“I heard there was a secret chord, that David played and it pleased the Lord.” But if you can’t figure out what that chord was, maybe just try singing. God made your voice, after all.
With roots going back to ancient Judaism, singing is an integral part of Christian worship. St. Paul tells us to “be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart” (Eph 5:17-19). One would guess that musical instruments would be helping to make this melody, adding another musical layer and aiding proper pitch, tempo, and rhythm.
However, the Fathers of the Early Church came down very hard against the use of any musical instruments in the liturgy. For example, St. John Chrysostom says rather forcefully that “where aulos-players are, there Christ is not.” By exploring their reasons, we’ll uncover some theological underpinnings to the Church’s use of chant in her liturgy.
“Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp! Praise him with timbrel and dance; praise him with strings and pipe! Praise him with sounding cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals! Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!” (Psalm 150:3-6)
Although the Temple at one point was known for its loud instruments, Judaism itself cast aside musical instruments in the wake of the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. When the Romans left Jerusalem devestated, the Jews dispersed throughout the Roman Empire abandoned their harps and lutes, as they had once done in the Babylonian Exile 600 years prior:
By the rivers of Babylon there we sat and wept, remembering Zion; on the poplars that grew there we hung up our harps. For it was there that they asked us, our captors for songs, our oppressors, for joy. “Sing to us,” they said, “one of Zion’s songs.” O how could we sing the song of the Lord on alien soil? (Psalm 137: 1-4)
Like the Babylonian Exile, the destruction of the Temple fundamentally changed Jewish worship, and the “lute and harp” lost out.
Another reason musical instruments lost out was that pagan cults were known for playing musical instruments. And since the early Jews had a real fear of obfuscating the sacred and the profane, the association of musical instruments with paganism was enough to render musical instruments unclean.
When the Early Church looked for guidance in how to conduct their worship, they seemed to follow suit. But the Church Fathers didn’t stop with just condemning the use of musical instruments in the liturgy of the Church; they went on to condemn them in other aspects of secular life. For example, St. John Chrysostom calls musical instruments “the devil’s great heap of garbage.” St. Augustine adds: “The pipe, tabret, and harp here associate so intimately with the sensual heathen cults, as well as with the wild revelries and shameless performances of the degenerate theater and circus, it is easy to understand the prejudices against their use in the worship.”
Because of this great aversion to musical instruments, early Christian liturgical music was exclusively vocal. The liturgy would be sung but only in a subdued fashion, using a form of singing called “cantillation” that resembled speech more than song.
“He who sings, prays twice” – this aphorism often attributed to St. Augustine is actually a distillation of his commentary on Psalm 73:
For he that sings praise, not only praises, but only praises with gladness; he that sings praise, not only sings, but also loves him of whom he sings. In praise, there is the speaking forth of one confessing; in singing, the affection of one loving.
Perhaps better distilled as “Only the lover sings,” singing adds to our praise the element of love, the internal disposition of the heart. The act of singing, involving the mechanisms of the human voice, expresses that love of God or, even, is that love of God. Something much more profound is happening in the song of the lover than a mere doubling of prayer.
But what about musical instruments?
Although Jewish and Christian worship changed, the Old Testament did not. How did the Early Church contend with the many instances of musical instruments in the Old Testament? The Church Fathers interiorized the external musical instruments featured in the psalter. Chief among the Church Fathers in that area, St. Clement of Alexandria writes on Psalm 150:
The Spirit, to purify the divine liturgy from any such unrestrained revelry, chants: ‘Praise Him with sound of trumpet,’ for, in fact, at the sound of the trumpet the dead will rise again; ‘praise Him with harp,’ for the tongue is a harp of the Lord; ‘and with the lute, praise Him,’ understand the mouth as a lute moved by the Spirit as the lute is by the plectrum; ‘praise Him with timbal and choir,’ that is, the Church awaiting the resurrection of the body in the flesh which is its echo; ‘praise Him with strings and organ,’ calling our bodies an organ and its sinews strings, for from them the body derives its coordinated movement, and when touched by the Spirit, gives forth human sounds; ‘praise Him on high-sounding cymbals,’ which mean the tongue of the mouth, which, with the movement of the lips, produces words.
Far removed from the “unrestrained revelry” of pagan culture, the human voice alone sufficed for authentic praise of God. All the references to musical instruments are made into allegories for the human body, each signifying different aspects of our physical anthropology.
But more than just our bodies, God made the whole human person – body and soul – in His image, capable of praising Him in melodious song. The early monk Cassiodorus writes that “the notes previously observed as issuing from musical instruments are now seen to emanate from the rational bodies of men.” Connecting this to the Incarnation, St. Clement of Alexandria writes:
The Word of God, scorning the lyre and cithara as lifeless instruments, and having rendered harmonious by the Holy Spirit both this cosmos and even man the microcosm, made up of body and soul – he sings to God on his many-voiced instrument and he sings to man, himself an instrument: “You are my cithara, my aulos and my temple,” a cithara because of harmony, and aulos because of spirit, and a temple because of the word, so that the first might strum, the second might breathe, and the third might encompass the Lord… The Lord made man a beautiful breathing instrument after his own image; certainly he is himself an all harmonious instrument of God, well-tuned and holy, the transcendental wisdom, the heavenly Word.
