Church Music 1: The First Thousand Years

Definition of ‘Christian Music’

The Christian church started in Jerusalem at the death of Christ and it first spread throughout the Greek world  and then, less securely, to Rome and the West.  In Diocletian’s time (reigned 284 – 305), the Roman Empire was split with the founding of Byzantium (Constantinople) between a Greek speaking east and a Latin speaking west which included North Africa. St. Augustine came from North Africa and St. Ambrose from Milan. So as time went by, there was a split between orientally based Greek church music and plainsong based Latin music.

Before the church

Music in the OT

Music in the NT

During this early period, the practice of the liturgies was extremely varied; the order, the style and the content of each repertory could be considerably different even if the foundation remained the same for them all. Latin progressively began to assert itself around the 4th Century, when it was used conjointly with Greek. Out of this ‘occidental’ music arose 5 ‘churches’ or ‘dialects’ with distinctive musical and geographical traits: The Milanese church in northern Italy (Ambrosian chant), the Beneventan church in the south, the church of the Iberian Peninsula (the Mozarabic repertory), the church of Rome (Old Roman/Byzantine period) and the Gallican Rite, peculiar to the Gauls which is closely linked to what was to become Gregorian Chant.

Gregorian Chant

The Roman chant, generally known as Gregorian, is regarded as particularly successful in marrying word and tone. The name derives from Pope Gregory the Great (540-604) though there remains much debate about how much he actually contributed, though legend has it that he single-handedly composed the hundreds of chants codified around this time. Chant remained the music of Western monasteries for centuries. The two great collections of Gregorian music for mass and divine office contain some 3000 melodies covering every aspect of the church’s worship. Texts chanted were largely from the Bible and mostly in Latin.

Disc 1:  History Disc

The chant of the Early Christians (5th to 13th centuries) (Harmonia Mundi 94881 78312)

Track 1: Ambrosien, early 5th century

Disc 2

5th century, Chants de L’Eglise Milanaise, Ensemble Organum, Marcel Peres (HM 94881 69842)

Music from the time of St. Augustine.

Track 4: Angelorum Laus ‘Gloria’ (7 minutes)

Track 6: Alleluia (7 minutes)

The great figure of St Ambrose dominates the so-called Ambrosian Chant the tradition of which goes back to the beginning of the 5th century and was perpetuated particularly in Milan. This is one of the earliest liturgical manifestations in the west.

Disc 3

6th Century: Chant Byzantin, Soeur Marie Keyrouz (HM 94881 85372)

Track 1: Alleluia (2.42 minutes)

Track 7: The noble Joseph (2.54 minutes)

Disc 4

7th-8th century Byzantine period: Chants de L’Eglise de Rome, Ensemble Organum, Marcel Peres.

(HM 94881 70272)

Track 1: Alleluia (6 minutes)

Track 2: Introit: Resurrexi (7.16 minutes)

Ensemble Organum have made a fascinating collection of re-created Roman Church chants of the 7th and 8th centuries, before Gregorian codification had repressed the florid, middle-eastern influences of Byzantine chant. This music was rediscovered in the early 20th century. Some formulas are still use in Greek chant today. Much of the chant was sung in Greek partly because 14 of the 20 Popes between 644 and 772 were Greek speaking.

Disc 5

9th-10th century Carolingian era: Ensemble Cantilena Antiqua (Passacaille 974)

Track 2:  Ut quid iubes pusiole (7 minutes)

An important moment in the history of medieval Latin lyrical poetry and music. Revived the classical tradition which had been neglected during a barbarous period. This track is the poetry of Gottschalk of Orbaia, theologian and poet born in Saxony. He entered a monastery but was expelled after being accused of heresy, and in this song expresses his deep distress about the exile.

Disc 6

Christmas in Royal Anglo-Saxon Winchester, 10th Century Chant (Herald HAVPCD151)

Track 3, Kyrie (4 minutes)

In 10th Century England, Christmas like Easter was an occasion for liturgical celebrations of exceptional splendour and magnificence. This is what might have been heard in the Old Minster during the Mass of the Day on Christmas Day.

Disc 7

Angels from the Vatican, Schola Gregoriana of Cambridge, Mary Berry (Herald HAVPCD 220)

Track 4, Kyrie: Gregorian Chant developed throughout the Middle Ages from the new musical notation of 11th century until the Council of Trent in 1560, but after that it was enshrined in permanent form until the 2nd Vatican Council of 1959-63. This is the kind of Gregorian Chant with which we are familiar.