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Christian Church, music of the earlylocked

  • James W. McKinnon

The musical practices and attitudes of Christians from Apostolic times to the mid-5th century ce. The definition of early Christian music is broader than that of formal ecclesiastical chant. It embraces not only the psalmody of the Mass and Office but also the great variety of hymnody, psalmody, declamation and acclamation employed by Christians in any number of settings from eucharistic gatherings to night-time vigils. It includes, moreover, the hymns of heretical groups, and, finally, the attitudes of Christians towards every aspect of music, whether it be their own liturgical song, the diverse manifestations of pagan music or the classical philosophy and theory of music.

I. History

1. Background and scope.

The choice of the mid-5th century as the date by which to limit the following discussion of early Christian music is appropriate for two reasons. First, by this time the golden age of patristic literature in both East and West had come to an end; eminent figures such asAmbrose (d 397),john Chrysostom (d 407),Jerome (d 419/420) andAugustine (d 430) had all passed from the scene, and with their deaths the abundant stream of evidence about Christian music dwindled to a trickle. The second reason is related to the first: the mid-5th century witnessed the end of an historic era. The back of the Roman Empire had been broken by barbarian incursions, and even if the East managed to maintain some semblance of the ancient order, the West was devastated and the cultural bonds that had unified the people of the Mediterranean basin were irrecoverably severed. The result of this for liturgy was that the roughly homogeneous liturgical practice that had developed during the 4th century came to be fragmented. East and West went their separate ways, and the West in particular developed the divergent liturgical dialects known as the Mozarabic, Gallican, Ambrosian and Roman.

The principal languages of early Christian music were Greek, Latin and Syriac. The very first Christians, and indeed Jesus himself, spoke Aramaic (Hebrew had become a literary language by his time), but with the spread of Christianity to the Gentiles by way of Paul's mission, Greek became the dominant early Christian language. In the wake of the Alexandrian conquests, Greek had become the principal language of the eastern Mediterranean basin, particularly in the cities and seaports. This Greek, known as the koinē(the ‘common’ tongue), a grammatically simplified form of classical Greek, was also spoken in parts of the West; the Christian community at Rome itself spoke it until well into the 3rd century, and there were traces of spoken Greek in the Rhône valley as late as the 6th century. Latin, however, had always been the language of Christianity in the western reaches of North Africa, and from the 3rd century was all but universally spoken among Western Christians. Syriac, a dialect of late Aramaic, was the language of the Mesopotamian region. With the spread of Christianity to that area, an important literature developed, including some of the earliest translations of the Bible and an extensive body of patristic writings. The latter is especially remarkable for its religious poetry; the hymns of figures such as Ephrem Syrus (d 373), Narsai (dc503) and Jacob of Serugh (d 521) are generally acknowledged to have exercised considerable influence on Byzantine hymnography.

In the 5th century the Bible and the Syriac liturgy were translated into Armenian. An Armenian hymnody had its beginnings during the same period, but its history belongs more to the Middle Ages than to the early Christian period. (See also Armenia, Republic of, §II.) The same can be said for the music of the Coptic rite. The Coptic language was a survival of the ancient Egyptian tongue, written by and large with Greek letters. The liturgy of Christian Egypt was at first in Greek but was translated into Coptic for the population of the Upper Nile region. The music that survives today from this rite is considerably later than the period under consideration here. The Coptic monks of the 4th century, however, were the dominant force in early Christian monasticism, and their psalmodic practices had a profound influence on the formation of both Eastern and Western Offices. (See also Coptic church music.)

Patristic literature presents a pervasive problem for the study of early Christian music in that most authors use the terms ‘psalm’ and ‘hymn’ interchangeably. In the following discussion, modern usage is employed: ‘psalm’ refers to a psalm of the Hebrew Psalter, and ‘hymn’ to a non-biblical composition.

2. 1st-century origins.

The origins of Christian song are extremely difficult to trace. Indeed the subject remains obscure even between the later 2nd and earlier 4th centuries, a period in which the evidence becomes relatively more plentiful. Not until the later 4th century, the peak period of patristic production, was a measure of clarity achieved. Moreover, it is not only insufficient evidence that makes the earlier centuries so difficult to understand; it is highly probable that the musical practices were themselves in a state of considerable fluidity until the later 4th-century consolidation and standardization of liturgical usage.

The subject has been rendered all the more obscure in recent years because it has lost one of its principal certainties. Most liturgical and music historians had long assumed that the early Christian liturgy was adopted from Jewish ritual practices. Now, however, it appears that for all the obvious general influence of Judaism upon Christianity – Christianity after all originated as a Jewish sect – it is often a mistake to trace Christian liturgical usage to specific Jewish practices. In many cases the Jewish rites in question did not yet exist in the 1st century, but neither did their purported Christian counterparts. This applies most notably to the ancient Synagogue service and the pre-eucharistic synaxis, or Fore-Mass, as it came to be called. The Synagogue service was thought to have consisted of four elements – reading, discourse, psalmody and prayer – and to have been adopted en bloc by the first Christians. It is true that the reading of scripture and commentary upon that reading was customary in the synagogues of the 1st century; indeed Jesus himself participated in the practice (Lukeiv.16). And it is not unlikely that some sort of prayer might have accompanied the synagogal readings, although there is no positive evidence for it. But at this time it was the Temple that was looked upon as the centre of Jewish worship, and all the evidence suggests that a stable and formalized Synagogue service of prayer was established only after the Temple’s destruction by the Romans in 70 ce. And even then it was developed only gradually, indeed reluctantly, as a temporary substitute for the Temple service; the hope that the Temple and its ritual would be restored remained alive in Judaism for centuries. As for psalmody, its regular practice is not attested in the sources until the 8th-century tractate Sopherim, which tells how the recitation of the daily Temple psalm was finally allowed in the Synagogue as a surrogate for its original performance at the moment of sacrifice.

But again, to deny the Christian adoption of specific Jewish rituals is not to deny a more general, indeed more profound, influence of Judaism upon early Christian worship. At issue here is the status of the Temple among Jews at the time of Jesus. The Temple of Jerusalem shared a common ritual pattern with the pagan temples of antiquity. It was fundamentally different from a church or synagogue, whereby a congregation would gather within a room for instruction and prayer; rather, the people stood in a temple square and looked on as priests slaughtered the sacrificial animals. The sacrificial act was generally accompanied by the playing of musical instruments, which performed magical functions such as the frightening away of unwanted demons. It is not true, as many have maintained, that the more enlightened Jews had by the dawn of the Christian era rejected this form of worship in favour of the Synagogue; most Jews of the time remained loyal to the Temple and its ritual, even though they were engaged in the process of creating new religious resources. They developed a complex ethical code and a pervasive habit of prayer, and they established a canon of sacred books, among them the incomparable Book of Psalms. It is true that the Synagogue, though as much a civic as a religious institution, was the centre of a considerable portion of this activity, particularly those aspects of it that involved instruction. But just as important was the home; indeed Jesus berated the hypocrites who prayed publicly in the synagogues and on the street corners rather than in the privacy of their homes (Matthewvi.5). And within the home the event that was the focus of the most intense religiosity was the evening meal, which was also an event of special musical significance.

The first Christians maintained the religious practices of their Jewish background. They continued to worship in the Temple and to gather for instruction and discussion in the Synagogue, but there was an increased emphasis upon the sacral meal – now a communal rather than family meal – frequently referred to as the ‘breaking of bread’. As the new religion spread beyond the borders of Palestine with Paul's mission, the converts were no longer expected to worship in the Temple, and after an initial period of controversy they came to be exempted from the more onerous aspects of the Mosaic Law such as circumcision. Meanwhile, the process of conversion was carried out in the synagogues and other public places, but the proper ritual gathering of the faithful was the communal meal, which was usually held in the home of some Christian prominent in a particular locality. It is not certain whether every mention in the New Testament of the ‘breaking of bread’, or of related terms such as ‘the Lord's supper’, refers to a eucharistic celebration, but certainly many of them do.

