Sacred music is a universal phenomenon of humanity. Where there is faith, there is music to express it. Every major religious tradition and most minor ones have music and have it in abundance and variety. There is music to accompany ritual and music purely for devotion, music for large congregations and music for trained soloists, music that sets holy words, and music without words at all. In some traditions, the relation between music and religious ritual is so intimate that it is inaccurate to speak of the music accompanying the ritual. Rather, to perform the ritual is to sing, and to sing the ritual is to perform it.
   That kind of intimacy begs the question whether the tones uttered during the ritual are properly considered music in the usual sense at all. In traditional Islam, the heightened speech or cantillation used to read the Qur’ān in religious rites is not so considered by imams, even though it might possibly be written down by ethnomusicologists with pitch notation; it is simply the proper way to proclaim the Qur’ān. Any devotional music outside the mosque is suspect as a temptation of the secular world (although in certain sects popular religious music associated with particular festivals and temple rites has developed). In this case, and that of Theravada Buddhism, too, and certain early Christian sects, the term "sacred music" is nearly empty.
   In Hindu India, on the other hand, virtually all of the arts, until very recent times, owe their inspiration to religion, and even the Hindustani and Karnatic classical music performed in concert halls comprises texts drawn on sacred themes. "Sacred music" in this context is nearly redundant. So a direct translation of "sacred music" into certain other cultures may well elicit a kind of puzzlement. In the West, the line demarcating sacred from secular music is clearer than anywhere else. Yet, even in a Western context, what counts as "sacred music" is not simply a matter of the music heard in a church or synagogue. The category appears to admit of degree—works can be more or less sacred. The most sacred would be liturgical music, music explicitly required as part of a ritual, such as a sung mass, a psalm in a vespers service, or a required proper hymn. Next would come devotional music apart from liturgy, either personal or public: processional songs, Italian laude, songs from the Sacred Harp collection sung in homes, etc. These two categories dominate the middles ages and Renaissance in Europe and the early colonial period of North America and represent the sacred/ secular distinction at its strongest, secular music being any sort neither liturgical nor devotional.
   Thereafter, the categories branch out and the distinction blurs. A third kind of Western music often considered sacred, but not without qualification, is music composed on Bible stories or lives of saints but with little connection to liturgy or to private devotions and often belonging to no particular sect of Christianity. Such compositions flourished after the invention of opera just before 1600, when art music in general began to acquire strong narrative and dramatic properties and to take on a larger role in public entertainment, to reach into the growing middle and mercantile classes, to attain, in short, the status of an art to be contemplated for its own sake without having to accompany some cultural activity. Certain kinds of composition, particularly instrumental genres, could cross over from the strictly liturgical to much more worldly, even commercial uses. "Christmas" concertos, such as Arcangelo Corelli’s famous op. 6, no. 8 (c. 1690, pub. 1714), accompanied a liturgy but doubled as household music. Franz Joseph Haydn’s "Seven Last Words of Our Saviour from the Cross," originally composed as orchestral meditations for a Lenten service in Cadiz (1787), became famous through more accessible versions for string quartet (1787) and piano (not arranged by Haydn). Other works, such as Johann Kuhnau’s "Biblical" Sonatas (1700) for keyboard, have no liturgical role whatever. The oratorio trod the same path, beginning within the church as an extra-liturgical devotion in 17th-century Rome and quickly making its way into the courts and eventually the theater. The most famous exemplar, Handel’s Messiah, which he entitled A Sacred Oratorio, embodies the paradox of this kind of sacred music: the entire text is Biblical, minimally adapted, and yet tickets were sold for the first performance, which took place in a large public hall in Dublin in 1742. The translocation from church to concert hall also produced a large repertory of works composed in liturgical forms but which live on chiefly as concert works: a fourth category of symphonic masses, cantatas, motets, and sacred songs that are the bread and butter of choral societies throughout the western world. Once again, many of these originated as, or were at least intended to be, liturgical works, but the logistical requirements for their execution—large orchestras and choruses—were climbing just as interest in liturgical music and in Christianity in general was declining rapidly at the onset of the 19th century. Some works, with Ludwig van Beethoven’s massive Missa Solemnis (1823) perhaps setting the trend, landed in the concert hall chiefly because they demand extraordinary performance forces and overwhelm the liturgy by sheer length, but few churches can afford the regular performance of even a comparatively modest mass by Franz Schubert.
