (e.g., Viderunt omnes, HWM Example 2.3).
        1. It begins on its final, F.
        2. It rises to its tenor, C, which predominates in most phrases.
        3. It rises to the octave above its final.
        4. The classification of mode 5 fits this chant well.
      2. The theory doesn’t fit chants composed before the eleventh century.
    8. Greek names were given to the church modes in the tenth century, based on a misreading of Boethius (see HWM Example 2.4b).
      1. Authentic modes received the ethnic names.
        1. Dorian (with a final of D)
        2. Phrygian (with a final of E)
        3. Lydian (with a final of F)
        4. Mixolydian (with a final of G)
      2. Plagal modes were prefixed with hypo
        1. Hypodorian (with a final of D)
        2. Hypophrygian (with a final of E)
        3. Hypolydian (with a final of F)
        4. Hypomixolydian (with a final of G)
      3. The attempt to explain their own music theory in Greek terms shows how important it was for medieval scholars to ground their work in Greek tradition.
  9. Solmization
    1. Guido of Arezzo devised a set of syllables for students to use in sight-singing.
    2. The syllables correspond to the first syllables of each phrase of the hymn Ut queant laxis (see HWM Example 2.5).
    3. The syllables ut-re-mi-fa-sol-la correspond to C-D-E-F-G-A.
    4. Guido’s system did not include a syllable for B, which is now designated as ti.
    5. Hexachords
      1. There are three pairs of semitones in chant: E-F, A-B-Flat, B-C
      2. Guido’s six-note pattern (a hexachord) contained only one semitone, between E and F.
      3. By transposing the syllables to F or G, a singer could learn chants with other semitone combinations (see HWM Example 2.6).
      4. Each hexachord has a name.
        1. A hexachord with no B (C-A) is called “natural.”
        2. A hexachord with a B-flat (F-D) is “soft.”
        3. A hexachord with a B-natural (G-E) is “hard.”
        4. The half-step always occurs between the syllables mi and fa.
      5. The lowest hexachord began with a G.
        1. It was ut in the hexachord system.
        2. It was also named with the Greek letter gamma,
        3. The resulting name was gamma-ut, from which the word gamut derives.
      6. A singer would use mutation to change among the three hexachords when learning a new chant (see HWM Example 2.7).
    6. Followers of Guido created a pedagogical aid called the “Guidonian Hand” (see HWM Figure 2.12).
      1. Each joint of the hand stood for one of the twenty notes of the system.
      2. Other notes were considered “outside the hand.”
      3. Teachers pointed to the different joints of the finger to teach their students intervals.
    7. Thanks to Guido’s innovations, a teacher could “produce a perfect singer” in one to two years, instead of the ten years required when teaching by rote.
  10. Echoes of History
    1. Although we do not have information about ancient Jewish or early Christian music, many of their traditions were passed to the medieval church, which in turn influenced future eras of European music.
    2. Developments of the Middle Ages, such as notation on staff lines, solmization, and clef signs, continue to this day and make our knowledge of a thousand years of music history possible.

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