The precise nature of the primitive eucharistic celebration is not known, even if it is no longer thought to consist of a preliminary Synagogue-derived service of reading, psalmody, prayer and discourse, followed by a formal ritual meal. Rather than a split between a service of instruction and the Eucharist proper, there was probably a sacral meal in which instruction was frequently an integral part. But not much can be said with any certainty beyond that; indeed the likelihood is that there was no set pattern but rather a variety of practices. The process whereby the Eucharist came to be separated from the evening meal and was celebrated in the morning, preceded by a discrete service of instruction, cannot be traced; it is possible to observe only that this classic pattern is manifested in Justin Martyr's mid-2nd-century description of the Roman Eucharist (see §I, 3 below).

The musical aspect of the Eucharist while it was still celebrated in conjunction with an evening meal is also a matter for speculation. Two factors make it probable that singing was not uncommon at this meal. First, musical diversion of some sort has been a constant feature of the common evening meal throughout history, and the meals of late antiquity were no exception. Once the evidence becomes more abundant in the 3rd century, the custom can be observed among the pagans of the time, among the Jews and indeed among the Christians. Secondly, the New Testament, even if its references to music are notoriously difficult to interpret, creates an unmistakable general impression of enthusiasm for sacred song.

As for the nature of this singing, it is generally believed that it consisted of newly created material rather than Old Testament psalms. For example, when Paul said to the Corinthians ‘What then, brethren? When you come together each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation’ (1 Corinthians xiv.26–7), it seems that he was referring to individual contributions of the congregation. The Corinthians, it is true, were notoriously individualistic in their style of worship, but they differed from other Christians in this respect only by a matter of degree. Many scholars find the New Testament to be permeated with fragments of liturgical hymns, and they consider the canticles of Luke's Gospel (the Magnificat, the Benedictus and the Nunc dimittis) to be complete hymns that were sung in the liturgy of the time. But this is a highly problematic view. With respect to the fragments, it can be argued that the majority of them are simply examples of rhetorical rather than hymnic language, just as it can be argued that the Lukan canticles were the evangelist's own creation rather than contemporary liturgical hymns. Whatever the truth on this question of New Testament hymnic quotation, few are inclined to deny that hymns of some sort were sung at the primitive Eucharist.

In addition to the singing of full-length hymns, which would probably have been performed by individuals, the entire congregation must have participated in short acclamations and responses. In the enthusiastic atmosphere of the time, one-word acclamations like ‘Amen’, ‘Alleluia’ and ‘Maranatha’ must have been common, as well as somewhat longer exclamations such as doxologies or perhaps favourite psalm verses. These were possibly chanted in response to prayers and readings, which themselves might have been declaimed rather than read.

And what of the Old Testament psalms? Recent scholarship, in emphasizing the prevalence of newly created material over the Davidic psalms, may have gone too far in its exclusion of the latter. It is said that the Old Testament Psalter was considered at this time in both Judaism and Christianity as more a book of readings than a hymnbook. Although there is undoubtedly some truth in this, the obviously musical character of the psalms cannot be denied. Smith (1990) has shown that considerably more than two-thirds of the psalms were sung at one time or another in the Temple. So while it is true that there was no ritual pattern of psalmody in the Synagogue of the time, and probably nothing of the sort in the early Church either, it is entirely reasonable to suppose that the first Christians would have sung selected psalms on occasion.

3. 2nd and 3rd centuries.

There exists one particularly clear description of the Eucharist from the mid-2nd century, that of Justin Martyr (dc165). The portion that describes the pre-eucharistic synaxis reads as follows:

On the day named for the sun there is an assembly in one place for all who live in the towns and in the country; and the memoirs of the Apostles and the writings of the Prophets are read as long as time permits. Then, when the reader has finished, he who presides speaks, giving admonishment and exhortation to imitate those noble deeds. Then we all stand together and offer prayers. (First Apology, 67)

The precision of Justin's description is striking; he presents each element of the synaxis in sequence, separating them by some adverb that means ‘then’. Reading, discourse and prayer are cited, but not the fourth element of the later synaxis, psalmody. Justin's description tallies in this respect with that of the early 3rd-century Carthaginian Tertullian (dc225): ‘I myself shall now set down the practices of the Christian community … We come together to surround God with prayer … We gather together to consider the divine Scriptures … And at the same time there is encouragement, correction and holy censure’ (Apologeticum, xxxix.1–4). But on another occasion the same author speaks of a charismatic woman who goes into ‘an ecstasy of the spirit’ during the Sunday liturgy: ‘The material for her visions is supplied as the scriptures are read, psalms are sung, the homily delivered and prayers are offered’ (De anima, ix.4). Although the last of these three descriptions mentions ‘psalms’, it must be pointed out that the context of the description is probably a service of the enthusiastic Montanist heresy. The ‘psalms’, moreover, may very well have been heretical hymns, as is suggested by other passages in the writings of Tertullian where he speaks scornfully of heretical ‘psalms’. On balance the rather scanty evidence creates the impression that psalmody was not a formally acknowledged feature of the 2nd- and 3rd-century pre-eucharistic synaxis; however, the possibility that it was present on occasion cannot be excluded.

That singing was typical of the earliest eucharistic gatherings but not as common in the Eucharist of the 2nd and 3rd centuries should not be surprising in view of the rite’s separation from the evening meal. In fact there is considerable evidence from the 3rd century that singing continued to be a frequently encountered practice at the communal evening meals of Christians, whether these meals were the so-called agapē (‘love feast’), at which the poor were fed, or simply informal social occasions involving Christians. There is, for example, a passage from Cyprian of Carthage (d 258) that shows a particularly warm appreciation of sacred song:

Now as the sun is sinking towards evening, let us spend what remains of the day in gladness and not allow the hour of repast to go untouched by heavenly grace. Let a psalm be heard at the sober banquet, and since your memory is sure and your voice pleasant, undertake this task as is your custom. You will better nurture your friends, if you provide a spiritual recital for us and beguile our ears with sweet religious strains. (Ad Donatum, xvi)

It was mentioned above that Tertullian was disturbed by the phenomenon of heretical hymns. In one instance he contrasts the psalms of David with the hymns of Valentinus: ‘Not the psalms of that apostate, heretic and Platonist, Valentinus, but those of the most holy and illustrious prophet David. He sings among us of Christ, and through him Christ indeed sang of himself’ (De carne Christi, xx.3). Valentinus was not the only heretical hymnodist of the early 3rd century. Bardaisan of Edessa (d 222) composed a collection of 150 hymns in imitation of the Davidic Psalter, which his son Harmonios is said to have set to music. It was Bardaisan's work that spurred on the great poet Ephrem Syrus (d 373) to compose his own orthodox Christian hymns.

The passage of Tertullian quoted above may be taken to imply that Old Testament psalms came to be sung in the 3rd century only as a reaction to heretical hymns: psalms were canonical scripture and hence doctrinally safe. The great upsurge in the singing of the Davidic Psalter during the 4th century has often been cited in support of such a view, reinforced by a passage from Canon 59 of the Council of Laodicea (possibly later 4th century): ‘One must not recite privately composed psalms (psalmi idiotici) nor non-canonical books in the church, but only the canonical books of the Old and New Testament’. Again, the argument is that it was the fear of heresy that encouraged the singing of biblical psalms. Yet, whatever the interpretation of the 4th-century evidence, it is just as easy to read the passage from Tertullian as indicating simply that in the early 3rd century the Davidic psalms were being sung with some frequency and would have been sung whether heretical hymns had become fashionable or not. On another occasion Tertullian makes an apparent reference to the singing of Old Testament psalms (and orthodox hymns as well) at the agapē, this time without mentioning heretical hymns: ‘After the washing of the hands and the lighting of lamps, each is urged to come into the middle and sing to God, either from the sacred scriptures or from his own invention’ (Apologeticum, xxxix.18). It should be further noted that there is nothing in either of these passages from Tertullian to suggest that the singing of Davidic psalms was an innovation in his time.

