[From Dana and Sue Talley’s Seminar at “Music: The Celebration,” a Maranatha! Music Institute given in Anaheim, California]


Prof. Sue Talley


In this session, we share the ideals and the music of the ancient Christian church, emphasizing the first seven centuries A.D. An examination of history reveals that many of the problems we are dealing with today are not new to the experience of the Church. We consider the conflict of Christian and pagan culture, the heritage of “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” from the Jewish tradition, and the reasons that church music developed as it did.


We have found that the Early Church was a singing church - that song was not an accompaniment to worship, but worship itself - a means of access to the One who “dwells in the praises”.  Although no early manuscripts from the first century exist, we can logically reconstruct something similar to the music of that time. By learning the principles of psalmody and borrowing from oral tradition, we can create our own hymns for personal devotion or for congregational use.


We will also touch upon the music of Christian worship in succeeding cen­turies, in both Eastern and Western Christian traditions. We will highlight the different styles by sharing musical examples. As we sing from a modern hymnal, we sing words or tunes from many countries. These songs have been handed down through the centuries.


Throughout this study, we emphasize the principles underlying the creation and performance of church music. This brief outline of the history of Christian music though the 19th century is designed to help us place the ancient hymns in their historical context, and to learn when the forms now familiar - psaltery, hymnody, liturgy, chorale, oratorio, cantata, and sacred anthem, came into being.




A.                   The music of the Hebrews


1.         Music was primarily vocal, a servant of the word.


a.         The ideal was singing “from the heart.”

b.         Certain portions of Scripture were sung from very early times and still are: (Magnificat, Phillipians 2:5-ll, Lord’s Prayer, etc.)

c.         Much is known about Temple instruments—less about tunes

d.         After the destruction of the Temple, music became more subdued.

2.         Instruments were carefully chosen and usually did not accompany the voices.


a.     Trumpets, shofars called the assemblies to order, led procession.

b.     Harps of at least two kinds were considered appro­priate to enhance worship, along with a few other “sweet-voiced” instruments.

c.       The music of the Hebrews was distinctive from pagan music but 

            influenced by it; many instruments may have come from Egypt.

d.       Singing was for studying the Scripture and attaining understanding. 

e.      Singing was worship, not a “background” for something else.

f.        However , prophecy also used harp accompaniment.


B.                  The Early Church drew on its Hebrew heritage in worship and music.


1.          There was singing at the Lord’s Supper; the “hymn” was possibly Psalm 118.

2.          “Hours of Prayer” were observed, and the Psalms were the “prayerbook”.

a. “Seven times a day will I praise Thee:” set times were established by the Jews, and continued by the Christians

b. Synagogue tunes and attitudes about music were adapted for Christian use.


1.         Worldly tunes were shunned.

2.         The use of instruments was frowned upon

3.         The entire membership of the church was encour­aged to sing psalms.

4.         The ideal was “singing with one voice”; choirs were added much later.

5.         Both church and synagogue shunned the elaborate and sensuous music of the world.


3.      Three categories of sacred song were mentioned: “Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs”


a.         Psalms: Their music based on simple melodic patterns called tetrachords. 

1.  Sung antiphonally.

2.  Sung in unison.

3.  “Lined”.

4.  Used responsively.

5.      Used for personal devotion; even young Christians were expected to

       know them by head.

                        6.   Used extensively within the services.

                                            b. Hymns:

1.       New Testament songs

2.      The Psalms—always the prayerbook of the Church.


                        2. Hymns “to Jesus as the Son of God” were composed very early.

a.      O Gladsome Light: one of the first

b.      “Glory be to the Father…” also very old.


                        3. Hymns presented theological views - some were written to promote

            heretical ideas, such as those of Arias; others were written to promote orthodox ideas.

                        4. In 150, there were 150 hymns written for use between the Psalms by 

                             Bardaisan of Edessa.

                        5. As with other worship music, hymns were monophonic, with a later

                             addition of an “ison” or droning note in some instances.

6.      Hymns were generally syllabic as opposed to being melismatic.

a.      Syllabic:  One note per syllable

b.      Melismatic: Many notes per syllable

7.      Hymn-writing was not encouraged at first but was particularly natural in a Greek culture.

8.      Early hymnwriters included: Ephraim the Syrian, Hilary of Poitiers, Jerome, and Ambrose.

                       c.          Spiritual Songs:

1.      Jubilations: Songs based upon “Alleluia” or another sacred word.

2.      Melismatic in character.

3.      Sometimes had no words at all - a Hebrew tradition

4.      Based on the ideal of the human voice as the perfect instrument of praise

5.      Vocal music was central to the celebrations of Eucharist and Agape.

a.      The Last Supper took the familiar Jewish form of a chaburah meal.

b.      Eucharist and Agape were separated from within the chaburah meal by around 100 AD.


