WESTERN DEVOTIONAL MUSIC
- Chris Parnell (a Sai Devotee)
Ritual and liturgical worship of the Divine includes both the music that inspires man onto greater heights, and the singing of the congregation, which was the inclusive means of participation in ritual itself.
Devotional music in the Christian West begins with the only recorded reference to Jesus outside the Bible, given by Pliny the Younger. He wrote in 67AD, “The ‘Chrestians’ gathered on the first day of the week to bring alms for the poor and sing hymns to one ‘Chrest,’ as a God.” (Chrest being Pliny’s mis-spelling of Christ.)
Those gatherings Pliny referred to quickly became rites and liturgical ceremonies; the most central being the meal of commemoration of Christ, and singing hymns was always a central devotional component of these rites. The priest provided the sacrament; the congregation participated with their songs. Further to this participation, during the renaissance, the insertion of music specifically written for the liturgy was to come. Other rites and liturgies were chanted or sung in plainsong, by monks and nuns. The devotional music of the church was to largely influence both the history and development of music in the western world.
Singing songs unto God is prevalent in the Bible. The prophetic and inspired psalms of the Old Testament were hymns sung to God by the people of Israel. In one of his many letters St. Paul wrote, “With gratitude in your hearts sing psalms and hymns and inspired songs to God.” (Colossians 3, 16) St. Paul practiced what he preached about singing. We are told that late at night, while he was in prison with Silas, the two of them “were praying and singing God’s praises.” (Acts 16, 25) Their singing must have been an effective prayer because immediately there was an earthquake that freed them as well as all the other prisoners!
The great Father of the Church, St. Augustine wrote that when one sings one prays twice. Perhaps he meant when one sings one is really doing two things. One is: the actual words of the hymn which one sings are a prayer and the other is singing itself as a form of prayer unto God.
St. Francis of Assisi is often associated with singing. From his biographies, it is told that he liked singing very much. Maybe that is one of the reasons why the Franciscan spirit passed on by St. Francis is such a joyful one.
The history of classical music is replete with sacred music. Handel’s Messiah, Mozart’s masses, Bach’s sacred cantatas, the Passion Chorale, all these enriched not only culture but also the Church going experience itself. Bach wrote on the flyleaf of his Bible, “Whenever devotional music is played, God is present.”
The oratorio, which Handel brought to the highest degree of perfection (Messiah, Judas Maccabeus, Israel in Egypt, etc.), was originally intended as an ethical-religious reaction against the Florentine opera, treating Biblical and legendary themes in a lyric-dramatic form, but without dramatic action. It consists of recitations, arias (duets, trios, quartets) and choruses with a brilliant orchestral accompaniment. It was customary in former times to perform settings of the Passion in church on Good Friday. The cantata (perfected by Bach) is more lyric and less epical in style with a somewhat more modest instrumentation. The cantata and oratorio are both developments from the antiphonal sacred chants and the mystery plays of the Middle Ages. As far back as the eleventh century, these mystery plays on feast-days served to present to the people in dramatic form the Passion, Resurrection and Last Judgement. Side by side with polyphony existed the folk-song in the vernacular and more pretentious compositions, such as the lays of the troubadours, and mastersingers, and the madrigal. The church frequently engaged in music to prevent the pagans and heathen they were converting from singing their favourite folk songs.
The masses by Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven have already been spoken of. Johann Sebastian Bach and G. F. Handel both created works for Church services, which undoubtedly created the greater latitude, accorded to organ playing in churches today. Bach has also set liturgical texts to music. His mass in B minor is considered one of his greatest works, among which his oratorio, the “Passion according to St. Matthew,” must be also included. G. F. Handel devoted his powers first to the opera and later to the oratorio. He also wrote “Te Deums,” (We praise you, O God), psalms, fugues, and concerti for the organ, which, like Bach’s sacred works, suggest the lofty purpose of recalling the acts of the divine. Much of western church music, particularly in the Reformation, replaced the gap left by the abandonment of the Gregorian chants of the Church of Rome.
Various rites in Christianity evoke different hymns. Easter has its joyful Alleluias, Lent has the passion dirges and ‘O Jesus Crucified’, Christmas has the carols ‘Come all Ye Faithful, and Silent Night.’ Most famous are the operatic renditions of ‘Ave Maria, to the Mother of God.’
The story of Western Christianity and devotional music would not be complete without the monastic traditions and their magnificent contributions to society, culture and music. Monks recite specified prayers at specific times, called the Liturgy of the Hours. Psalms and canticles from the Old and New Testaments were chanted and sung. Plainsong, Gregorian chant and Plainchant are well known forms of devotional music, and are making a comeback despite the Church discarding Latin as the ritual language.
Today, many young people flock to the ecumenical community at Taize to participate in the sacred energy generated by the plainchants recovered and recast for modern man. Ubi Caritas, est armour, Deus ibi est (Where there is charity and love, there the love of God is found). Similar to the ancient Prayer of the Heart of the Greek fathers, is “Jesus, remember me, as you come into your Kingdom,” a simple repetitive song/chant/prayer that launches many into the divine experience.
Hymns are a way to express our experiences of God through sung prayer. They help us form words of praise, joy, faith, hope, mercy and love as one body. Singing a hymn in church may be the closest, some get to publicly verbalising their experiences of God. Monastic chants, spiritual favourites from the rites and liturgies, and church hymns have the most important, spiritual function of “participation mystique” lifting people up into the experience of the Holy.