4. 4th century.

However common the singing of the Old Testament psalms was in the first three centuries of the Christian era, there appears to have been a sharp increase in the practice during the 4th century, particularly in its closing decades. This is observable in three contexts especially: the newly emerging Office, the popular psalmodic vigil and, to a lesser extent, the Mass.

(i) Psalmody and the developing Office.

Among the more important factors underlying the increase in psalmody in the 4th century was the movement of desert monasticism. Ascetical groups had banded together before in the history of Christianity to pursue a common life of virtue, but what began to happen in the deserts of Egypt around the turn of the 4th century was so unprecedented in scope that the origins of Christian monasticism are generally traced to this time and place. Literally thousands of stalwart souls fled the cities and towns to seek a life of prayer and deprivation in the harsh environment of the Egyptian deserts. The connection between psalmody and monasticism came about because the central ideal of desert monasticism was to ‘pray unceasingly’ (1 Thessalonians v.17). The means that the early monks found most appropriate to achieve this was the ‘continuous’ recitation of the Psalter: psalms were not singled out individually but were recited in order and, moreover, in considerable quantity, even if interspersed with prayers. There are anecdotes from the time that tell of individual monks chanting the entire Psalter in a single night. The desert monks recited the Psalter by themselves especially, but they did so also at their common morning and evening Offices. The typical manner of psalmody in common was for a single monk to chant while the rest listened in silence, occupying their hands in such tasks as weaving linen and plaiting rope, by which the monks supported themselves. The purpose of this psalmody was not the later liturgical ideal of a ceremony of praise but rather a device to sustain individual prayer and meditation. Presumably the musical character of the chanting was sober and unassuming, even if not selfconsciously unmusical.

Desert monasticism stirred the imagination of 4th-century Christianity. Many of the most eminent ecclesiastical figures of the time – Basil, Jerome, Cassian, Rufinus, Paul and Palladius – visited Egypt to observe the lives of the heroic monks and nuns in residence there. They went away inspired to found and foster monastic communities of their own, in some cases in remote regions but as often as not in the cities, where they could serve as models for the general population. Virtually every important Christian leader of the 4th century, including Augustine, Jerome, Basil, John Chrysostom, Gregory of Nyssa and Ambrose, whether they had visited Egypt or not, either lived at one time as monks or at least actively encouraged monasticism in their own dioceses. The monastic life became the dominant ideal of Christian spirituality, so that when Jerome, for example, counselled the lay women of Rome to live the life of committed Christians, he simply advised them to follow the monastic horarium.

Jerome also recommended that they memorize the Psalter. Psalmody was, after all, emblematic of the monastic life; virtually no contemporary description of the monastic life fails to mention it. John Chrysostom, for example, wrote: ‘As soon as they are up, they stand and sing the prophetic hymns … Neither cithara, nor syrinx, nor any other musical instrument emits such sound as is to be heard in the deep silence and solitude of those holy men as they sing’ (In I Timotheum, Homily XIV.3–4). Basil, in recommending the attractions of his monastic retreat at Pontus to his friend Gregory of Nazianzsus, wrote: ‘What is more blessed than to imitate the chorus of angels here on earth; to arise for prayer at the very break of day and honour the Creator with hymns and songs?’ (Epistle II.2). Basil's brother, Gregory of Nyssa, said of their younger sister, the nun Macrina: ‘She had psalmody with her always, like a good companion which one forsakes not for a moment’ (Vita S Macrinae, 3). The matter is well summarized in that frequently quoted anonymous paean to psalmody:

In the monasteries there is a holy chorus of angelic hosts, and David is first, middle and last. In the convents there are bands of virgins who imitate Mary, and David is first, middle and last. In the deserts men crucified to this world hold converse with God, and David is first, middle and last. (Pseudo-Chrysostom,De poenitentia)

Monastic psalmody had a profound effect upon the early development of the Christian Office. The Office’s remote origins derive from the fact that certain times of the day were considered to be especially appropriate for prayer; this was true both of early Christianity and of Judaism before it. Different patterns appear to have characterized different times and places; there was, for example, the threefold pattern of prayer at morning, noon and evening, and the threefold pattern of the third, sixth and ninth hours, either of which might be combined with prayer in the middle of the night. Generally, however, these hours were observed more privately than publicly in the centuries before the emancipation of the Church under Constantine in 313. The pattern that became standard in the cities after that date was a daily public Office in the morning and in the evening – the ‘cathedral’ Office. This Office was originally free of monastic influence, and its psalmody and hymnody were distinctly different from the psalmody of monasticism. In contrast to the continuous psalmody of monasticism, the musical component of the cathedral Office was carefully selected so as to be appropriate to the time of day. In the morning the hymn Gloria in excelsis was sung in many of the principal ecclesiastical centres, while Psalm lxii (in the Greek and Latin numbering of the Psalter), ‘O God my God, I arise before thee in the early morning’, was sung in most cathedrals throughout the East. Also common were the set of alleluia psalms – Psalms cxlviii–cl – that would come to be the psalms par excellence of Lauds. The evening service opened, typically, with the lucernarium, the ceremony of lamp-lighting, accompanied by the hymn Phōs hilaron (‘O gladdening light’). The standard psalm of the service was Psalm cxl, with its appropriate second verse: ‘Let my prayer be guided to thee as incense, and the lifting of my hands as an evening sacrifice’. Significantly, John Chrysostom spoke of both Psalms lxii and cxl as psalms that his congregation knew by heart.

Monastic psalmody had its effect upon the Office in the later decades of the 4th century. This is best observed in Egeria's description of the Office of Jerusalem, the most detailed description of any urban Office of the time. In the morning the monastic and cathedral Offices were combined, each one remaining intact but celebrated successively. Well before daylight there was the monastic vigil of continuous psalmody, and then the morning cathedral service of praise, a pattern still recognizable in Western medieval Matins and Lauds. Egeria provides the following description of the monastic vigil:

Each day before cockcrow … all the monazontes and parthenae, as they are called here, come down, and not only they, but also those lay people, men and women, who wish to keep vigil at so early an hour. From that hour until it is light, hymns are sung and psalms responded to, and likewise antiphons; and with every hymn there is a prayer. For two or three priests, and likewise deacons, who say these prayers with every hymn and antiphon, take turns to be there each day with the monazontes. (Itinerarium, xxiv.1)

Three essential points about this vigil may be noted: the prolonged psalmody is sung exclusively by the monks and nuns; devout lay people arise early in the morning to observe the vigil; and while the bishop is not present, a few representative members of the local clergy are on hand to recite the prayers, thereby, it would appear, giving ecclesiastical sanction to the monastic service. All this is in sharp contrast to the second service, Egeria's description of which begins: ‘As soon as it begins to grow light, they start to sing the morning hymns, and behold the bishop arrives with the clergy’ (Itinerarium, xxiv.2). This service continues with a series of prayers led by the bishop and concludes with his blessing. It is clearly a cathedral service: the bishop and his clergy preside; it ends with an episcopal blessing; and the ‘morning hymns’, presumably, are not continuous monastic psalmody but the special morning hymns of praise such as Phōs hilaron, Psalm lxii and Psalms cxlviii–cl.

The time between the morning and evening services came to be filled in by those shorter services at the third, sixth and ninth hours that are known as theLittle Hours in the later Western Office (the service at the first hour, Prime, was not yet present in the 4th century). These were typically services of monastic psalmody; Egeria describes Sext (at Jerusalem Terce was sung only during Lent) as follows: ‘Again at the sixth hour all come down … and sing psalms and antiphons until the bishop is called in. He first says a prayer, then blesses the faithful … And at the ninth hour they do the same as at the sixth’ (Itinerarium, xxiv.3). It should be noted that these services consisted simply of psalmody, which was performed in the absence of the bishop, who made his entrance only at the conclusion to say a prayer and to bless the congregation.