   This rich and wonderfully varied repertory grew up chiefly in Christian Europe because that tradition failed to do what religious traditions elsewhere practiced as a matter of principle—to resist history. Music, generally speaking, lends itself least to preservation of all the fine arts, and composition with and performance from notation is still a peculiarly Western tradition that distinguishes it from the other musics of the world, sacred or secular. Many religious traditions have positively discouraged any writing of music, preferring to hand it on by rote from elder to novice in oral tradition. Thus, singers of Coptic chant spend 20 years or more learning their repertory, and the samāvedic chanters of the Hindu tradition attain such mastery that some can recite whole passages from memory in reverse or begin at any point within many volumes of scripture.1 Strictly speaking, music known only through oral tradition has no history because we can know only its present form. There is no way of telling whether it was different in the past, and mere prose accounts of what happened, numerous in some traditions, operate at a great remove from the actual music and give little specific sense of it. History is difficult if not impossible without written records.
   Yet it is a curious coincidence that a number of different religious traditions began developing a means of writing their music around the turn of the second millennium A. D: the earliest Gregorian chant books about 900; Byzantine chant books from the 10th century; samāvedic chant from the 11th century; Jewish piyyutim in the 11th century; Chinese ya-yüeh from the 12th century. The reason, at least in some of these cases, is that the repertory of sacred chant had grown too large to be committed to memory reliably, and so notation was invented to prevent the inevitable creeping change that always accompanies the more casual oral traditions such as folk music. Here, in black and white, is a second obstacle to a history of sacred music—the resistance to change itself. For if the music is ever constant, then there is no history, and this state of affairs is exactly what many religious traditions have tried to achieve, and in the main they have succeeded. The proper musical setting of a sacred text is considered immutable, a reflection of the divine perfection that never needs improvement. Inventing new formulae for such chants would be as abhorrent for a Copt as altering the text of the Gospels for most Christians.
   Early on in Europe, this attitude seems to have relaxed compared to other traditional cultures. Lois Ibsen al Faruqi suggests that the central conception of God changed from one of transcendence and immutability to a more personal, humanist image and therefore allowed changes in modes of worshipping Him.2 Somehow the West adopted a different standard for what transmitted the sense of the sacred: rather than being an immutable facet of the Word, the music could develop and change and continue to convey the Word with reverence and awe as long as it did not emulate the music of the secular world. It is impossible to say when this change of attitude came about, but it is certain that Christian communities were composing new hymns, that is, non-Biblical texts to be sung, by the fourth century. Whatever the explanation, the dissociation of the sacred semantic in music—the sense of what is holy in music—from the Biblical text itself is what allows sacred music in the West to have so rich a history.
   The most important developments in the history of sacred music in the West are four. The first was this allowance of change in sacred chanting and new compositions that could be admitted to liturgy. This relaxed conception of sacred music made possible everything that followed. The second key event was the invention of polyphony about A. D. 1000. Not only is the sounding of simultaneous and coordinated melodies the foundation of all Western art music both sacred and secular, but it created a means for compositional creativity while remaining faithful to a venerable musical tradition, a technique that would serve for centuries in many different guises. The technique is the cantus firmus: a traditional chant, often sung slowly and repeatedly, accompanied by melodic inventions of the composer. From this simple premise grew the great repertory of motets, cyclic cantus firmus masses, and all the subgenres we know as "classical polyphony" as composed by Guillaume Du Fay, Josquin Desprez, Giovanni da Palestrina, Orlandus Lassus, William Byrd, and their colleagues and disciples. The origins of this style in chant remained audible even when a composition did not quote a traditional melody, as often happened by the 16th century. The third signal event was the Reformation as widespread disputes about the very nature of sacred music arose for the first time since Antiquity. Martin Luther’s chief and lasting reform of the Roman Catholic mass promoted congregational singing from its customary peripheral role in extra-liturgical processions to a central place in Eucharistic liturgy. Jean Calvin’s reform was much more reactionary. By permitting only psalm texts to be sung, he temporarily restored the ancient and immutable union of music with the Word of God that had been abandoned by Western Christianity at least 12 centuries before. The fourth key event was the invention of opera in the last decade of the 16th century. Opera clarified once and for all differences in compositional techniques, materials, and above all sound that had increasingly separated music in the church from music at court. Two ways of composing— sometimes called the stile antico ("ancient style") and the stile moderno ("modern style")—had become essentially separate languages. Opera made this separation explicit by creating a new musical institution, musical theater. Composers trained in the old church style quickly succumbed to the temptation to set sacred texts in an operatic manner that could have no link with the traditional chant. In abandoning traditional chant and its polyphonic descendants, would sacred music finally lose its mark of distinction?
