From Medieval Church Music to Modern Hymns

Have you ever wondered how long peo­ple have been singing hymns such as are common to the modern church service?

By R. CHESTER BARGER, Teacher, Colman, South Dakota

Have you ever wondered how long peo­ple have been singing hymns such as are common to the modern church service? It is really a complicated story.

For hundreds of years after the founding of the Christian church there was very little change in the type of sacred music commonly used, but near the close of the first millennium after Christ there began to be some develop­ment, especially in Flanders and France, far from the rigid control of Rome.

CHURCH MUSIC OF A.D. I 000.—Hucbald (840-930), of Flanders, developed a custom of notation, probably in harmony with a growing tendency of singing, which he called organum, or diaphony. It consisted of a succession of fourths or fifths. He used also, at times, a con­tinuous bass note, similar to present organ point. Other musicians added thirds and sixths to the unisons, fourths and fifths, producing combinations called organum profanum. This was followed by faux bourdon, in which thirds and sixths in three parts were used.

The next development was the hexachord. Since the octave scale had not yet been used, this was a big improvement. It consisted of three scales of six tones each, based on C, F, and G. When tones too high or low to be in­cluded in one hexachord occurred, another hex­achord was used above or below the original one. The only half step was mi-fa. Compared with the previous notation, this system was quite simple, and musicians were able to read music with much greater facility.

DESCANTS OF MIDDLE AGES.—The church at the time (about A.D. IMO) used no musical in­struments, although several instruments were in popular use. Stimulated by the Crusades, the four centuries following ushered in an era of widespread popular singing, martial, sentimen­tal, or roystering, as the occasion demanded. During this period the descant became very popular. The melody of most songs of the time was carried by the tenor (or men's) voices. The descant consisted of another melody carried by other voices, often women's, sung at the same time. The perfection of the descant was largely melodic, but great practice enabled some startling and some pleasing harmonic ef­fects to be produced. This type of music became quite popular in church worship, a dignified sacred tune being carried to the accompaniment of a popular (even a dance or barroom) tune.

FORERUNNER OF MODERN HYMN.—In time the discordant elements always present in the descant began to be governed and eliminated by rules so as to make the effects more harmo­nious. The cantus firmus was thus developed. The fundamental melody was still borrowed from chants or secular songs, but the accom­panying air was governed to eliminate discord­ant elements. In time more than one descant came to be used, not all beginning at the same time, but culminating in a climax. These later melodies became imitative of the original mel­ody, culminating eventually in the fugue, which was developed more fully by J. Sebastian Bach. Eventually counterpoint had come to be achieved, where each of the accompanying mel­odies coincided in time, point by point, note by note, with the cantus firmus. During these cen­turies the prose part of the song began to be metrical and became the forerunner of the pres­ent-day hymn.

The years from 1000 to 1350 or 1400 were, therefore, years of experimentation, and neces­sarily of confusion. Counterpoint seems to have become fairly well formulated by 1200. Consec­utive fifths were quite well eliminated; satisfy­ing resolutions had been invented ; thirds and sixths were common ; and the value of oblique and contrary motion had been recognized. As music thus became more mathematically exact, it became more and more artificial and intri­cate. Monks in the monasteries made musical composition their pastime, producing very elab­orate and theoretical effects, but their music became increasingly impractical and "unsing­able."

FOLK SONGS ADAPTED TO CHURCH USE.—During this period of artificial and mechanical church music, folk songs became increasingly popular and gratifying. Many of these were adapted to church use : thus we find such masses as "The Armed Man" and "Adieu, My Love." The Renaissance brought with its in­creased mental alertness an era of less religious fervor, so such songs were not considered out of place in church use by very many worship­ers of the time.

There were sonic leaders of reform, how­ever. Palestrina (1525-1594), Goudimel (1505­1572), his teacher, Josquin Depres, Willaert, Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli, and Tallis were among the leaders who brought greater spirit­uality, sweetness, and charm to the church music of their era.

ALL A CAPPELLA CHORUS MUSIC.—The music of this period differed widely yet from that of the present clay. It was all chorus music, purely vocal, with more or less accidental har­mony. It was on the long-used modal or hexa­chord basis, with no modulation into related keys. It was all in one key with almost no acci­dentals or key sharps or flats. There was little, if any, phrasing of the music, with no seekino­after symmetry, balance, or building up the various parts. While the cantus firmus re­mained the fundamental part, the other melo­dies were yet conceived of as independent mel­odies. Palestrina's age left a definite treed for the parts to be balanced and of equal value.

A modern listener would find the music of that age at first dramatic and uplifting, with true worshipful values, but it would soon lose its appeal, and would become dreadfully mo­notonous and distressing, without restful ca­dences, climaxes, or pauses.

INTENSE LOYALTY TO MARY.—The chivalry of the period of the Crusades had a definite ef­fect upon the music of the time, being seen especially in church music in an intense loyalty to Mary, with many songs composed in her honor and in many psalms written to her praise. Many hymns were written in honor of other popular saints.

