A History of Byzantine Music and Hymnography

By Egon Wellesz | Go to book overview

middle of the third century. All new hymns were condemned, and only those to be found in the Scriptures were tolerated. This measure explains why so few hymns survive from the beginnings of Christianity. But they played too large and important a part in religious life to be completely suppressed. They had embellished the liturgy; their loss was felt to decrease its splendour. The Church, particularly the Church in the East, had to change its attitude. By altering passages containing heretical doctrines, and by putting new words to melodies of pagan or gnostic poetry, the old practice was restored, and hymnography developed more richly than before.


(c) Spiritual Songs

The third group comprises chants of the melismatic type, the most important part of which are the Alleluias. In his exposition of the ninety-ninth Psalm St. Augustine describes the character of the songs of exultation: 'He who jubilates, speaks no words; it is a song of joy without words.'1 The ᾠδαὶ πνευματικαί, the 'spiritual songs' of which St. Paul speaks, were obviously the melismatic melodies of the Alleluias and other exultant songs of praise, which, again, the Jewish Christians brought with them from the Temple and the Synagogue into the Christian Church. The Hebrew word itself has not been translated by either the Greek or the Latin Church, and it has always been assumed that the chants derived from the Jewish liturgy. Isidore of Seville, as early as 636, suggested a Hebrew origin for the singing of the Alleluia-iubili: 'Laudes, hoc est alleluia, canere, canticum est Hebraeorum.'2 This view is supported by the musical structure of the Alleluias of the Ambrosian rite, the oldest specimens of the type which survive in manuscripts.


V. CONCLUSION

From all these considerations it is evident that the groups of chants of which St. Paul speaks correspond to actual liturgical usages, and that the Christians to whom the Epistles were addressed would have understood the meaning of each term and

____________________
1
'Qui iubilat, non verba dicit, sed sonus quidam est laetitiae sine verbis: vox est enim animi diffusi laetitia, quantum potest exprimentis affectum, non sensum comprehendentis. Gaudens homo in exsultatione sua ex verbis quibusdam, quae non possunt dici et intellegi, erumpit in vocem quandam exultationis sine verbis; ita ut appareat, eum ipsa voce gaudere quidem, sed quasi repletum nimio gaudio, non posse verbis explicare quod gaudet.' Enarr. in Ps. xcix.4, P.L. xxxvii, c. 1272.
2
De off. eccl. i.13; P.L. xxxiii, c. 750.

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