   Despite great variety in culture and creed throughout the world, a fundamental conception of the character of sacred music is held largely in common: it is chant. All the religious traditions seem to have some form of it, though there are distinctive traditions to be sure. Its sound is iconic of religious music.
   In most types of chant, three musical qualities combine. First, it is pure vocal music: while some kinds of Eastern chanting uses clappers, bells, or other percussion to articulate liturgy, accompaniment by instruments in theWestern sense of doubling melodies or adding harmonies is alien to most chant traditions. Second, it is monophonic: one note at a time, without harmonization. Third, it is non-metric, or in "free rhythm": regular beats and time measures are usually absent, as is the periodic accenting of such beats that is the essence of meter. If the substrate of a sacred music tradition is its chant, the development, complication, flowering, and enrichment of that tradition—in short, its history—comes from modifying one or more of these three critical features of chant. The history of Western sacred music, with significant correspondences in other traditions, can be conceived as processes of adding instruments to a purely vocal sonority, adding new melodies to a single line to create polyphony, and replacing free rhythm with metric rhythm. Sometimes one kind of change may dominate and proceed independently for a period; at other times these processes affect one another essentially.
   Like traditional Islam and certain Buddhist sects, early Christianity regarded music with some suspicion as a symbol of paganism and the sinful, secular world, and particularly instrumental music, which had long associations with Greek and Roman rites. Thus the earliest Christian liturgical music seems to have consisted entirely of psalms, sung after the Jewish manner, with antiphonal singing introduced fairly early on. Nevertheless, by the 10th century the organ had secured a place as the one instrument allowed to accompany chant, and the exclusive reliance on this one versatile instrument, as well as its very antiquity, are what make the pipe organ by far the single most powerful instrumental symbol of the sacred in the West even today.
   About the same time that the organ moved into the church, the chant acquired a new, festival mode of presentation: polyphony, more than one melody sung simultaneously. At first the additional melody was as simple as could be, merely doubling the original chant melody note for note at a predetermined consonant interval such as the perfect fifth, a short step away from the normal occurrence of singing in octaves by men and boys. The true breakthrough came in southern France in the first half of the 12th century with the elaboration of the added melody by allowing several of its notes to be sung against a sustained single note of the original chant, a cantus firmus. For the first time, polyphony consisted of simultaneous melodies that were melodically and rhythmically independent to an ever-greater degree, one of the hallmarks of the Western musical tradition. But the syntax of polyphony depended heavily on the occurrence of certain harmonic consonances, mainly the perfect octave and perfect fifth, and as the coordination of the two, then three, and by the turn of the 13th century, four melodies to make these consonances at the right moment required a means of measuring the time with much greater precision than chant had ever wanted. The solution, developed in France from the 12th through the mid-14th centuries and ending with the invention of modern mensural notation, threatened to rob church music of its free flowing rhythm by constraining notes to be countable in terms of a standard time unit, or beat, and then by organizing those beats into metric groups defined by recurring accents. Meter, the sign of dance, had come to the church as a practical necessity of polyphony.