The evening Office at Jerusalem began with the cathedral element of the lucernariumand its proper hymnody, but continued with a period of protracted psalmody before the bishop and clergy arrived and took their places. The service concluded with additional singing followed by the customary closing prayers and bishop's blessing. Egeria's description reads in part:

But at the tenth hour – what they call here licinicon, and what we call lucernare– the entire throng gathers again, and all the lamps and candles are lit, producing a boundless light … And the psalmi lucernares, as well as antiphons, are sung for a long time. And behold the bishop is called and comes down and takes the high seat, while the priests also sit in their places, and hymns and antiphons are sung. (Itinerarium, xxiv.4)

This service appears to be a more complex mix of monastic and cathedral elements, even suggesting the overall pattern of medieval Western Vespers, with its prelude of four or five psalms, sung in numerical order (the monastic contribution), followed by a diverse grouping of prayers and chants (the cathedral contribution). An elaborate evening Office of this sort was typical for the principal ecclesiastical centres of the time; in a few locations it was followed by a brief gathering of monks and nuns for a final period of prayer and psalmody, a kind of proto-Compline.

While Egeria's description of the Office at Jerusalem is the clearest and most detailed for any location, sufficient evidence has been found to reconstruct the later 4th-century Office of several important centres, for example, Basil's Caesarea and John Chrysostom's Antioch (see Taft, 1986). There are different combinations of cathedral and monastic elements in each location: Taft has characterized the Offices of Palestine and Antioch, for example, as ‘a monastic cursus that has absorbed cathedral elements’, and that of Cappadocia as ‘a cathedral cursus onto which monastic hours have been grafted’. But the musical contribution of monasticism remains clear: continuous psalmody as opposed to selective psalmody and hymnody. A reverse influence must also be assumed, however: the sober psalmody of desert monasticism could not have remained totally unaffected by the more overtly musical urban psalmody.

(ii) The psalmodic vigil.

Monastic psalmody appears to have played a part in the rise of the popular psalmodic vigil, another important musical phenomenon of the later 4th century. Egeria's description of the pre-dawn monastic Office at Jerusalem was given above. This service, however, was held on just six days of the week; in its place on Sunday the people themselves performed something remarkably similar to it: ‘On the seventh day, that is, the Lord's Day, all the people gather before cockcrow … Hymns are sung and also antiphons, and there are prayers with each hymn and antiphon. For priests and deacons are always prepared for vigils in that place because of the crowd which gathers’ (Itinerarium, xxiv.8). It would appear that on Sunday at Jerusalem when the monks and nuns did not rise for their accustomed vigil, the people held one in imitation of them.

In his Letter 207, written in the year 375, Basil defends the nocturnal psalmodic vigil of his congregants; in this case the principal performers of the psalmody appear to have been the men and women of his diocese who lived a quasi-monastic existence. Early in his letter he admits that they are mere children compared to the famous desert monks of Egypt, Palestine and Syria, but he claims that they are brave souls, nevertheless, who ‘have crucified their flesh with its affections and desires’, who, moreover, ‘sing hymns to our God unceasingly, while they work with their own hands’. He goes on to assert that the psalmodic vigils of his congregation are no different from those practised in other churches of the East:

Among us the people arise at night and go to the house of prayer; in pain, distress and anguished tears they make confession to God, and finally getting up from prayer they commence the singing of psalms. At first they divide themselves into two groups and sing psalms in alternation with each other … And then they entrust the lead of the chant to one person, while the rest sing in response. After thus spending the night in a variety of psalmody with interspersed prayer, now that the light of day has appeared, all in common as if from one mouth and one heart offer the psalm of confession [?Psalm l] to the Lord, while each fashions his personal words of repentance. Now if you shun us because of these practices, you will shun the Egyptians, you will shun the Libyans as well, and the Thebans, Palestinians, Arabians, Phoenicians, Syrians and those who live by the Euphrates; and indeed all those among whom vigils, prayers and common psalmody are esteemed.

In discussing this much-quoted passage musicologists tend to dwell upon the reference to antiphony, one of the very few such references in patristic literature. The question of early Christian antiphony is taken up below (§II, 5); for the moment, attention should be focussed on the broader point, namely, that the passage describes a nightly psalmodic vigil and that Basil felt constrained to defend the practice. He concludes by asserting that ‘vigils, prayers and common psalmody are esteemed’ throughout all the regions of the Christian East; his need to make the claim suggests that the custom may have been relatively new.

Basil mentions only Eastern localities, but just over a decade later, in 386, a psalmodic vigil was held in Ambrose's church at Milan, an occasion made famous by Augustine's description of it. Ambrose and his congregation were prevented from leaving the city's basilica because of guards posted outside by the Arian empress dowager, Justina:

Not long since had the church of Milan begun this mode of consolation and exhortation with the brethren singing together with voice and heart … At that time the custom began that hymns and psalms be sung after the manner of the Eastern regions lest the people be worn out with the tedium of sorrow. The practice has been retained from that time until today and imitated by many, indeed, by almost all your congregations throughout the rest of the world. (Confessions, IX, vii.15)

Many have interpreted the phrase ‘after the manner of the Eastern regions’ as referring to the singing of psalms in antiphony. Augustine did not use the term, however, and the more obvious meaning of the passage is the broader one, that is, he was referring to the custom of the nightly vigil of psalmody and hymnody, which Basil told us was common throughout the East several years earlier. Ambrose's own description of the event confirms this interpretation: ‘I was not able to return home, because the soldiers surrounded the basilica, keeping it under guard; we recited psalms with the brethren in the lesser basilica of the church’ (Epistle XX, 24). There is no mention of antiphony here, whereas the more general consideration that psalms were sung was deemed significant enough to merit inclusion in a minimally brief reference to a momentous event. The term antiphona was finally associated with the occasion some 37 years later in the biography of Ambrose written by his secretary Paulinus in 422: ‘At this time antiphons, hymns and vigils first began to be celebrated in the church of Milan’ (Vita S Ambrosii, 18). Paulinus states explicitly that vigils were an innovation at the time, and the fact that he includes the term antiphona should come as no surprise in a passage that dates from the third decade of the 5th century, by which time the word appeared routinely (as a noun) in references to ecclesiastical song.

The most extended discussion of psalmody at vigils is that of Niceta of Remesiana (d after 414), who devoted an entire sermon to the subject. This remarkable work for a long time remained unknown to musicologists because ot its false attribution in Gerbert's Scriptores to the 6th-century Nicetius of Trier. The sermon is the second of a pair. The first, De vigiliis, is a defence, against certain unnamed rigorists, of the vigils held during the early morning hours before the Saturday and Sunday Eucharist. Niceta closes it with a promise to devote a second sermon to the psalmody that played so important a role in the vigils. The result, De psalmodiae bono, is an extended defence of psalmody that manages to summarize the entire patristic doctrine on ecclesiastical song. The relevance of the two sermons to the famous vigil at Ambrose's Milan is obvious: they defend at great length the custom of psalmodic vigils but make no mention of antiphony.

There is no evidence to suggest that monks or nuns were involved in the vigils of Niceta's Remesiana (now Bela Palanka in Serbia), whereas they may well have been in Ambrose's Milan (both Augustine and Ambrose refer to the singing of ‘the brethren’). On the whole there appears to have been a broad influence of the monastic vigil on the popular psalmodic vigil, even if monks or nuns were not directly involved at every time and place. More important is the phenomenon of the congregational psalmodic vigil considered in itself; it appears to have been greatly popular at the time, even if a puritanical minority objected to it.

(iii) Psalmody in the Mass.

The third area in which the Davidic psalms came to play an important role in the later 4th century is the Mass itself, although here their use was more narrowly defined. A psalm was sung during the distribution of Communion, and this appears to be the ancestor of the Byzantine koinōnikon and Western communion chants; another sung during the pre-eucharistic synaxis is the apparent ancestor of the Byzantine prokeimenon and the Western gradual. In addition to these two an alleluia psalm appears to have been sung at Jerusalem by the earlier 5th century.

