History of Music from the Torah to the Baroque Eraby Rit Nosotro
Change Over Time essay
Trace the history of Western music in the church from the Old Testament to the Baroque Era.
Tracing the history of Western music in the church, one quickly realizes how much change sacred music has undertaken from the Old Testament to the Baroque Era. Yet throughout the history, Christian music always seems to return to one thing. We will see this music used in thanksgiving, in worship, and in prayer and with all its uses, the one thing it all comes back to is glorifying God.
It is impossible to tell the full history of the origins of music in the Church, "Nevertheless it is clear that although medieval theoreticians accepted some of the theoretical bases of ancient Greek musical theory, the practice of music was far more heavily indebted to the traditions of Jewish music." Early on in the Bible, evidence of Jewish music and instruments is found. We find a wonderful example of the Israelites using instruments to praise and thank God for parting the Red Sea. Exodus 15:20 says "Then Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took the timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances." However, a more detailed description of the style of music in Israel is found in the book of Psalms. "Certain headings to the psalms would seem to suggest that the use of modes, one of the most marked characteristics of all Middle Eastern music, was well known to the Levites." These Hebrew psalms later became significant in Christian liturgy under the name of "responsorial psalmody".
In the early church, sacred music had chiefly a utilitarian purpose. "It was found that an excellent method of assisting worshippers to pray together was to base the prayer on a very simple chant, very much in the nature of a recitation designed on simple rhythmic and melodic lines." At first, a soloist sang the melody, but some psalms ended with an alleluia or some short refrain that was easily remembered, and it soon became ordinary for this to be sung in unison. The pinnacle of reform for the liturgy and the chant appears to have been largely due to Gregory I (The Great), Pope from 590 to 604. As Pope for just fourteen years, his accomplishments were amazing. "He recodified the liturgy and reorganized the Schola Cantorum; he assigned particular items of the liturgy to the various services throughout the year in an order that remained essentially untouched until the sixteenth century; he gave impulse to the movement which eventually led to the establishment of a uniform repertoire of chant for use throughout the Church in all countries." That is why this entire body of music is called the Gregorian Chant. Three main types of chants existed, the reciting formulas, the melismatic songs, and the refrains sung by the choir or congregation. The melodies of these were constructed according to Jewish fashion and the traditional standard melodic method within a given mode. Gregorian chants were the inspiration behind much of Western music up to the sixteenth century. Continuing on in the Dark Ages, we find the development of polyphony, "the simultaneous sounding of two or more melodic lines." In the eleventh century, an Italian monk and musical theorist named Guido of Arezzo wrote the "Micrologus", which was crucial to the development of polyphony. Also, he revolutionized the meaning of pitch by notation when he used horizontal lines to show the relative pitch of particular notes. Early in the twelfth century, the center of musical liveliness moved to the church of Notre-Dame in Paris until the fourteenth century when it moved to Florence, Italy. Perhaps the greatest achievement of church music in the fourteenth century was Machaut's "Notre-Dame" mass for four voices.
Entering into the Renaissance Period, we find that while secular music takes on as many new ideas as possible, the Church attempts to remain as conservative as possible. "Liturgical practice dictated that the mass and the motet remain the chief forms of sacred vocal music. Compared with secular music, their style was conservative, but inevitably some of the newer secular techniques crept in and figured effectively in the music of the Counter-Reformation within the Roman Catholic Church." With the outbreak in the church caused by the Reformation, many new forms of sacred music appeared in Protestant worship services. The German Lutheran worshipped with hymn tunes arranged from plainsong or a secular melody. The Anglican Church had its own form of the motet, and the Calvinist played psalm tunes.
Into this environment, the Baroque era begins, and with it two of the most influential composers of all time, Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel. These two men received an incredible gift from God and they used it to glorify him. Both were raised in the Lutheran Church, but because of different musical training, Handel was primarily a dramatic composer, writing opera, oratorio, and secular cantatas while Bach works included Passions, cantatas for church services, liturgical organ pieces, and harpsichord compositions. Their music impacted the church so much that several of their songs appear today in hymnals.
Throughout history, the wonder and beauty of sacred music appears. Yet from the psalms of the Old Testament and the Gregorian Chants, to the oratorios, Passions, and hymns of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the beauty of sacred music is that it can mold to the preference of the time and still be used to glorify God.
1. What instrument did Miriam play after the crossing of the Red Sea?
b. electric guitar
2. All were accomplished by Gregory I EXCEPT:
a. reorganizing the Schola Cantorum
b. writing the first oratorio
c. recodifying the liturgy
d. having a chant named after him
3. Who invented staff lines?
a. Johann Sebastian Bach
b. George Frideric Handel
c. George Washington
d. Guido of Arezzo
4. What was the musical highlight for the church in the fourteenth century?
a. Machaut’s “Notre-Dame” mass for four voices
b. J.S. Bach’s Passion Chorale “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded”
c. Guido of Arezzo’s “Micrologus”
d. None of the above
Encyclopaedia Britannica. Volume 12. Macropaedia
Grout, Donald Jay. "The History of Western Music". New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 1981
"The Larousse Encyclopedia of Music"
Pincherle, Marc. "An illustrated History of Music". New York: Reynal & Company. 1959.
Definitions (All from "Alfred's Pocket Dictionary of Music")
Mode: Notes arranged in a scale, that form the basic tonal material of a composition.
Schola Cantorum: The singing school organized by St. Gregory. Often refers to any choir which performs Gregorian chants.
Motet: A polyphonic form of the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods. Later used to describe various choral compositions.
Oratorio: A composition for voices and instruments with a sacred or Biblical text.
Cantata: A vocal work for the chorus, soloist, and orchestra that is performed
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