   To be sure, introducing precise time measure into church music did not convert the mystical chant into dance music at a stroke, for the element of meter, while discrete in one sense, in other senses admits of degree. Meter can be strong and regular, as in dance, but also weak, irregular, and ephemeral as in the sacred polyphony of Palestrina and his colleagues of the high Renaissance. Even certain kinds of chant, such as hymns, have a vague periodicity deriving from the poetic meter of their texts. As it grew fierce by the 14th century, the very independence of melody that required the adoption of time measure in the first place ironically ensured a less periodic distribution of melodic accents, so that the resulting meter in the sacred polyphony is weak. Indeed, much of the genius of Catholic polyphony through the 15th and 16th centuries lay in its preservation of something like a mystical, chant-like rhythmic flow despite a coordinated texture of six simultaneous melodies or more.
   Thus, Renaissance polyphony avoided the principal danger of all these modifications to chant: that the result would sound like secular court music. Having long abandoned the premise of other world religions, that liturgical music embodied a divine essence and therefore should never change, Christian authorities instead sought to maintain an essential distinction between music for the liturgy and that heard in the secular world of court and workplace. Despite the introduction of the organ, polyphony, and meter, a strategy of maintaining the traditional chant as the core of liturgical music while the innovations slowly accrued around it largely succeeded in maintaining this distinction. Nevertheless, the "corruption and depravity" of Catholic church music became a contentious matter with the onset of the Reformation in the early 16th century, with Martin Luther and Jean Calvin radically reforming many of its practices in order to keep secular influences at bay. The psalmody promoted by Calvin and brought to life in the Genevan Psalter attempted a return to the purity of chant while simplifying its rhythmic subtleties so that musically untrained congregants could sing it. Spurning all the creative sacred poetry of the medieval Latin hymns, Calvin permitted only the Biblical psalms, metricized to facilitate learning and memorization, set to simple tunes. He preferred no harmonization at all; the tunes in the Genevan Psalter and its imitators have simple note-against-note arrangements. Instruments were forbidden. The result is an ascetic sacred song clearly set apart from the music of the world. Many of its spare characteristics, through necessity if not theological principle, crossed the Atlantic and flourished in the numerous sects descended from Calvin in the American colonies.
   The Lutheran chorale and the Anglican hymn did not quarrel so much with Catholic musical aesthetics, adapting in fact many Catholic hymns, as make congregational singing possible through texts in the vernacular languages and a stronger metric profile in their melodies or adaptations. They, too, established a character of hymnody sufficiently distinct from contemporary secular music.
   On the defensive, Catholic authorities responded to a number of the reformer’s criticisms in the final years of the Council of Trent (1545– 1563) while yet affirming the propriety of polyphony for liturgy. They also moved to restrict the use of instruments besides the organ that had been slowly creeping into liturgy, and thus gave the a cappella aesthetic for church music its moment of reference. They insisted that the sacred texts, often rendered unintelligible in motets by complex overlap of voices in polyphony, be set in clearer textures. They tried to outlaw "profane" melodies of erotic madrigals from being heard as cantus firmi in masses, and to prevent the adventurous Italian secular chromaticism from infecting the modal purity of Catholic polyphony. In affirming the polyphonic tradition, the Church rejected for four more centuries the Protestant ideal of congregational singing and kept sacred music in the hands of trained professional singers, at least officially. But by insisting on certain key elements of the musical language— voices only, melodies without chromaticism, and polyphonic texture— they also managed to keep their sacred music apart from the world, maintaining that critical sacred/secular distinction at the very moment European music experienced a fundamental reorientation.
   The 16th century was the first in the history of Western music that showed a clear demarcation between the sound of art music for the churches and art music for the courts, salons, intellectual academies, and other secular locales. One can speak of a Renaissance secular musical language, or at least a dialect, distinct from the reigning language of sacred music in which every musician was trained. Naturally, as when any two language groups have close contact, there were mutual influences, and it was still common for secular compositions such as Heinrich Isaac’s farewell to his home city "Innsbruck, ich muß dich lassen" to be adapted as contrafacta to sacred hymnody merely by changing the text. By stopping this process, the fathers of the Council of Trent widened the gap and preserved a style of music in a "pure" state, much as Renaissance humanists restored the Latin language to its "pure" classical state. With the development of ever more tempting secular styles in the 17th century, Catholic, Lutheran, and Anglican church musicians would be forced to choose between them and the iconic sacred polyphony frozen in the 16th century.
