Posted in For Project 5 Examples

Example 1 Research, Part 2: The Formative Years of the Christian Plainchant

Christianity arose among Jews in the Roman Judea in the 30s and 40s of the first century AD in the wake of the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. As Smith (2011: 167) writes, the Christianized Jews, “although they added a Christian dimension to their Jewish system of belief, nevertheless followed a lifestyle which for the most part didn’t differ much from the accepted Jewish norms.” There was a close relationship between the two communities in apostolic and postapostolic times through to the fifth century, and the New Testament testify that the two religions often shared places of worship, even while the Christians were gradually coming to feel unwelcome there. At its origin, initially regarded as a movement or sect within Judaism, it should come as no surprise to find numerous imprints of Jewish heritage on the musical traditions of the Christian Church.


Fig. 1. Model of the Second Temple in Jerusalem

Some argue that it may be likely for the early Christian chant to have had its roots in the Temple tradition (Fig. 1) and the Synagogue. However, as Jeffrey and Margot write, the elaborate Temple ritual with its animal sacrifices, professional priests, and Levitical orchestra were very unlikely to have been duplicated in early Christian gatherings. Even with the synagogue services, the psalmody may have not been used until sometime after 70 C.E., perhaps not even in the first five-hundred years of the Christian era.

On the other hand, the Jewish cantillation of the lessons may have contributed to the development of Christian chant, and the Jewish cantors were even hired by Christian communities to teach the “correct manner” of cantillating the Jewish scripture. (Bleiberg, 145) However, the cantillation was recited rather in the practice of reading from the Scripture, and not in a strict musical manner, which is why many authors wouldn’t classify it as chanting in the common sense. Yet, the transfer from cantillation, which could in fact represent the musically elevated imitation of oratorical cadences, into self-conscious musical style, as Karp argues, should have presented few problems, if any. It is also very important to note that “chanting” itself in the earliest days of Christian worship should be regarded upon in a very broad sense, as religious texts which were susceptible of being sung.

Either way, the majority of references to Christian chant from the first three centuries are the common meals held at evening, related to the ritualized Jewish private banquets, whether the meals be part of an agape service – love feast (Fig.2), which was a commemoration of the Last Supper, or some less formal occasion. In these early years, as a missionary religion, within a remarkably short time after its inception, Christianity spread far beyond Judea. The first non-Jew Christian communities were established in Asia Minor, northern Africa, Arabia, Greece, Rome and Syria. Also, the chanting in these types of meals wasn’t exclusive to the Jewish society, but quite common and very prevalent in the cultural context, being present among the pagan cults as well, like in the Greco-Roman religion. As such, we already begin to notice how unlikely it is that a single influence shaped the music of Christianity, especially with its expansion.


Fig. 2. Early fresco of an agape meal in the Catacomb of Saints Marcellinus  in Rome

Among the forms of the chant, the newly composed hymns were more frequent than the biblical psalms, which also do not necessarily refer to texts from David’s Psalter. (Karp, 27-28) The Eucharist, in which bread and wine are consecrated and consumed, was celebrated in conjunction with the agape (Fenlon, 93). Over time it divorced from the evening meal, because of the abuses, such as heavy drinking, described by Paul at Corinth, and moved into a morning celebration.

The clear use of psalmody won’t appear until the desert monasticism of Egypt and Palestine, towards the end of the third century. Led by the early Christian hermits, such as St. Anthony the Great, thousands of followers had been drawn to living in the desert. The monks would chant from the Psalter for a substantial part of the day, which was broken down into set times for common meetings. These corresponded to the six medieval office hours which are yet to be established. Here as well, psalmody was rather the murmuring “chant” of the unschooled individuals utilizing psalms as an aid to meditation.

By the fourth century, the Egyptian desert blossomed with monasteries, probably thanks to St. Pachomios who developed the idea of having monks live together under the same roof. The monastic communities slowly moved into the urban centers, and the monastic office inundated the cathedral office with psalmody. Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire, whose politics was always present and in complex interaction with the young Church, that was situated within the Hellenized culture of the Graeco-Roman world. With the division of the Roman Empire into east and west, further liturgical divide resulted which are to affect the chant. The East retained the Greek language, while the rite of the West was based on the Latin language.