The Word of God became flesh – with human lungs, lips, tongue, and voice – and continued his eternal praise of the Father, now as one of those “beautiful breathing instruments.”
The definitive departure from “lifeless” Davidic musical instruments made room for such interpretations of the psalms. With this anthropologizing and allegorizing of the psalms with the elevated anthropology of the Incarnation, we have the beginnings of a theological foundation for liturgical chant.
Theology of the Unassisted Voice
When the Word became human flesh in the Incarnation, the study of human nature became a study of God – anthropology became a theology. Likewise, the study of the human voice reveals in some way the mystery of Christ. According to Dom Mark Kirby, the human voice in the Church’s liturgy prepares “in a kind of renewal of the mystery of the incarnation, an acoustical body for the Divine Word” (“The Psalmody of the Divine Office,” 17-18). In this way, liturgical chant is a participation in Christ’s mediation to the Father, as manifested in the Incarnation.
Here (with some help from Dom Kirby) are some theological musings on several aspects of the unassisted human voice.
Breathing: Within the Trinity, “the breath of God is indissociable from the word of God, and the word of God cannot be uttered save in a communication of the breath of God.” (“Toward a Definition of Liturgical Chant,” 15). Breathing thus images the action of the Holy Spirit in singing. In a cappella singing, pauses for breathing are left unfilled and exposed. Through the breathing necessary for supported singing, “the human person, fully alive, expresses likeness to God. Breath, life, and word constitute an inseparable triad in the divine economy of creation and redemption” (Ibid.). Together, the co-incidence of breath and word resonate in the human heart, the inner sanctuary of the temple of one’s body, where one prays to the Father in secret (Matt 6:6).
Memory: Unlike visual art which is stretched spatially, music is stretched temporally, requiring the human memory to link words across time into a coherent discourse. “Liturgical chant,” according to Dom Kirby, “being heightened discourse, engages the memory of both singer and hearer, becoming a disclosure, in time, of the timeless mystery, a contemplative unfolding of the Word” (“Toward a Definition of Liturgical Chant,” 14).
Communion: The prayer of the Christian is never solitary; every prayer is uttered in union with Christ and in communion with His Church. Chant captures this aspect of communion. The propers, antiphons, and psalmody chanted in the sacred assembly make present that communion of persons, all praying ecclesially with the voice of the Church. Chanting the prayer of the Church together leads to a uniformity without homogenization, a unity without loss of identity – each unique voice aids the others in a common song of praise. Even when chanted alone, the prayer of the liturgy is united with the prayers of all the faithful from the rising of the sun to its setting, stretching throughout space and time.
Silence: Chant begins and ends with silence: “the context of liturgical chant is, before and after anything else, silence. It originates, with the word, in silence. Like the Word, it ‘springs from the silence’” (Ibid., 20). More than merely assisting prayer, chant is prayer. In fact, chant is a participation in the highest prayer of Christ’s mediation to the Father. As such, chant should not feel rushed or busy, but must rather be irrigated with silence. The pockets of silence are little Mount Horebs wherein we hear the “still small voice” of God (1 Kg 19:12). This prayer does not need musical instruments filling in the gaps of singing and supporting the sound of the human voice with additional melodic layers. Rather, in liturgical chant, the exposed and vulnerable human person encounters the Father most authentically in silence.
In chant, the human voice alone carries the word and expresses the fullness of the human person – body and soul. Chanting the text without accompaniment, one’s voice, one’s prayer – one’s whole person – is exposed to God. Chant is thus a full, conscious, and active participation in the prayer of the Church in the liturgy.
As the Church spread throughout Europe and the influence of paganism began to wane, musical instruments lost their negative associations. No longer seen as “the devil’s heap of garbage,” the Church began to reintroduce instruments into worship. With a little help from Charlemagne, the pipe organ became a prominent feature of medieval churches. As a “breathing” machine operated by bellows, the pipe organ was seen as an appropriate mechanical approximation of the human voice.
But before the organ became a staple of church construction, the initial vacuum created by the Church Fathers’ opposition to musical instruments was filled by a theology of the unaccompanied human voice. Even though the Church no longer fears a connection to pagan worship, it was that initial aversion that occasioned the development of a robust theology of the unaccompanied voice – a theology whose praises are often unsung.
Such a theology became the basis for the great depositum orandi – deposit of prayer (to coin a phrase) – in Gregorian Chant. To this day, Gregorian chant is still “specially suited to the Roman liturgy” and “should be given pride of place in liturgical services” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 116).
Like the Early Church, the negative cultural associations of some contemporary genres of music ought to be taken into account in developing liturgical music fitted for the worship of the Father through, with, and in the incarnate Son. But more importantly, we ought not to turn our back on the larger theology of chant rooted in the Incarnation.
Post by: Deacon Peter Gruber, C.O.
Main image: The Worcester Psalter
The Initial of Psalm 97