   The greatest temptations came from the invention of opera at the turn of the 17th century in Florence and Rome, a new genre that rapidly spread over all of Europe and transformed the conception of music from a primarily lyrical art devoted to contemplation of God and man to a conception of music as a dramatic art, capable of conveying character and action. The inventors redeployed the elements of late-16th-century secular music to create the new textures of recitative and aria, which, when properly combined with modern functional harmony, founded the musical language of the Baroque, rhythmically driven and metrically much more dancelike than any polyphonist would have ever desired. Most churchmen could not resist. Operalike genres of sacred concerto, sacred symphony, oratorio, Neapolitan mass, and church cantata sprouted to accommodate sacred texts. In sound, their arias and recitatives are indistinguishable from their secular counterparts. Only the occasional polyphonic chorus recalled the sacred semantic. Even that distinction weakened, as choruses found their way into coronations, French opera, and other secular celebrations as well as oratorio. Thus, many of Johann Sebastian Bach’s magnificent church cantatas are reworked secular pieces, made sacred by a Pietistic text and perhaps the inclusion of a Lutheran chorale.3
   The greatly compromised sacred semantic, to say nothing of the scientific revolution or the Enlightenment, caused a serious decline in the fortunes of Lutheran and Anglican music beginning in the late 18th century. Leading composers were not attracted by a sacred music that merely aped opera and symphony and other secular genres while giving up their flexibility. As a youth, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had a permanent appointment at the Salzburg Cathedral, but he could not wait to escape to Vienna for a much less secure career writing opera. Neither did anyone want to compose in an academic musical language frozen in the past. Paradoxically, recovery of that past, restoration of musical traditions that connoted the transcendent, became the answer to the sorry contemporary situation in the 19th century. This was the time of the Cecillian movement beginning in Germany, the recovery and revival of Gregorian chant at Solesmes, and the Oxford movement in England. 4 This was when Palestrina was most idealized.
   Such efforts flouted the main aesthetic impulse of the culture at large in the later 19th and 20th centuries: the demand for originality in high degree, for near absolute individuality in art. The terms of the conflict were clear: to be artists, modernizers composed and promoted sacred music, if at all, in their contemporary idiom, flouting the unwritten law observed since the middle ages that required liturgical music to be distinct from secular; traditionalists campaigned to restore the distinction by reviving musical languages whose sacred semantics were beyond doubt. The conflict affected non-Western and non-Christian traditions within reach. Cantor Solomon Sulzer of Austria provoked controversy when he arranged traditional Jewish chants in contemporary idiom and brought the organ into the synagogue. Already in the previous century Peter the Great had reinforced the new polyphony added to Russian znamennīy chant by importing Western notation, driving the dissident "Old Believers" into the mountains.
   The principal thrust of the 19th century liturgical movement—the Cecilians and Oxford proponents in particular—wanted to restore a vibrant spirituality to liturgies grown tired and perfunctory, and some of these activists saw congregational singing as one means to this end. For Catholics, this would mean recognizing a practice that, it could well be argued, had been simmering beneath the surface for centuries, even bubbling up in isolated regions here and there without official blessing; for Protestants it meant merely the revival of a liturgical reform that had been part of their very foundation.
   Such spirited congregational singing, ironically enough, had already flowered for two centuries in the cultural backwater of America. (Latin America had adopted the old Roman Catholic musical traditions early on, with cathedrals in Mexico City, Lima, and Rio di Janiero boasting music equal in quality to the greatest in Europe.) The seeds of a rough democratization of sacred music sown by Luther and especially Calvin found fertile ground in the American colonies, with their largely dissident Protestant distrust of central authorities and privileged classes, including highly trained musicians. Congregational psalmody was the order of the day in the 17th and 18th centuries, with singing schools springing up to teach whole congregations how to do it better and better. At the same time the black slaves, who had no teachers or authorities to follow, created their spirituals. These songs in turn fertilized the Gospel song tradition that arose from the populist religious movement known as the Second Awakening in the 19th century, a tradition very much alive today.