The German people of this time began burst­ing the bonds of restriction that since the sev­enth century had limited the singing in the German church to the responses, "Kyrie eleison" or "Kyrie eleis." By the twelfth cen­tury religious folk songs had been fully de­veloped. A new tide of such songs arose in the fifteenth century, with the people participating less and less in the Latin songs of the church, and more and more in their religious folk songs. The clergy sang in Latin, but the popular re­sponse was in German. Many of the tunes of the latter were hunting and dancing tunes, but most of them were stately and not poorly adapted to religious use.

LUTHER USES MUSIC TO EVANGELIZE.—Huss encouraged a similar popular use of music in Bohemia. When Luther appeared in Germany he found the musical stage ready for a popular use of evangelization in song. He and his help­ers, Johann Walther and Ludwig Senfl, soon had about a hundred evangelical church hymns, motets, and chorales in popular use, preparing the way for the later developments of Bach.

Of the thirty-six new hymns composed by Luther, only two or three are still used, be­cause they were so transitional in character, shifting from key to key, from minor to major, without warning. Luther, however, by his breadth of mind and definite musical taste, left a great and lasting impress upon German church music, which was developing along two more or less simultaneous lines—polyphonic chorus music and people's hymn tunes or cho­rals (later, pietistic folk songs).

ZWINGLI AND CALVIN IMPOSE RESTRICTIONS. —Zwingli succeeded in practically eliminating the use of music in his churches in Switzer­land. Calvin was less extreme, but he did not allow the use of choral music, confining his congregation to unison singing of metrical ver­sions of the psalms and canticles. Instrumental music and accompaniment were barred entirely.

Calvin began a collection of tunes for use in psalm singing. Other collectors and some adapters assisted him, so that by 1562 there were 125 tunes in the psalter. Changes, altera­tions, and additions were made, but by 1562 the psalter was fixed, being considered a sa­crosanct and untouchable institution. Calvin did not follow any harmonization of the psalms, but other churches did. Greater development of music, therefore, occurred in countries and churches not under Calvinistic control.

In Germany the melody was given to the des­cant instead of the tenor ; harmony was simpli­fied and popularized; chromatic tones were used to produce richer harmony and greater variety. Some of the tunes developed in Ger­many about 1600 are still in use there as well as in Great Britain, the United States, and elsewhere. Much of the work of the musicians of this period, even of J. S. Bach, was not com­position but arrangement and reharmonization.

LIGHTER GOSPEL SONGS INTRODUCED.—Near the end of the sixteenth century the chorals were syllabized and dance rhythm was no longer used. Much of the German music of the time was too heavy and slow to suit the tastes of other countries, but more than a hun­dred tunes made their way from Germany into the Scottish psalter, and as many reached psal­ters in the United States and Canada. A later German development of widespread influence was the pietistic folk song, somewhat akin to our own gospel songs, although not quite so artistic.

English church music was influenced some­what by the Gregorian chants introduced by the Augustinian monks, but the ruder music of the Britons had more effect upon the music of the church, so that before long the church was using popular ballad tunes for its educational and propaganda purposes. In the monasteries the influence of the popular tunes was slight ; but when Henry VIII destroyed the monastic orders and confiscated their estates, the popu­lar music had no great discouraging opponent. The folk songs of the Lollards became espe­cially influential.

FOUR-PART HARMONY APPEARS.—The popu­larity in France of metrical psalms led to their introduction into England and the other British domains. By 1549 a popular edition of the psalms had appeared in England. Most of the psalms were sung to one and the same tune, but by 1562 a psalter with sixty-five tunes had appeared. About the same time a separate edi­tion supplied harmony in four parts.

The development of the Scottish psalter was independent of that in England, coming more directly from Geneva. All editions before 1629 gave nothing more than the melodies. In that year a psalter was issued with fifteen separate melodies harmonized in four parts.

The psalm tunes were syllabic, a note to every syllable, with rhythm plain and severe. There was a radical change of chord with every note of the melody (giving strong mo­mentum and progress to the tunes). The har­mony was contrapuntal, and the melody sim­ple but well marked and symmetrical. Many of these tunes are still in common use.

WESLEYAN HYMNS OF PERSONAL EXPERI­ENCE.—Following 1629 there was no great de­velopment in music until the development of the Wesleyan movement. With the great impe­tus to the decadent religious life furnished by this movement, there arose a need for a new music. The psalms in common use had lost all consciousness of the worshiper and his need. A recognition of the greatness and holiness of God was emphasized, but often the worshiper was left depressed and despondent. However, the Wesleyan religion was a personal one, de­manding a music of personal experience, joy­ful, inspiring, ecstatic, and deeply emotional.

DEVELOPMENT OF MODERN GOSPEL SONG.—Such music was furnished by Isaac Watts and the Wesleys, and a whole "school" of compos­ers which arose to meet the demand of the hour. Much of the music produced was secular, com­plicated, and impractical, but our present hym­nals have been greatly enriched by the better hymns and tunes produced then. The tendency started then has continued to change music until the modern hymn tune was evolved.

The development of the modern gospel song in Britain, and especially in America, shows great liberality and modernization, reflecting quite extensive influence of the American folk songs.

It is certain that our present sacred music is far removed from that of a millennium ago.

The process of development has been involved but steady, bringing interesting contributions from nearly every country of Western Europe, as well as America.

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By R. CHESTER BARGER, Teacher, Colman, South Dakota

March 1949

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