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Early Use Of Music

Archaeologists have discovered musical instruments dating back almost 30,000 years. Ceremonial music--incorporated within religious rites, public gatherings and amusements, dance and story telling--predates recorded history and, according to certain theories, may predate human speech. Folk music is also common to all societies. While folk songs, too, can be associated with certain functions (work songs, spiritual music, and so on), they are often performed solely for the pleasure they bring.

Many cultures have traditions of group singing, but the two that laid the foundations of Western choral music were the Greek and Jewish cultures of the pre-Christian era. The chorus in Greek drama grew out of groups that sang and danced at religious festivals. (The sense of "dance" survives in such terms as choreography and chorus line.) By Plato's time the universal popularity of the theatre as entertainment was long established. There was a chorus, acting, dancing and singing, frequently in alternation with the classical Greek flute-like instrument the aulos. The Greek word choros properly means a circling dance, as well as the chorus or choir that performed such dances. The compounded word chor-aulos, forerunner of the carol, can thus be said to have signified an often pleasurable form of entertainment. Plato was no killjoy, but he sternly condemned pleasure for pleasure's sake, and that condemnation included all aspects of the theatre and of poetry, not to mention music, that were not aimed at truth and high seriousness. The fact that contemporary dramatists satirized Socrates simply made matters worse in Plato's eyes. So while hymns were encouraged, carols were less than admirable. To sing, play and dance for the deity was one thing; David did so before the Ark of the Covenant. To sing, play and dance for community earthly pleasure, quite another.

The Old Testament contains many references to choral singing on important occasions in Jewish life; the large and skillful choir at the Temple of Jerusalem (supplied by a famous choir school attached to the Temple) was the model for smaller synagogue choirs throughout ancient Israel. Both Greek and Jewish choral music of this period was monophonic and antiphonal--that is, performed responsively between soloists and choirs, or between two choruses.

As an underground sect of Judaism, the early Christian church inherited the antiphonal style but not the splendor of Jewish public worship. After attending synagogue services on the sabbath, the early Christians repaired to the house of one of their members for agape, or love feast, a reenactment of the Last Supper and of the sacrificial death and resurrection of Christ. Synagogue cantors attended the agape, and they brought a sophisticated music to a fledgling faith. In 112 A.D., the Roman historian Pliny wrote to the emperor Trajan that the Christians "were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sent an anthem to Christ as God, and bound themselves by a solemn oath not to commit any wicked deed " [1] Initially, the early Christians would not use musical instruments in their ceremonies, on the grounds that they were used in pagan sacrifices, and therefore that they were a part of the "childish" worship in the earlier state of God's people -- a view which would also be held by John Calvin.

Christian hymns first appeared among the Gnostics in the 2d century. The two most important collections of that period are the Odes of Solomon and the Manichean Psalter. The Eastern churches had a rich hymnic tradition; soon after Justinian I became emperor in 527, their liturgy included elaborate services rich in hymns. The creation of new musical settings was not a goal in Byzantine worship, and, until the 11th century, the emphasis was on the creation of new poems to fit existing music. After that time the emphasis shifted--to the detriment of the poetry--to the development of more highly ornamented music.

The principal forms of Byzantine hymns were troparia (until the 5th century), responses interpolated between psalm verses; kontakia (to about AD 700), poems of many stanzas whose initial letters formed an acrostic; and kanons (after the 8th century), long poems built on nine odes and having a mystical association with the nine scriptural canticles. By custom the second ode was omitted except during Lent because of its serious nature, and the use of eight odes became typical. Saint Andrew of Crete (660-732), Saint John Damascene (fl. c.750), and Saint Kosmas of Jerusalem (d. c.760) were renowned writers of kanons.

Hymns never achieved the prominence in the Western church they had in the Byzantine and Syrian churches, but they developed a variety of types beginning with Latin hymns.

Soon after the Roman emperor Constantine the Great officially sanctioned Christianity in 313, however, the first schola cantorum (literally, "choir school," as well as the performing group from such a school) was founded in Rome by Pope Sylvester I. [2]

Fra_Filippo_Lippi_Madonna_and_Child.JPG (122717 bytes)Madonna and Child, Fra Filippo Lippi

Finally, it is important to remember that the date of Christ's birth is nowhere mentioned in the Gospels or by tradition. [3] The adoption of the date of December 25 by Pope St. Julius 1 (337-352) [4] was primarily a means by which the early Church could appropriate for itself the many mid-winter festivals which were observed by "the pagans" -- particularly the celebration of the Roman sun god, Mithras; since 274, under the emperor Aurelian, Rome had celebrated the feast of the "Invincible Sun", Natalis Invicti Solis, on December 25. Other festivals that were appropriated included the Roman Saturnalia celebrations (initially, December 17-19, later December 17-23, and finally December 1-23; during this festival, work ceased, gifts were exchanged, and slaves ate with their masters) and the festivals of northern Europe, particularly Yule, and also other customs such as yule logs, holly, ivy, mistletoe, candles, evergreens, etc. The Catholic Encyclopedia has an extensive discussion of the dating of Christmas.

This would cause problems in later years; the Puritans would aggressively deny the validity of the celebration of Christmas -- since it was not validated in the Bible -- and would outlaw the celebration of Christmas in England from 1643 to 1660.

The actual date of Christ's birth is believed to have been in the spring; see The Catholic Encyclopedia,


1. Ken Curtis. ed., Glimpses Issue #25, Sing and Make Melody to God, Christian History InstituteReturn

2. Schools of this type joined with monasteries (notably those of the order founded by Saint Benedict in the early 6th century) to develop the art of choral singing. (Secular vocal music of this time was usually performed by solo singers, not choruses.) Return

3. St. Matthew (ii, 1) tells us that Jesus was born "in the days of king Herod". Josephus (Ant., XVII, viii, 1) informs us that Herod died after ruling thirty four years de facto, thirty seven years de jure. Now Herod was made rightful King of Judea A.U.C. 714, while he began his actual rule after taking Jerusalem A.U.C. 717. As the Jews reckoned their years from Nisan to Nisan, and counted fractional parts as an entire year, the above data will place the death of Herod in A.U.C. 749, 750, 751. Again, Josephus tells us from that an eclipse of the moon occurred not long before Herod's death; such an eclipse occurred from 12 to 13 March, A.U.C. 750, so that Herod must have died before the Passover of that year which fell on 12 April (Josephus, "Ant"., iv, 4; viii, 4). As Herod killed the children up to two years old, in order to destroy the new born King of the Jews, we are led to believe that Jesus may have been born A.U.C. 747, 748, 749. The enrollment under Cyrinus mentioned by St. Luke in connection with the nativity of Jesus Christ, and the remarkable astronomical conjunction of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn in Pisces, in the spring of A.U.C. 748, will not lead us to any more definite result. Source: Catholic Encyclopedia

Note: A.U.C. stands for Ab Urbe Condita, meaning "from the foundation of Rome".   The Roman A.U.C. calendar was enforced under the penalty of death throughout the Roman Empire during that time. New Year's Day under the A.U.C. was the "Kalends of March" or March 1st. 1 A.U.C. is the same as 753 BC in the Julian calendar. Source: Calendar and Easter History. Return

4. The exact year is in question. The Reader's Encyclopedia puts it at 336; however, since Pope St. Julius I did not come to the papacy until February, 337, that earlier date is suspect. The Catholic Encyclopedia does not name the year, although it describes the circumstances. The Christian History Institute gives the date at circa 350 A.D. In any case, the decision by Julius was not universally accepted until late in the 4th century. Return

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The Hymns and Carols of Christmas
Douglas D. Anderson

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