The Role of Rhythm in Church Music part 1

The Role of Rhythm in Church Music (Part 1)

FROM time immemorial music and religion have been closely interwoven, for since the dawn of history music has been an integral part of man's experience. The Bible itself opens on the strains of a sublime oratorio when "the morning stars sang together," and closes on that mighty chorus "Salvation, and glory, and honour" as human history merges into eternity. . .

-professor of music, Atlantic Union College at the time this article was written

FROM time immemorial music and religion have been closely interwoven, for since the dawn of history music has been an integral part of man's experience. The Bible itself opens on the strains of a sublime oratorio when "the morning stars sang together," and closes on that mighty chorus "Salvation, and glory, and honour" as human history merges into eternity.

Great music is capable of both creating and expressing our deepest emotions thus becoming the highest medium of spiritual communion. Tchaikovsky once said, "Music is the most beautiful of Heaven's gifts to humanity. Walking in darkness, it enlightens and stills our souls." Thus music becomes not merely a succession of pleasing sound patterns but indeed the voice of the human soul.

Through the ages man has found his highest expression of worship through music. Worship and music were blended in magnificence at the dedication of Solomon's temple as 120 priests with trumpets were joined by the Levitical singers who, to the accompaniment of trumpets, cymbals, harps and lyres, raised such a triumphant sound of praise that the "glory of the Lord . . . filled the Lord's house." Here indeed was sacred music in its highest fulfillment bringing all into the very presence of God.

The poet has said, "Music wakes the soul, lifts it high, wings it with sublime desires, and fits it to be speak the Deity." This lofty ideal is beautifully reflected in the following words from the pen of inspiration.

"Music was made to serve a holy purpose, to lift the thoughts to that which is pure, noble, and elevating, and to awaken in the soul devotion and gratitude to God. . . . Singing ... is as much an act of worship as is prayer."1

With the ideals of sacred music so clearly before us, what then are the elements with which the composer must work in order to achieve these lofty goals? In its broader sense, all music can be said to be the harmonious blending of three components melody, harmony, and rhythm. In this series of articles we shall confine ourselves to the consideration of the all-important element of rhythm its tremendous influence on the history and development of church music and some of the current problems engendered by its use and misuse.

Any attempt to define rhythm becomes at once a difficulty in itself, for we are dealing with a force that is so all-prevailing and powerful as to permeate all melody, form, and harmony and become the very breath of music itself yet so subtle and complex as to elude any simple definition.

In its simplest analysis, we may say that rhythm amounts to a steady, orderly recurrence of visible or audible stimuli light and dark, strong and weak, motion and pause, presence and absence. In terms of sound, we might sum it up in one word pulsation. At once we realize then that all nature is rhythm, whether it be the heartbeat or the ebb and flow of the waves on the shore.

If the definition of rhythm is complex or obscure, certainly the physical and psychological effects are unmistakable. Recent developments in the field of musical therapy have shown us the definite physical and emotional effects of rhythm even to measurable changes in body metabolism, respiration, and blood pressure. The tremendous effectiveness of work songs and marching songs in reducing fatigue and inducing coordination is a well-accepted fact. It has also been established that a slow tempo with long notes gives the impression of nobility, dignity, and peace, while a rapid tempo with short notes gives the impression of excitement and restlessness.

One of the most striking examples of the effects of rhythm is afforded by a look at the fantastic and highly complex rhythms and polyrhythms of the African tribes. From personal experience it must be said that only after intense study can one begin to hear (much less to reproduce) the intricacy and complexity of these rhythmic patterns. Intriguing as this is as an art form to the musician, it must be admitted that these very rhythms repeated incessantly are frequently used in primitive societies to produce the well-nigh hypnotic states so vital a part of pagan rites and orgies. Significantly the twentieth century has seen what we might term a relapse into the neoprimitive and barbaric in its tremendous emphasis on rhythm as the essential factor in music, and today we are witnessing the frenzied intoxicating effects of jazz and rock rhythms in producing the mass hysteria and pseudo-religious ecstasy of our time.

The present intrusion of the strong rhythmic elements of today's music into the music of the church forces us to take a close look at how these influences have affected church music in times past and how the church has treated this important issue. In looking back on the history of the development of rhythm it is necessary that we clearly distinguish between two distinct rhythmic categories measured rhythm and metrical rhythm. Measured rhythm indicates a fixed unit of time but lacking a regular recurrent accent a type of rhythm generally accepted as that employed in the Gregorian chant. Metrical rhythm, on the other hand, is that with a fixed unit of time in which the normal accent occurs in regular intervals called bars this constituting most of our European music since 1600.

Development of Church Music

The earliest record of sacred music comes to us, of course, from the scriptural account of the elaborate Temple services under the direction of four thousand professionally trained Levite musicians. Ample evidence indicates that the psalms were sung, probably with instrumental accompaniment, and their use of parallelism very strongly suggests antiphonal or responsorial participation by the congregation. It is interesting to note that the inscription translated "To the chief Musician upon . . ." actually denoted the exact melody type or strain upon which the psalm was to be sung. Though no documents or early Jewish music exist, considerable light has been shed by recent research into the music of the isolated Jewish tribes in Yemen dating back 2,000 years and approximating closely the Jewish music of Biblical times. This study reveals the music as chant or cantillation of the psalms and prophets. Rhythmically it is distinctly of the measured or free type, in which the music is entirely subservient to the rhythm and meaning of the words.