The psalm sung during the distribution of Communion was probably the first of these, and this is not surprising. The event was an occasion of joy occurring at the climax of the service; it was also an action that would have been conducted in silence unless accompanied by song; and, finally, the distribution might still have had associated with it lingering connotations of the common meal. The communion psalm, in any event, is attested by several sources from the second half of the 4th century. These sources generally specify the singing of Psalm xxxiii with its appropriate verse 8: ‘Taste and see that the Lord is good’; indeed this proto-communion might even be considered as an Ordinary rather than a Proper item of the Mass. Significantly Psalm xxxiii.8 still appears as the koinōnikon of the medieval Byzantine Liturgy of the Presanctified, and as such is the most common of the Byzantine communion chants. The history of the communion psalm in the West appears to be significantly different. There are hints in the sources that Psalm xxxiii was singled out in at least some localities as a special communion psalm, but Augustine referred at one time to the singing of ‘hymns from the Book of Psalms … while what has been offered was distributed to the people’ (Retractationes, II.37). This might suggest that a different psalm was sung at Communion each day, at least in Hippo, and it is true that the Gregorian communion derived from Psalm xxxiii.8, Gustate et videte, occupies a place of no special significance in the liturgical year. (See also Communion.)

The history of the gradual psalm is quite different from that of the communion psalm. Until recently the conventional view of its origin was that it functioned as a musical response to a reading; it was thought to have occupied this position in both the Synagogue and the primitive Church. It is true that the medieval responsory, related as it appears to have been to the gradual, functioned more or less in this manner, but there is no ancient evidence, Jewish or Christian, that readings were customarily paired with complementary psalms. On the contrary, the gradual psalm was at first looked upon as a reading itself. Augustine, for example, said: ‘We heard the Apostle, we heard the psalm, we heard the gospel; all the divine readings sound together so that we place hope not in ourselves but in the Lord’ (Sermon 165). If, however, in the later 4th-century literature, the gradual psalm was spoken of as a reading, it was at the same time just as clearly described as something that was sung. The most plausible hypothesis, perhaps, to explain these apparently contradictory circumstances is that in earlier centuries a psalm had been selected on occasion to serve as the Old Testament reading in the pre-eucharistic synaxis, while in the later 4th-century period of enthusiasm for psalmody, a psalm came to be chanted at every pre-eucharistic synaxis and to be treated as a discrete musical event.

There are numerous patristic references to the responsorial singing of the gradual psalm. A typical formulation might be that of Augustine in his Sermon 153 where he says: ‘We heard and we responded together and we sang with harmonious voice, Beatus vir quem tu erudieris, domine’ (Psalm xliii.12); or that of John Chrysostom in his commentary on Psalm cxvii: ‘The passage of the psalm which the people are accustomed to sing in response is this: “This is the day which the Lord has made”’ (Psalm cxvii.24). In spite of the wealth of such references it remains possible that the gradual psalm, particularly on less festive occasions, might have been chanted without a congregational response. The sources frequently mention the singing of a psalm without specifying a response verse; in such cases it is simply not known whether a response was involved or not.

A final point of considerable significance concerning the gradual psalm is that the abundant Western references, in particular those from the sermons of Augustine, refer to a single psalm in the pre-eucharistic synaxis. This has an obvious bearing upon the early history of the Western alleluia. If an alleluia psalm existed in the later 4th and earlier 5th centuries, it might be expected that two psalms would have been sung regularly in the synaxis: the gradual psalm, and a second psalm with an alleluia response. But there is only the one psalm, even if its response might on occasion be an ‘alleluia’, particularly if it is one of those psalms that have ‘alleluia’ prefixed to them in the biblical text (e.g. Psalms cx–cxviii). The situation in the East is more complex. There are several passages that suggest the singing of a single psalm in the synaxis, but others that appear to call for an indeterminate number. The Apostolic Constitutions (VIII, xii.27), for example, state: ‘After two readings [from the Old Testament] let someone else sing the hymns of David, and let the people respond with verses. After this let our Acts be read and the epistles of Paul our fellow worker’. Whatever the interpretation of this passage (it could be argued that it lists everything that might be read in the course of the year rather than on a single day), the testimony of the so-called Armenian Lectionary is unambiguous. This document (Renoux, 1961), which is believed to reflect the liturgy of Jerusalem for the earlier 5th century, assigns two psalms to each date in the calendar and prefixes the second of them with the word ‘alleluia’. (See also Gradual.)

The overall impression remains, then, that a gradual and a communion psalm were sung in most ecclesiastical centres of the East and West in the later 4th century, and that these can legitimately be looked upon as the ancestors of the Byzantine prokeimenon and koinōnikon and the Roman gradual and communion; by the earlier 5th century an alleluia psalm was sung in Jerusalem and possibly at other Eastern centres but not in the West. As for psalms that might prefigure the medieval entrance and offertory chants, there is no convincing contemporary evidence for their existence.

II. Special issues

1. Instruments.

The polemic against musical instruments in patristic literature is remarkable for both its pervasiveness and its intensity. Virtually every one of the major Christian authors of the 3rd and 4th centuries made pejorative remarks about instruments, and they seem almost to vie with one another in the vehemence of their rhetoric. John Chrysostom, for example, referred to musical instruments along with dancing and obscene songs as the ‘devil's heap of garbage’ (I Corinthios, Homily XII.5), and Arnobius of Sicca asked: ‘Was it for this that God sent souls, that in men they become male prostitutes, and in women harlots, sambuca-players and harpists?’ (Adversus nationes, II.42).

The Church Fathers were not alone in casting musical instruments in an unfavourable light. A pagan author such as Livy, for example, included the employment of women harpists at banquets among the undesirable luxuries introduced to Rome from Asia (Ab urbe condita, xxxix, 6.7); and Rabbi Johana said: ‘Whoever drinks to the accompaniment of the four musical instruments brings five punishments to the world’ (Soṭah, 48a). Nevertheless the fulminations of the Christian authorities on the subject go well beyond anything uttered by their pagan and Jewish contemporaries.

The most common explanation given for the patristic attitude is the association of musical instruments with pagan religious practices. Tertullian, for one, gave credence to the view when he said of the theatre: ‘Whatever transpires in voice, melody, instruments and text is in the domain of Apollo, the Muses, Minerva and Mercury. You will despise, O Christian, those things whose authors you can only detest’ (De spectaculis, x.9). But certainly the patristic position is not just one of theological opposition; the ethical element is at least as potent a factor. Indeed at times the two factors appears to merge in the minds of some Church Fathers, with the sense of sexual immorality seemingly to be chiefly responsible for the intense emotional tone of their rhetoric. John Chrysostom, for example, wrote in this manner about the musical abuses at a marriage celebration:

Nature indulges in Bacchic frenzy at these weddings; those present become brutes rather than men; they neigh like horses and kick like asses. There is much dissipation, much dissolution, but nothing earnest, nothing high-minded; there is much pomp of the devil here – cymbals, auloi and songs of fornication and adultery. (In Acta Apostolorum, Homily XLII.3)

A number of typical contexts for the patristic polemic may be noted: the lewd behaviour of musicians in the theatre, the coarse singing and dancing at weddings and the dubious profession of female harpists at banquets. It is significant that there are no instances of a patristic condemnation of musical instruments in church. If there had been, it would be reasonable to assume that the occasional intrusion of instruments into Christian ecclesiastical song was a problem. But it was not; apparently the psalmody and hymnody were simply of such a musical character that the issue of instrumental accompaniment did not arise. This is not to say absolutely that at no time were instruments used in association with early Christian song. Despite the lack of positive documentary evidence, it is easy to imagine that in the earlier centuries in particular – before the patristic chorus of condemnation had become so strident, and when Christian song was especially spontaneous in character – a psalm or hymn sung at an evening ritual meal might sometimes have been accompanied by a lyre or kithara.