Musically speaking, the Roman music influenced the Christian negatively, by representing an antithesis to it. One of the reasons that the early Christian music was entirely vocal was because musical instruments were associated with its paganism, moral degeneration and war. The Christian attitude was rather allegorical and metaphorical of the biblical instruments. The Hellenistic connection with Christian chant exists without doubt with early adaptations of the classical music theory, and music being one of the seven liberal arts. However, evidence show that Christian chant wasn’t the continuation of ancient Greek music, but constituted a new tradition, again, based to some extent on the Oriental models.

Starting from the fourth century, the chanting finally comes closer to singing, compared to the earlier sources. While it is true what Hiley said about the two most important Middle Eastern Christian centers being Antioch and Alexandria (Hiley, 480), but as Jeffrey notes, the importance of the chant of Jerusalem cannot be overstated. It may have been the first repertory to be committed to writing and was to become the central chant tradition of the early medieval world. After the Jewish revolt of 66 and consequent Roman destruction of the city in 70, Jerusalem had little importance. Then in about 326 Helena, mother of the emperor Constantine, came to venerate the holy places of the city, which began an important fashion of pilgrimage and seems ultimately to have contributed to making the liturgy more topical, commemorative, bound up with the remembrance of persons, places, and events. In almost every Eastern or Western rite, one can detect traditions that originated in or near the Holy City, where worship was a cosmopolitan affair.  The chant was “heard and sung for centuries by the innumerable pilgrims who perennially thronged the city, who brought at least the more memorable texts and melodies back home with them to every corner of the known world.”  (9)

Many of the different traditions I’ve mentioned interacted here: the Jewish, those of the desert and the cradles of monasticism, or those of the imperial capitals of Rome and Constantinople, and other liturgical centers. For example, it was at Jerusalem that the eight-mode system/oktoechos was first extensively documented and then spread to the Latin, Syriac, Armenian, Georgian and other liturgies. Nun Etheria, beside liturgical descriptions, mentions the music that accompanied the worship, including the forms – hymns, responsorial Psalms and antiphons.

With the great theological controversies of the fifth and sixth centuries Eastern Orthodox Christianity slowly began to fragment along linguistic and confessional lines. The breakup accelerated in the seventh century when the entire region was occupied by Persian and then Arab conquests, and was permanently lost from the Byzantine Christian control. From then on, each of the traditions which was present in Jerusalem began to develop in independent directions, each in different language, and each subject to a range of influences from the other Christian liturgical centers. Jeffry writes about this in more detail, which you can read below:

Ultimately, the melodies of Jerusalem are lost today, but looking at the Eastern chant traditions, such as Armenian and Georgian, help us revive this old tradition, which influenced the earliest stages of the Western chant traditions. Though the melodies of the former chant families are also poorly preserved, the surviving textual and liturgical sources of their early stages are far richer. Consequently, they provide the historical outline of the Jerusalem chant, which was to exercise much influence on the West and its rites, for example the Gallican and Ambrosian, with some elements of chant surviving even the process of Romanization that began in the Carolingian period, and a few survive even in the Western liturgies of today.

To conclude, much of the history is still unclear, but I hope I have provided an overall picture of the development of the Christian chant. In the next part, focusing on the Western traditions, I will write about the notation and rhythm of the plainchants, and in the final parts, I will focus on the forms present in the Gregorian and Ambrosian chants.

List of illustrations:

Fig. 1. Model of the Second Temple in Jerusalem

Fig. 2. Early fresco of an agape meal in the Catacomb of Saints Marcellinus  in Rome


Smith, John Arthur (2011) Music in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity. Surrey:
Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.

Bleiberg, Edward (2015) In Evans, Helen C. (ed.) The Metropolitan Museum of Art Symposia ‘Age of Transition: Byzantine Culture in the Islamic World’. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Karp, Theodore (1998) Aspects of Orality and Formularity in Gregorian Chant. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press

Fenlon, Iain (ed.) (1987) Early Music History: Studies in Medieval and Early Modern Music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Jeffery, P. (1992) Re-envisioning Past Musical Cultures: Ethnomusicology in the Study of Gregorian Chant. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, Ltd.

2 thoughts on “Example 1 Research, Part 2: The Formative Years of the Christian Plainchant

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