It followed quite naturally that the great tradition of Jewish religious music with its chanting of the psalms should carry over into the early Christian church. Chrysostom exclaims: "David formerly sang in psalms, also we sing today with him; he had a lyre with lifeless strings, the Church has a lyre with living strings. Our tongues are the strings of the lyre, with a different tone, indeed, but with a more accordant piety." 2

Instrumental music was frowned upon for sacred purposes and in its stead there developed the fervent utterance of holy thought that voiced itself in the ecstatic extemporizations on the "Alleluia" and "Amen," "Like the surging of the sea in great waves." The rhythmical structure was completely free in nature.

How the Hymn Developed

But now there arose a new force in the music of the church in the development of the hymn by which the early Christians sought to supplement their heritage of psalms with newly written poems of praise and adoration to Christ. Arising in the Byzantine and Syrian churches it attained great prominence in the Eastern church. The earliest extant hymn melody is that of the Oxyrhynchus hymn of the third century A.D. Hymn writing soon arose in the Western church, the earliest of such hymns being ascribed to Saint Ambrose of Milan.

Interestingly, these hymns are written in a simple scheme of eight stanzas each consisting of four lines in iambic tetrameter and according to Saint Augustine they were in metrical rhythm of triatemporum, i.e., in three beats denoting the Trinity with a syllable on each tone rather than the florid style of the later Gregorian chant. According to this, the earliest hymn would have sounded as follows:


Here is obviously the foundation of the hymn form and it can be said that the Ambrosian hymn became, a thousand years later, the model for the chorale of the Protestant Church.

This early flowering of hymnody was brought to a halt by the decree of the Council of Laodicea in c. 327 A.D. that prohibited the participation of the congregation, or the use of instruments in the service, and provided that only scriptures could be used for singing. With this the church entered upon a long period dominated almost entirely by plain song or Gregorian chant, again in free or measure rhythm. The earthy activity-inducing quality of rhythm so well demonstrated in work and play music was looked upon askance by the church, with its stress on contemplation. However, by the twelfth century the hymn, with its metrical rhythm, had again emerged and been adopted into the Western church.

Secular Melodies Introduced

Up to this time the line of demarcation between sacred and secular had been clearly delineated, but now we begin to see the introduction of secular melodies and even texts into the French church motet, while in Italy pious folks went about the streets of Florence and other cities singing what were termed Laudi Spiritual'!—religious songs of devotion and praise set to simple metrical melodies in the vernacular. This intrusion of the secular, both melodic and rhythmic, led to the decree by Pope John XXII in 1322 against all such "abuses" and later to the stringent decrees of the Council of Trent against the use of harmony, polyphony, and rhythmic devices with an at tempt to return to the simple plain song. But the forces of change could not be turned back, and what resulted was the greatest flowering of Catholic church music, culminating in the sacred works of Gabriel!, di Lasso, and Palestrina.

Of far greater significance at this period was the advent of the Reformation, with the rise of the German chorale and the English anthem. Luther, himself an accomplished musician and poet, considered the chorale as one of the most important pillars of his reform movement, for he envisioned music as a vehicle to symbolize in worship the believer's direct access to God.

We cannot but digress at this moment to point out the lack of validity in the oft-heard argument that Luther brought the music of the street into the church (thus giving license for the promiscuous use of any and all types of folk or popular melody, regardless of source or quality). In reply to this it must be borne in mind that Luther was a highly cultivated musician with such a thorough knowledge of the liturgy of the church that he could borrow from all sources and fulfill a need without creating a greater problem. As Robert Wunderlich so aptly put it: "Luther, and later Bach, both borrowed from secular sources but these were not simply ideas transferred, rather they were ground up in the mill of their personal talents and experience and recast into forms suitable for their purposes." 3

It must also be realized that the folk songs of Luther's day were close enough in style to the church music of the time that the two streams could well-nigh merge, for there was not the gap, musically speaking, that we find today.

The Great Composers

A little over a century later Protestant church music was to come to its highest fulfillment in the great sacred works of Bach, Handel, and others of the Baroque period. Lofty as a great cathedral, Bach raised the structure of his art on the chorales of Luther. To Bach the sole object of all music should be the glory of God and on many of his manuscripts appeared the words, "Jesus Help Me" at the beginning, and at the close "To God Be the Glory."

This was the period of the great church cantatas, the Passions, and the oratorios in which the greatest com posers such as Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, and later Haydn and Mozart, contributed to the music of the church the highest expression of their inspired artistry and genius. It is only to be deplored that this magnificent heritage of sacred music constitutes so little a part of the average church music of today.

Simultaneously at this period there was again a flourishing of hymnody under the Wesleys and Isaac Watts. Here a new evangelical element was introduced in the hymns of personal Christian experience. While Watts confined his hymn writing largely to three meters, Charles Wesley experimented freely using thirty different metrical forms. Great care, how ever, was exercised to create hymnic literature of the highest and noblest quality both poetically and musically.

From the beginning of the nineteenth century the two streams of secular and sacred again seemed to divide, and aside from notable exceptions such as Mendelssohn (who was greatly influenced in his sacred works by the music of Bach) the great composers turned their attention largely to other forms. Thus the production of great church music became a somewhat thinly spread succession of isolated masterworks rather than a continuous development, leaving church music open to second- or even.third-rate influences. The misuse and abuse of the romanticism and chromaticism of the late nineteenth century combined with the introduction of the jazz rhythms of the twentieth have succeeded in bringing the matter of rhythm in church music today to its present crisis.

(To be continued)


1. Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 594.

2. Edward Dickinson, Music in the History of the Western Church, p. 55.

3. Robert Wunderlich, "The Folk Mass—Friend or Foe?" Church Music (Concordia Publishing House), 1969, No. 2, p. 11.

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-professor of music, Atlantic Union College at the time this article was written

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