2. Biblical exegesis.

A considerable portion of the references to music in early Christian literature were made in an exegetical context. A large majority of these references are found in a single exegetical genre, the psalm commentary, which itself was the most common genre of all patristic literature, with most of the major Church Fathers of the 3rd and 4th centuries contributing their own example of it. The typical psalm commentary is a lengthy work, explaining verse by verse each of the 150 psalms in order. There are many references to music in the psalms, especially references to musical instruments, and hence there exist a great number of corresponding passages from the psalm commentaries. The modern scholar cannot assume that these remarks about music refer to the author's contemporary circumstances, but their biblical context must be taken into account. This is all the more so because most psalm commentaries are written in the style of the so-called allegorical or figurative exegesis. This style, influenced in its early stages by the Jewish Neoplatonist Philo and developed by his Christian follower Origen, generally ignores the literal and historical meaning of a biblical passage and seeks instead to extract some spiritual, ethical or prophetic meaning from it.

As for musical subject matter, this is particularly obvious in the way musical instruments are treated. At times the allegorical interpretations that the instruments are given produce moderately successful figures, as in the following passage where Pseudo-Athanasius explains the distinction between the two different types of trumpet cited in Psalm xcvii.5–6 – the trumpet of forged metal and the trumpet derived from an animal's horn: ‘A fervent and intense study of evangelical preaching is understood by the metal trumpets; whereas kingly dignity is understood by the horn because kings are anointed from a horn’. The treatment of the same passage in the psalm commentary of Eusebius of Caesarea is, perhaps, less poetically apt; for him the metal trumpet, beaten into shape over a burning forge, signifies the preaching of the Apostles who underwent trial by fire on account of their faith, while the horn represents action because the horn is taken from a beast of burden. The purpose of these interpretations, however, was not to create good poetry in the Romantic sense; it was, rather, to provide theological and ethical edification. In any event, what is noteworthy in this instance is a total lack of reference to the historical objects of the original psalmic passage, that is, the metal trumpets of the Levites and the shofar, and most certainly a lack of reference to any contemporary Christian use of instruments.

While instruments account for much of the patristic musical exegesis, other musical categories are also subject to occasional interpretation, most notably the set of related terms: psalm, hymn and canticle. For example, Hilary of Poitiers (d 367), in the preface to his psalm commentary, provides a complex explanation of the terms psalm and canticle as they appear in superscriptions to the Old Testament psalms. He establishes four genres: ‘psalm’, ‘canticle’, ‘psalm of a canticle’ and ‘canticle of a psalm’. He defines, for example, the ‘psalm’ as the type where ‘the voice rests and only the playing of the instrument is heard’. A music historian who misses the exegetical context of Hilary's interpretation might take the passage to refer to the use of instruments by Christians in the psalmody of their own time. Some Church Fathers distinguish the types of psalms by their content: generally ‘hymns’ and ‘canticles’ are said to be more exaltedly spiritual and ‘psalms’ more pragmatically ethical. In any event these distinctions, generally made in reference to the superscriptions of the psalms, have to do with different categories of Old Testament psalms; they must not be confused with the threefold modern distinction of Old Testament psalms, newly composed hymns, and biblical canticles.

While the majority of patristic psalm commentaries employ the allegorical method, those produced by members of the Antiochene exegetical school use the ‘literal’ or ‘historical’ method. These exegetes, then, were required to explain the use of instruments by the ancient Israelites; why was it, they asked themselves, that God permitted the use of instruments in his worship. The explanation that they provided is not without an element of anti-semitism, a typical example being the commentary by Theodoret of Cyrus (dc460) on Psalm cl:

The Levites employed these instruments long ago as they hymned God in his holy temple, not because he enjoyed their sound but because he accepted the intention of those involved … He allowed these things to happen because he wished to free them from the error of idols. For since they were fond of play and laughter, and all these things took place in the temples of the idols, he permitted them and thereby enticed the Jewish people, thus avoiding the greater evil by avoiding the lesser.

3. The jubilus.

The so-called jubilus, mistakenly associated with the melismatic alleluia of the Mass, is also something that must be understood in the context of biblical exegesis. Virtually all patristic references to the jubilus occur in psalm commentaries by way of interpreting the term ‘jubilare’ and its derivatives (not ‘alleluia’) as the word appears, for example, in the opening verse of Psalm xcix: Jubilate Deo omnis terra.

The jubilus was not a genre of Christian ecclesiastical song but rather a secular vocal phenomenon characterized by the absence of words. At times it was described in the literature as a shout rather than a song, although at other times a more lyric character was attributed to it. It appears in various contexts but most often as a kind of rhythmic chant that agricultural workers used as an aid to their labours. It earned its place in Christian literature when Latin Church Fathers appropriated it as a trope upon the word ‘jubilare’; Augustine in particular exploited the figure to great effect in his virtually Romantic expansions upon the notion of a joy that surpassed ordinary speech. But no passage from patristic literature either states or implies that the jubilus was a device of Christian ecclesiastical song.

The application of the term ‘jubilus’ to the melismatic extension of the alleluia of the Mass was first made by Amalarius of Metz (dc850): ‘This jubilation which the cantors call the sequence, leads our mind to that state, when the speaking of words will not be necessary’ (Liber officialis, I.i, 16.3). The context of this passage makes it clear that Amalarius was using the term sequence to refer to the melismatic extension of the alleluia. Still, the identification of the jubilus with the alleluia was not yet complete; medieval authors, including Amalarius, used the term to refer to any sort of melismatic flourish in the ecclesiastical chant, and it was only in modern times that it came to be associated exclusively with the alleluia.

See also Alleluia, §I, 2, and Jubilus.

4. The singing of women in church.

St Paul set the tone for this issue when he wrote to the Corinthians: ‘Let your women keep silent in the churches for it is not permitted unto them to speak’ (1 Corinthians xiv.34). Three centuries later St Ambrose felt obliged to refer to Paul's injunction when advocating that all members of the Christian congregation (including women) engage in psalmody: ‘The Apostle admonishes women to be silent in church, yet they do well to join in a psalm; this is gratifying for all ages and fitting for both sexes’ (Explanatio psalmi i, 9).

Paul's words aside, it appears that the issue of whether or not women ought to sing at liturgical gatherings was not frequently raised in the earliest years of Christianity. Presumably, women as a matter of course joined in the psalmody and hymnody of this time when ecclesiastical song was more informal and spontaneous. The custom was seldom questioned until the 3rd and 4th centuries, and even then not very frequently. There are two obvious reasons – in addition to the inhibiting presence of Paul's words – why the issue was finally raised. First, the emergence of women's choirs in heretical circles of the 3rd century, such as that which sang under the auspices of Paul of Samosota, may have caused orthodox Christians to have scruples over the matter. Secondly, there was the spectacle of immoral female professional musicians, a phenomenon to which the Church Fathers of the 3rd and 4th centuries made increasingly common allusion.

Related to this second reason was a general puritanical sensibility that looked upon all physical pleasure as morally suspect, sexual pleasure in particular, but musical pleasure as well. Jerome, for example, well known as a rigorist on matters of sexuality from his notorious Letter 22 on the subject of virginity, betrays a hint of musical puritanism when he says: ‘The kakophonos, if he has performed good works, is a sweet singer before God. Thus let the servant of Christ sing, so that not the voice of the singer but the words that are read give pleasure’ (In epistulam ad Ephesos, III, v.19). And there is more than a hint of both sexual and musical puritanism present when he argues that women ought not to sing in church: ‘You insist upon being regaled with their voices and songs … but who does not know that women are to sing psalms in their chambers, away from the company of men? You, however, allow them to put on display what they ought to do modestly and without witness’ (Contra Pelagianos, i.25).