   In the American environment where music that most people heard was homemade, it is perhaps not surprising that the European problem of maintaining a sacred semantic distinct from the secular was not a live issue. The simple stanzas of Isaac Watts were enough to make a song sacred, almost regardless of its musical material. This attitude has remained the hallmark of much American sacred music through the 20th century, particularly in Evangelical churches, which have adopted in their music one popular style after another. The praise choruses composed in the last half of the century have only their words to distinguish them from commercial music heard on radio and television. More recently, the mainline Protestant churches have begun to abandon their traditional hymnodies for songs of this type, following the American Catholics who seized upon the exception clauses in the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (1963) to use folk revival music and its rhythmically simpler derivatives in the 1980s and 1990s for their masses.
   Despite the pervasive influence of this American populism in sacred music, felt now even in Europe, sentiments like those of the Cecilian and Oxford movements that yearn for a restoration of "solemnity" to liturgy—in other words a truly distinct and sacred semantic—are easy to find. Controversies about what sacred music should sound like are common in many congregations and show no sign of abating. They generally take on one of three forms.
   One dispute, important in any evangelical religious tradition seeking to spread its message beyond a local culture, is about catholicity versus local custom. Should everyone use the same music as a sign of religious unity, or should indigenous musical traditions, which often attract converts, play a role in rituals? The pendulum swings back and forth throughout the history of sacred music in the West, with periods of intense local invention countered by a pruning from a central authority, often signaled by new liturgical books.
   A second kind of dispute, typical of older traditions, concerns congregational singing versus professional ministry. Congregational singing seems to respond to a universal human desire to praise the divine in communal song; examples are found in every major religion. But such music routinely contains elements of popular music with its association with the secular world, which is why Maimonides opposed the singing of piyyutim (hymns) in synagogue services. And music for congregations must be very simple. Sacred music of the highest artistic standards generally demands a highly trained class of musicians, who resist abandoning their long years of training and simplifying their art for the sake of the commoner. They ask, "Should not the highest, most sublime form of praise be offered to the divine?"
   The last kind of dispute, the interests of tradition versus those of artistic creativity, is an eruption of a tension inherent in the art of sacred music. Sacred music is music, after all, a fine art, and therefore requires artists, not mere craftsmen, who by nature want to create beauty, not merely replicate it, through music and who by training are equipped to do it. But sacred music must also be sacred. For some religions this has meant that the music received must be handed on without change, for to change it risks profanation. God is the same yesterday, today, and forever; so is the music that best praises Him. Obviously this leaves the musician in an artistic dilemma, one that some traditionalist religions solve by refusing to regard their chant as music at all. For Western Christianity, the artist’s dilemma was accommodated for many centuries by allowing enough change to satisfy the creator while insisting that the essence of the music remain to set it apart from music of the world. In the last two centuries since the Enlightenment, this strategy has failed on many counts. Whether it may be recovered, and whether it should be, remains to be seen.
   "What is the nature of sacred music?" is the question at the center of all these contentions, a question that admits a continuum of answers, as history has shown. At one extreme is the belief that the music, as music, imbues no sacred qualities at all; rather, everything is in the text being sung or the ritual being enacted. This kind of sacred music never remains static for long; why should it? At the opposite end we find the music bound so tightly to the holy word that it cannot be changed, no more than the Bible, the Qur’ān, or the Vedas could be revised. Between these extremes lie every variety of compromise, highly attuned to the historical moment, responding to the particular desires to praise the divine as well as the deeper, eternal ones. As cultures evolve through time, so do these particular desires and also the music that carries them upward.
   1. Wayne Howard, Sāmavedic Chant (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977), ch.1.
   2. "What Makes ‘Religious Music’ Religious?" in Sacred Sound: Music in Religious Thought and Practice, ed. Joyce Irwin (Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press), 1983, pp. 27–29.
   3. Even as monumental a sacred work as Bach’s Mass in B Minor contains a reworking of a secular cantata: the Osanna is a recomposition of "Preise dein Glücke," BW 215. See George Stauffer, Bach: The Mass in B Minor (New York: Schirmer, 1997), 49.
   4. Strictly speaking, the Oxford writers, also known as Tractarians, aimed at theological, not liturgical renewal, but a revival of interest in liturgy was one of its most practical effects in the latter half of the 19th century.

Historical dictionary of sacred music. . 2006.


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