3.      Agape contained:


a.      Lamplighting ceremony, a Jewish custom con­tinued.

b.      The singing of the “Hallelujah” psalms (103-118).

c.      The blessing of the bread and cup (non­Eucharistic) which was received by all present.

d.      Traces of this meal are still retained by the Orthodox Church; it is recognizable through­out the sung evening worship.


2.      Eucharist contained rich thematic material which 

      gradually formed the basis for increasingly elaborate

      sung services:  The Mass or Divine Liturgy


a.      Throughout “Christendom” the rites were varied, especially in pre-Nicene times.

b.      The kernel of the Eucharistic prayer is clearly seen in all.

c.      Tolerance for the Church paved the way for elaboration of

       ceremonial, e.g. choirs (ca.300 AD).

d.      Christian bishops set the standard for usage in their parishes

      and encouraged the develop­ment of good singing.





A.         The standard of Constantinople became accepted throughout the Christian East.


1.         “Local” liturgies slowly gave way to the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.


a. Liturgy of St. James still in use.

b. Coptic, Nestorian liturgies still in use among schismatic groups.

c. Armenian church retains much ancient music.


2.         Conquered countries adopted the liturgy of the “Great

Church”: Hagia Sophia


a.      Liturgy, however, was in the vernacular

b.      Used Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom or of St. Basil the Great.

c.      Late development (988): Vladimir of Kiev chooses Byzantine style of

                                          worship for the Rus’, after having sent emissaries to Constantinople.


3.         Several fine examples of the Byzantine hymn:


a.      Troparia - Responses between the Psalms.

b.      Kontakia - sung sermons, of which small fragments remain in modern use; (6th century).

c.      Kanones (8-10th centuries)


1.      Commentaries on Scripture

2.      8 (odes); each of several strophes.

3.      Each ode corresponded to a specific Biblical canticle.

4.      Monasticism sought a simpler musical practice and fostered the use of a very simple chant.


B.         The Roman Church practice became paramount in the West.


1.          Choir school - “Schola cantorum” - organized in the 5th century for training men and boys.

2.          529: Order of St. Benedict helped establish musical traditions.

3.          Gregory I (“The Great”), pope from 590 - 604, recodified the liturgy and reorganized the Scuola Cantorum.


a. Collected and probably revised plainchant.

b. Assigned various portions of the chant for use throughout the church year.

c. Gregorian chant was the source and inspiration of a large proportion of all

    western music up to the 16th century.

d. Gregorian chant was established in the Frankish Empire and the British Isles

before the end of the 8th century.

e. With the Moslem conquests, the center of European Christian culture tended

                             to move North of the Alps.

                        f. Latin became the unifying factor for the Western Church; it was the official

                           language of the Liturgy;

                        g. A precursor to modern hymnody was the result of words being set to the

                            Alleluia melodies - these were called sequences and became separate

                            compositions. They became popular songs.

                        h. From the sequence arose the custom of the liturgical drama.

                         i. The ‘church modes” were catalogued, and from the neums of medieval

                            notation, modern music notation developed.




A.         The Beginnings of Polyphonic Music.


1.         Began around the 11th century.


a. Primarily a Western movement

b. Some feel that it occured because some of the monks were

    monotones and naturally dropped the melody a 4th or 5th.


             B.  Developed extensively with the refinement of musical notation, especially the 

                  “rhythmic modes”, which piety based on a ternary (3-beat) system.


C.                  The lower voice carried the chant; the upper voice or voices, the melismatic material, of the earlier polyphony, or organum. With the dawning of the Renaissance, motets reflected an increasing secularization of church music.


a.  One line might be Latin, another vernacular.

                                       b.  One line might be the Mass, another a love song


D.                  With the complication of polyphony and the con­fusion of texts, understanding was made more difficult.


1.          By the 14th century, far more secular music was being composed.

2.         The authority of the papacy was being challenged and the arts in general were being secularized.

3.         Pope John XXII complained that the complicated music was “distorted by a multitude of notes... intoxicating rather than soothing the ears... devotion is brought into contempt, and wantonness is increased ... yet we do not intend to forbid... some concords which enrich the melody”.

4.          Instruments became increasingly important, and large organs were being installed in an increasing number of churches at this time.







1.          The fall of Constantinople, 1453, ended an epoch.


a.         Many Byzantine scholars fled to Italy, where they had an impact on the Renaissance.

b.         Russia became the new center of Byzantine culture and continued the development of musical traditions.

c.         The Byzantine tradition would interact with Lutheran and Roman Catholic scholoarship in succeeding centuries, bringing about changes in musical styles.


2.          1450 1600 brought about explosive changes in Western music.


a.         1501: first collection of music printed on moveable type.

b.         Four-pan writing progressed rapidly.

c.         Major and minor modes were implied by the use of the triad.

d.         Compositions such as Masses often borrowed existing tunes - many secular.

e.         This era reached its zenith with the work of Josquin des Prez and the Netherlanders.