But Jerome's position is that of the minority: Ambrose, as stated, approved of women singing in church; Niceta in his thoroughgoing discourse on psalmody at vigils did not so much as allude to the issue, and neither did Basil and John Chrysostom, the chief spokesmen on ecclesiastical music in the East, in their numerous references to Christian song; Ephrem is said to have actively encouraged women's choirs to sing his hymns. Even Augustine, who expressed an extraordinary sense of guilt over the pleasure he felt listening to the psalmody at Milan, never once suggested in his many remarks about singing in church that women ought to be excluded. But if women were not silenced in church by early Christian authorities, they were in later centuries as a result of historical circumstances, namely, when lay congregations ceased to join in the singing and an exclusively male clergy assumed control of church music.

5. Antiphony.

The role of antiphony in early Christian music is a matter of some controversy. For many years scholars maintained a neat threefold categorization of early Christian psalmody: (1) ‘direct’ psalmody – the singing of a psalm from beginning to end without responses or antiphons; (2) ‘responsorial’ psalmody – the singing of the individual verses by a soloist, with a choral refrain sung after each verse; (3) ‘antiphonal’ psalmody – the alternate singing of the verses by two choirs. The third category, however, came to be questioned by scholars such as Helmut Hucke (1953) and Helmut Leeb (1967). The primary difficulty they had with the conventional view stemmed from the inconclusiveness of the patristic evidence. On the one hand there are extremely few unambiguous references to the alternate singing of two choirs (like that of Basil's Letter 207 quoted in §I, 3 above), and where such references do occur the term antiphony is not used to describe the phenomenon. On the other hand, those passages in which the term (or some derivative) is used do not in fact describe the alternate singing of choirs.

The uncertainty over the issue focusses especially upon the two related passages that fall into the latter category. Socrates and Sozomen, two early 5th-century ecclesiastical historians, in describing the same event tell how Arians assembled outside at night and sang ‘antiphonal songs’ expressing heretical views on the nature and relationship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Christians, in turn, were organized to sing orthodox Trinitarian hymns, creating an impressive display for the faithful with their illuminated silver crosses. A confrontation between the Arian and orthodox groups resulted in serious violence and a consequent imperial ban on Arian hymnody. These two passages suggest a number of conclusions of varying degrees of probability. The Christian ‘antiphonal song’ that they describe clearly involved newly composed texts celebrating the Trinity, and most scholars see a connection between this observation and the fact that later descriptions of antiphonal psalmody specify the use of a concluding doxology. The passages also convey a general sense of musical excitement, with the presence of enthusiastic crowds gathering in the night-time. New melodies of a popular nature may have been involved, as well as a variety of performance styles, choral and solo, including quite possibly some manner of antiphony, perhaps between choirs of men and women, even if not a neatly symmetrical arrangement whereby two choirs sang the verses of a psalm or hymn in alternation.

The existence of a different category of evidence serves to complicate the issue still further. There are several passages concerning monastic psalmody that use the term antiphona as a noun within a series of terms that appear to refer to different modes of liturgical psalmody. Egeria, for example, in describing the singing of the Jerusalem ‘monazontes’ and ‘parthenae’, frequently uses expressions such as ‘and with every psalm and antiphon a prayer is said’, or ‘and there are prayers with each hymn and antiphon’. Similarly, the contemporary monastic Rule of Pseudo-Augustine has expressions such as: ‘During May, June, July and August there are eight antiphons, four psalms and two readings’; and that of the nun Melania the Younger: ‘For the night-time three responsories are to be completed … and at the morning office fifteen antiphons’. A century later Benedict would write in his Rule of ‘six psalms with antiphons’, and, conversely, ‘let these three psalms be said straightforward without an antiphon’. Benedict appears to speak of the antiphon as a short musical piece sung somehow in conjunction with the psalms, and it is not implausible that the 4th- and 5th-century passages quoted here use the term similarly. This has prompted some to claim that antiphonal psalmody was nothing but responsorial psalmody with non-biblical refrains. This is surely an oversimplification, just as it is an oversimplification to equate antiphonal psalmody with the alternate singing of two choirs. Precisely where the truth lies, however, may continue to elude even the most perceptive of modern commentators.

6. Music theory.

Although the Church Fathers were vigorous in their opposition to the concrete manifestations of pagan music, they were largely receptive to the classical discipline of music theory. This was because their attitude towards music as an intellectual discipline was simply one facet of their attitude towards classical intellectual culture as a whole. The early Christian authorities recognized the necessity of a rapprochement with pagan learning. Jerome might have scrupled over the pleasure he experienced in reading the classics, and the irascible Tertullian might have asked disdainfully, ‘What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What has the Academy in common with the Church?’; but most acknowledged their dependence on classical learning. It was after all the only intellectual system available to them; they needed it if they wished to express their beliefs systematically, to defend them effectively and to interpret the Bible with sophistication.

Classical culture was conveyed to the citizens of late antiquity in the educational system of the seven Liberal Arts. Much of the essential doctrine of the system was present already in the educational teaching of Plato and Aristotle, even if it received its definitive form only in the early 5th-century De nuptiis Mercurii et Philologiae of Martianus Capella. This work provides short treatises on each of seven arts: Grammatica, Rhetorica, Dialectica, Arithmetica, Musica, Geometrica and Astronomica. The first three are language arts, the Trivium as they came to be called in the Middle Ages; they are propaedeutic to the group of four mathematical arts (including Musica), the so-called Quadrivium. In practice the typically well-educated person of late antiquity, whether a pagan or Christian, was given a thorough grounding in the language arts, especially Grammatica and Rhetorica, and only a superficial acquaintance with the mathematical arts, which were more intensively cultivated by specialists. Still, it was the mathematical arts that Augustine had in mind when he explained how an acquaintance with Musica aids in the interpretation of the Bible: ‘We find both number and music honourably placed in many passages of the Sacred Scriptures’ (De doctrina christiana, II, xvi.26).

Augustine also made his own contribution to the discipline of Musica with his treatise De musica. In this work he concentrated on just two of the three principal divisions of Musica: Metrica and Rhythmica. He announced his intention to contribute another treatise on the third division, Harmonica, a highly technical subject that deals with the classical tonal system, but not surprisingly he failed to accomplish this. (In fact his work on Musica was originally conceived as part of an ambitious plan, again not realized, to compose a treatise on all seven of the Liberal Arts.)

The early Christian acceptance of the pagan Liberal Arts was of great significance for subsequent music history. The tradition was continued by the 6th-century Christian intellectuals Boethiusand Cassiodorus, both of whom attempted to summarize classical music theory within their encyclopedic treatment of the Liberal Arts. Their work, in turn, was absorbed by the Carolingian music theorists, who applied the vocabulary and concepts of the classical Musica to the ecclesiastical chant of their own time. This unique effort not only provided a systematic explanation of their own music but probably helped to determine the subsequent course of Western classical music, characterized as it is by its strong rationalistic bias.

7. Metrical hymns.

To be distinguished from the anonymously composed, quasi-prose hymns like Phōs hilaron and Gloria in excelsis are the metrical hymns of self-consciously artistic character created by ecclesiastical figures of the 4th century. The greatest of the Eastern poets wasEphrem Syrus (d 373), whose Syriac madrāshe – strophic hymns with refrain verses – had an important influence upon later Eastern liturgical hymnody, in particular upon Romanos, the celebrated 6th-century Byzantine hymnographer of Syrian descent.

The first of the Latin hymnodists was Hilary (d 367). It is not known whether his highly complex poems were intended for liturgical use, but those of his somewhat younger contemporaryAmbrose of Milan (d 397) most assuredly were. These were graceful verses in a simple iambic tetrameter that must have been eminently singable from the start, even though it is not known if the beguiling tunes to which they are set in the medieval sources have any relation to their original melodies. Many hymns of the Ambrosian type – referred to in fact by the term ‘ambrosiana’ – were composed in the early Middle Ages and were attributed to the revered bishop of Milan. At least four of them – Aeterne rerum conditor, Deus creator omnium, Jam surgit hora tertia and Veni redemptor gentium– are most certainly his work and possibly another ten in addition. It remains something of a surprise that the Ambrosian hymn gained a place in the monastic Office of 6th-century Gaul and Italy; apparently its liturgical appropriateness and general attractiveness proved sufficient to overcome the ascetic bent of early monasticism as well as the early Christian reluctance to employ non-biblical texts.

