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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 1 The Curtain Goes Up
Richard Taruskin

But of course neither did Gregory II actually compose the “Gregorian” chants. No one person did. It was a huge collective and anonymous enterprise that seems to have achieved standardization in Rome by the end of the eighth century. But what were its origins? Until very recently it was assumed as a matter of course that the origins of Christian liturgical music went back, like the rest of Christian practice and belief, to the “sacred bridge” connecting the Christian religion with Judaism, out of which it had originated as a heresy. The textual contents of the Gregorian antiphoner consisted overwhelmingly of psalm verses, and the recitation of psalms, along with other scriptural readings, is to this day a common element of Jewish and Christian worship.

It turns out, however, that neither the psalmody of the Christian liturgy nor that of today’s synagogue service can be traced back to pre-Christian Jewish worship, let alone to Old Testament times. Pre-Christian Jewish psalmody centered around temple rites that came to an end when the temple itself was destroyed by the Romans in 70 ce. One has only to read some famous passages from the psalms themselves, as well as other biblical texts, to become aware of this disjuncture. Psalm 150, the climax of the Psalter, or Book of Psalms, is in fact a description of ancient temple psalmody—singing God’s praises—in fullest swing. It reads, in part:

  • Praise him with fanfares on the trumpet,
  • praise him upon the lute and harp;
  • praise him with tambourines and dancing,
  • praise him with flute and strings;
  • praise him with the clash of cymbals,
  • praise him with triumphant cymbals;
  • let everything that has breath praise the lord!

One will not find such goings-on in any contemporary Catholic church or synagogue; nor were they ever part of pre-Reformation Christian worship. (The Eastern Orthodox church, in fact, expressly bans the ritual use of instruments, and does so on the basis of the last line of this very psalm, for instruments do not have “breath,” that is, a soul.) Nor can one find today much reflection of the “antiphonal” manner of psalmody described in the Bible, despite the later Christian appropriation (in modified form and with modified meaning) of the word “antiphon.”

In its original meaning, antiphonal psalmody implied the use of two choirs answering each to each, as most famously described in the high priest Nehemiah’s account of the dedication of the Jerusalem walls in 445 bce, when vast choirs (and orchestras!) mounted the walls on opposite sides of the city gates and made a joyful noise unto the Lord. The verse structure of the psalms themselves, consisting of paired hemistichs, half-lines that state a single thought in different words (as in the extract above), suggests that antiphony was their original mode of performance.

And yet, although it was (and remains) the central musical activity in Jewish worship services, psalmody was—perhaps surprisingly—not immediately transferred from Jewish worship to Christian. It does not figure in the earliest accounts of Christian worship, such as Justin Martyr’s description of the Sunday Eucharist (ritual of blessings) or Lord’s Supper, later known as the communion service or Mass, at Rome sometime around the middle of the second century. Justin mentions readings from the prophets and apostles, sermons, prayers, and acclamations, but no psalms. In short, there is nothing in the earliest descriptions of Christian worship to correspond with the later repertory of Gregorian chant. That repertory was not a direct inheritance from Christianity’s parent religion. It originated elsewhere, and later.

Exactly when cannot be pinpointed, but psalmody had entered the Christian worship service by the beginning of the fifth century, when the Spanish nun Egeria sent a letter back home from Jerusalem describing the services she had witnessed in the oldest and holiest Christian see. “Before cockcrow,” she wrote, “all the doors of the church are opened and all the monks and nuns come down, and not only they, but also those lay people, men and women, who wish to keep vigil at so early an hour. From that time until it is light, hymns are sung and psalms responded to, and likewise antiphons; and with every hymn there is a prayer.”

The important points to note are two: it is a night service (or office) that is being described, and it is primarily a monastic gathering, even though the laity has been admitted. The origins of Christian psalmody, hence the earliest intimations of Gregorian chant, lie not in the very public worship of the Jewish temple, but in the secluded vigils of the early Christian ascetics.1


(1) This account follows that of Richard Crocker in R. Crocker and D. Hiley, eds., The New Oxford History of Music, Vol. II (2nd ed., Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), pp. 121–23.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 1 The Curtain Goes Up." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 19 Jan. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-001006.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 1 The Curtain Goes Up. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 19 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-001006.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 1 The Curtain Goes Up." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 19 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-001006.xml