3.          The German lied was the precursor of the chorale, which would be used so extensively in Protestant worship.




Martin Luther used Latin and German Masses in worship.


a.          Wanted all the congregation to take part.

b.          Felt that Latin was desirable as a scholarly language.

c.          Used the existing mass with some variations.


1.         The Gloria was omitted. (It belongs to Morning Prayer)

2.         New reciting tones were adapted, but the Psalms were used

             3.        German hymns were substituted for the abbreviated Proper.


a.      The chorale, like plainsong, consisted of a text and a tune.

b.      Chorale style lends itself to larger forms.

c.      Some chorales were translations of the Latin, others were adapted for Protestant use.

d.      Many used secular tunes or were parodies.


             4.         Chorales gave rise to the distinctive style of the Lutheran motets


             5.        Jean Calvin (1509-1564) opposed the retention of Catholic liturgy, although he

                        encouraged the reception of very frequent Communion.


a.      Chose Psalms set to newly-composed or popular music.

b.      Unison, unaccompanied in the service.

c.      Sung at home in four parts.

d.      The use of Psalters spread throughout the Reformed tradition.


1.         French Psalter: Louis Bourgeois, 1562  (“Doxology”)


a. Translations of French Psalter appeared in Germany, Holland, England, and Scotland.

b. Influenced English Psalter, Sternhold and Hopkins (1562), and Scottich Psalter (1564).


2.         Dutch: J.P. Sweelinck


3.          Henry Aimsworth, 1612: Came to America with Pilgrims, along with the Bay Psalm Book.


            4.         Anglican Services and Anthems.


a.      The Service music: For the unvarying portions of morning and evening prayer, and for Holy Communion.

b.      Anthem, corresponding to the Latin Motet: One for full chorus throughout, a cappelle, and the other for soloist with organ or viol accompaniment.




A.           1545-1563 - Council of Trent


1.      Insisted that the words must once again be made paramount and must be understandable.

2.      Rejected works based on improper secular tunes.

3.      Criticized the use of noisy instruments in church.

4.      Condemned carelessness and irreverence in singers.

5.      Reforms and strengths of Catholic church music of this era were epitomized by the music of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina.


B.         St. Mark’s, Venice, became a great musical center for all of Europe.


1.         Full, rich homophonic music, varied and colorful.

2.         The home of the greatest choirmasters in Italy.

3.         Double choruses, rich with instrumentation.

4.         Best-known composer was Giovanni Gabrielli.

6.            The influence of St. Mark’s reached throughout Europe.




A.           Oratorio was sacred opera, not staged.

           B.          Great composers such as Bach, Handel, and Purcell wrote in this style.

           C.          Subjectivism in writing replaced the objectivity of the litur­gical and Psalm


           D.          1700 saw the advent of the church cantata, a blending of the objective and

                         personal (Pietistic) styles.

           E           The greatest writer of the cantata was J.S. Bach, whose cantatas are a blend of 

                         Scripture quotations and introspective choruses composed to illustrate the Bible


F          The texts of Christ’s sufferings and death, the Passions, were admirably dramatized by Bach’s music.

G          In England, Samuel Wesley (1766-1837) recognized the greatness of J.S. Bach’s work and encouraged its performance.





A.         Ideals of the Classical period included simplicity, expressiveness, and universal appeal.


1.         Haydn: Catholic composer; dedicated music to the Glory of God.

2.         Mozart: Wrote many popular and beautiful Masses, and a notable AIIeluia as a concert piece.

3.         Beethoven: Ushered in the Romantic period with his fiery music; wrote dramatic Masses and sacred Lieder.

            B.         The romantic period sought “freedom, movement, passion, and endless

                        pursuit of the unattainable.” (Grout)


             1.         Accent on individualism in worship as in other areas of life.

             2.         Catholic composers: Schubert, Francis Gounod, Verdi.

             3.         Protestant composers: Brahms, Mendelssohn, Samuel S. Wesley.

            4.         Orthodox: Dmitri Bortniansky, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff.

            5.         Melodies of the great composers were borrowed for hymns (such as

                       Sibelius’ Finlandia).


            C.        During the Romantic period, a liturgical revival was attempted in the 

                        Roman Catholic church.


           1.          Pius X ordered a revival of Gregorian chant and male choir-singing.

           2.          Perhaps the liturgical renewal was a reaction to the “paganism” of such

                       composers as Richard Wagner.

             3.          The revival of chant accompanied a return of Eucharistic

            piety inspired by Pius X, the “Pope of the Eucharist”.


             D.       Liturgical renewal was likewise pursued in Russia prior to the Revolution.


          1.           Studies were made of the sources for ancient chants.

          2.           Nationalistic composers made use of folk tunes in their sacred


          3.           An extensive liturgical renewal began which continues to the present.


              E        Scholarly studies which began in the 19th century abound con­cerning the  

                       “roots” of church music composition and performance throughout the

                        entire Christian world.