See also Hymn, §I.

8. The musical character of early Christian song.

There exists only one certain monument of early Christian music, and a possible second. The first is the so-called Oxyrhynchus Hymn, a substantial fragment of a hymn to the Trinity discovered at Oxyrhynchus in Lower Egypt in about 1920 by Grenfell and Hunt (1922); it was copied on the back of a papyrus towards the end of the 3rd century by a Greek-speaking Christian (seeillustration). Its Greek letter notation allows for an accurate transcription. It is a diatonic piece of slightly less than an octave in range, with its final on G, and with most syllables of its text set to one or two notes. Scholars have held widely divergent views on how characteristic of early Christian music this seemingly isolated fragment was. The possibly contemporary example of Christian song is the simple Sanctus melody that is best preserved in the Western medieval Requiem Mass. Kenneth Levy (1958–63) has argued persuasively that this melody, and indeed the entire dialogue between celebrant and congregation of which it forms a part, dates from the 4th century. It is narrower in range than the Oxyrhynchus Hymn, as befits a congregational acclamation, and slightly more syllabic, while its diatonic tonality differs from that of the Hymn in that it has a half-step below its final.

Oxyrhynchus papyrus 1786, showing the end of a hymn written in Greek vocal notation, end of the 3rd century CE (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)

The Egypt Exploration Society

Even if this Sanctus is accepted as authentic music of the 4th century, and its rough similarity to the Oxyrhynchus Hymn is noted, the two provide little evidence on which to generalize about the character of early Christian song. Only a number of broad reflections on the subject are possible. It can be said with some degree of certainty that early Christian music was largely diatonic. The one or two preserved examples aside, it appears that the music of the entire Mediterranean basin and Mesopotamian area, over a period of many centuries, was basically diatonic, even if sometimes embellished chromatically and microtonally (see Crocker). No doubt Christian music inevitably participated in this tonal environment.

It can also be said that early Christian music was text-centered and as such probably tended more towards the syllabic than the melismatic melodic pole. This does not exclude the occasional wordless utterance in the enthusiastic atmosphere of primitive Christianity, but it does rule out the supposedly common rhapsodic types of song incorrectly associated with the jubilus. Might it be said, then, that early Christian music was ‘simple’ in character? Certainly the kind of display involved in song accompanied by a battery of instruments, like that of the Jewish Temple or of many pagan cult practices, was foreign to it. And taking into account that the Christian worship of the first centuries was conducted in domestic settings, it is reasonable to suppose that the song of the time was characterized by a certain intimacy. But, accordingly, as Christian worship moved into the great basilicas of the Constantinian period, its music would have had to adapt to the new acoustical environment. Still, it was the soloist with congregational response, rather than the practised choir, that remained the dominant mode of performance in the 4th century. The soloist, moreover, continued generally to be called a lector rather than a cantor and frequently was a mere youth rather than an adult.

All this does not mean that Christian song was dull and unattractive in the 4th century. Probably the singing of the nocturnal vigil, employing at times the so-called ‘antiphonal songs’, was generally livelier and more popular in character than that of the Eucharist, although this is not to say that the Eucharist was altogether lacking in musical interest. Much depended, no doubt, upon the native ability of the lector and also upon the quality of the tunes that were used as congregational responses. Of significance for the latter is the remark of Augustine about Psalm cxxxii.1, Ecce quam bonum: ‘So sweet is that sound, that even they who know not the Psalter sing that verse’ (In psalmum cxxxii.1). In summary it must be remembered that early Christian song was the music of an oral tradition, indeed of many different oral traditions, maintained in a variety of regions over a number of centuries. Variety might very well have been its single most constant quality.


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  • J. Kroll: Die christliche Hymnodik bis zu Klemens von Alexandreia (Königsberg, 1921/R)
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  • R. Martin: ‘Aspects of Worship in the New Testament Church’, Vox evangelica, 2 (1963), 6–32
  • R. Deichgräber: Gotteshymnus und Christushymnus in der frühen Christenheit: Untersuchungen zu Form, Sprache und Stil der frühchristlichen Hymnen (Göttingen,1967)
  • H. Darré: ‘De l'usage des hymnes dans l'église des origines à Saint Grégoire le Grand’, EG, 9 (1968), 25–36
  • A. Holleman: ‘The Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 1786 and the Relationship between Ancient Greek and Early Christian Music’, Vigiliae christianae, 26 (1972), 1–17
  • K.E. McVey: Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns (New York, 1989)
  • M. Lattke: ‘Sind Ephraems Madrāšē Hymnen?’, Oriens christianus, 73 (1989), 38–43
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  • M. Lattke: Hymnus: Materialien zu einer Geschichte der antiken Hymnologie (Göttingen,1991)
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  • C. Gindele: ‘Doppelchor und Psalmvortrag im Frühmittelalter’, Mf, 6 (1953), 296–300
  • W. Wiora: ‘Jubilare sine verbis’, In Memoriam Jacques Handschin, ed. H. Anglès and others (Strasbourg, 1962), 39–65
  • J. Mateos: ‘La psalmodie dans le rite byzantine’, Proche-Orient chrétien, 15 (1965), 107–26
  • H. Leeb: Die Psalmodie bei Ambrosius (Vienna, 1967)
  • A. Martimort: ‘Origine et signification de l'alléluia de la messe romaine’,Kyriakon: Festschrift Johannes Quasten, ed. P. Granfeld and J.A. Jungmann (Münster,1970), 811–34
  • E. Moneta Caglio: Lo jubilus e le origini della salmodia responsoriale (Milan, 1977)
  • J. Gelineau: ‘Les psaumes a l'époque patristique’, La Maison-Dieu, 135 (1978), 99–116
  • E. Foley: ‘The Cantor in Historical Perspective’, Worship, 56 (1982), 194–213
  • T. Schattauer: ‘The Koinonicon of the Byzantine Liturgy: an Historical Study’, Orientalia christiana periodica, 49 (1983), 91–129
  • P. Jeffrey: ‘The Introduction of Psalmody into the Roman Mass by Pope Celestine I (422–32)’,Archiv für Liturgiewissenschaft, 26 (1984), 147–65
  • J.W. McKinnon: ‘The Fourth Century Origin of the Gradual’, EMH, 7 (1987), 91–106
  • J.W. McKinnon: ‘The Patristic Jubilus and the Alleluia of the Roman Mass’, Cantus Planus Study Session III: Tihány 1988, 61–70
  • J.W. McKinnon: ‘Desert Monasticism and the Later Fourth-Century Psalmodic Movement’,ML, 75 (1994), 505–21
  • J.W. McKinnon: ‘Liturgical Psalmody in the Sermons of St Augustine’, Three Worlds of Medieval Chant: Comparative Studies of Greek, Latin and Slavonic Liturgical Music for Kenneth Levy, ed. P. Jeffery (forthcoming)
Instruments and dance
  • F.J. Dölger: ‘Klingeln, Tanz und Händeklatschen im Gottesdienst der christlichen Melitianer in Ägypten’, Antike und Christentum, 4 (1934), 245–55
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  • J. Foster: ‘The Harp at Ephesus’, Expository Times, 74 (1962–3), 156 only
  • J.W. McKinnon: ‘The Meaning of the Patristic Polemic against Musical Instruments’,CMc, no.i (1965), 69–82
  • J.W. McKinnon: ‘Musical Instruments in Medieval Psalm Commentaries and Psalters’,JAMS, 21 (1968), 3–20
  • J.W. McKinnon: ‘A Cappella Doctrine versus Practice: a Necessary Distinction’, La musique et le rite sacré et profane, IMSCR XIII: Strasbourg 1982, 238–42
Annales musicologiques
Die Musikforschung
Journal of the American Musicological Society
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Zeitschrift für Musikwissenschaft
Early Music History
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Music & Letters
Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association