Fourth Century Christian Music

As a music student and teacher, I developed an interest in church history and music, particularly as it developed into Gregorian Chant and then into polyphonic church music.  We have already seen in the art of Santa Pudenziana the influence of imperial Rome, or, more particularly, Constantine, in embracing Christianity as its state religion by taking the catacomb image of Jesus as the simple shepherd and teacher and transforming him into Ruler of Heaven who legitimatized imperial Rome as His political representative on earth.  The Roman adoption of the Church as its servant also effected the Church’s music.

I have found an excellent essay on early church music that far exceeds my own knowledge of it.  I will outline some of its principle observations and encourage the reader of this blog to read the actual writing.  The source of the treatise is  The educational institution for which it was written is the Jesus College at Cambridge, Massachusetts, whose web site is  I am unable to identify the author, but I am greatly indebted to, and appreciative of, him or her.

The author organizes the Fourth Century attitudes toward music into several categories of approval or disapproval: as born of the physical world which should be rejected by the Christian, as transcendent experience drawing attention to Heaven; as raising and offering great value to God; as “revealing to us the harmony of the cosmos, through which we may discover God.”  The conclusion drawn by the author of this essay expresses vividly the tension that has remained in the Christian Church in all its forms, orientations and traditions from that time to the present:

“[A]ll sides were agreed that music was powerful – the question was whether that power could be controlled and directed towards good ends.”

A similar question that has recurred through the ages from that time to now has been whether, if music is to be allowed at all, instrumental music belongs in church or if it should be only presented with the unaccompanied voice.

The author sets out his or her purpose for that essay:

There had always been Christian use of music, but it is in the fourth century that we find a new debate about music. Music was now openly used as a medium for theological contention, by figures as diverse as Arius and Augustine; in this context the old philosophical concerns about music’s power over emotion gained a new relevance. In this essay I intend to explore the historical development of fourth-century Christian attitudes to music, and to show how those attitudes related to wider theological concerns.

It would appear that the principal congregational use of music in worship was to participate in hynms and Psalms.  This essay is highly recommended for all persons who have either an interest in church music, per se, or the theological ideas associated with its use.   I particularly like the graphic image the author uses at the head of the essay: the experience of worshipful music is worth a thousand words.  Whoever the author is, that person is not only well-acquainted with the history of sacred music but also with historical Church practices and church literature, especially that relating to the development of its religious and theological ideas.

For an excellent description of early music and how it involved, see and its related sites.  It also has some examples of chant, particularly.

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