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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 1 The Curtain Goes Up
Richard Taruskin

Christian monasticism arose in the fourth century in reaction to the church’s worldly success following its establishment as the official religion of the late Roman empire. Whereas earlier the Christians were persecuted in Rome for their pacificism and their contempt for temporal authority, now, as the custodian of an imperial state religion, the Christian church itself took on the attributes of an imperium. Its clergy was organized into a steep hierarchy. That clerical hierarchy, in turn, put forth an elaborate theology and an enforceable canon law, and modified the church’s teachings so as to support the needs of the temporal state that supported it, needs that included the condoning of legal executions and military violence. The state Christian church could no longer afford the pure pacificism it had espoused when it was a persecuted minority. Indeed, it now became itself a persecutor of heretics.

Monastic Psalmody

fig. 1-3 Early Christian monastic centers.

In the face of this increasingly pompous and official ecclesiastical presence in the world, an increasing number of Christian enthusiasts advocated flight from the city, retreating into a solitary and simple life more consonant, in their view, with the original teachings of Christ. Some, like the Egyptian hermit St. Anthony the Abbot (ca. 250–350), established colonies of anchorites devoted to solitary prayer and mortification of the flesh. Others, like St. Basil (ca. 330–379), the Bishop of Caesarea, the Roman capital of Palestine (now Kayseri in central Turkey), conceived of monastic life not in eremitic terms but in terms of koinobios—ascetic communal living devoted to pious, meditative fellowship and productive work.

It was in such a communal context that the psalmodic practices arose that would eventually produce the Gregorian chant. An important aspect of the monastic regimen was staying up at night, a discipline known as the vigil. To help them keep awake and to assist their meditations, monks would read and recite constantly, chiefly from the Bible, and particularly from the Psalter. The standard practice, eventually turned into a rule, was to recite the Psalter in an endless cycle, somewhat in the manner of a mantra, to distract the mind from physical appetites, to fill the back of the mind with spiritually edifying concepts so as to free the higher levels of consciousness (the intellectus, as it was called) for mystical enlightenment. In the words of St. Basil himself:

A psalm implies serenity of soul; it is the author of peace, which calms bewildering and seething thoughts. For it softens the wrath of the soul, and what is unbridled it chastens. A psalm forms friendships, unites those separated, conciliates those at enmity. Who, indeed, can still consider him an enemy with whom he has uttered the same prayer to God? So that psalmody, bringing about choral singing, a bond, as it were, toward unity, and joining the people into a harmonious union of one choir, produces also the greatest of blessings, charity.2

Half a century after St. Basil wrote these words, St. John Chrysostom, an eminent Greek church father, confirmed the triumph of psalmody, the musical legacy of David, the biblical Orpheus, who like his Greek mythological counterpart could miraculously affect the soul with his singing:

In church when vigils are observed David is first, middle and last. At the singing of the morning canticles David is first, middle, and last. At funerals and burials of the dead again David is first, middle, and last. O wondrous thing! Many who have no knowledge of letters at all nonetheless know all of David and can recite him from beginning to end.3

Christian psalmody emphasized not metaphors of wealth and exuberance (the orchestras, dancers, and multiple choirs of the Temple) but metaphors of community and discipline, both symbolized at once by unaccompanied singing in unison. That remained the Gregorian ideal, although the community of worshipers was replaced in the more public repertory of the Mass by the specially trained and eventually professional schola. Monophony was thus a choice, not a necessity. It reflects not the primitive origins of music (as the chant’s status as oldest surviving repertory might all too easily suggest) but the actual rejection of earlier practices, both Judaic and pagan, that were far more elaborate and presumably polyphonic.


(2) St. Basil, Exegetic Homilies, trans. S. Agnes Clare Way, The Fathers of the Church, Vol. XLVI (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1963), p. 152.

(3) Martin Gerbert, ed., De cantu et musica sacra, Vol. I, trans. R. Taruskin (St. Blasien, 1774), p. 64.

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. 22 Nov. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-001007.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 22 Nov. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-001007.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 22 Nov. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-001007.xml