The West Finds Its Voice: The Western Musical Tradition of Trained and Professional Performers, Conductors and Composers Can Trace Its Origins to the Forms of Christian Worship That Developed in Europe during the First Millennium

By Page, Christopher | History Today, June 2010 | Go to article overview

The West Finds Its Voice: The Western Musical Tradition of Trained and Professional Performers, Conductors and Composers Can Trace Its Origins to the Forms of Christian Worship That Developed in Europe during the First Millennium


Page, Christopher, History Today


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When a string quartet gives a recital, perhaps featuring works that many in the audience regard as masterpieces of Western musical art, the sounds are produced with a basic raw material familiar to the Asian nomad. Horsehair momentarily brings the world of skin tents and mares' milk into conjunction with Beethoven's sublime late quartets. So, in emphasising the importance of Christian worship to the development of Western music, we are not ignoring the geographical origins of that music's materials: Christian singing began in Asia after all. Nor are we suggesting that Western music developed in an ethnic or cultural enclosure. However, to place the emphasis on Christian ritual musicianship--which seems to mean singers alone for most of the first millennium--is certainly to suggest that the tradition of Western music, the concept of a composer and indeed the very idea of musicians who deserve esteem for their knowledge and practical skill, is an invention of Christianity in its first thousand years.

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To Roman gentlemen like the Christian philosopher Boethius (c. 480-524/5), deeply versed in the musical traditions of the ancient Greeks, skilled instrumentalists and singers seemed servile, no doubt because many of those who provided vocal or instrumental music in the Roman world, especially in a domestic context, were indeed slaves. At that time, the true musician, or musicus, confined himself to theory and criticism--no more thinking to sully his hands with a musical instrument in public than to foul them with potter's clay in a workshop. Such true musicians knew that 'Heard melodies are sweet but those unheard are sweeter', in the words of John Keats. Most lovers of music, I suspect, will recognise what Keats intends and what Boethius believed; there is always a sense in which the music we love exists most truly in the mind, lifted above the contingencies and disappointments of a specific performance.

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In the late Roman Empire, however, the daily work of liturgical singers was necessary for maintaining the cult of a state and papal faith imposed by law. By around 400 the ceremony of Christian liturgy with its silk, linen, incense and precious metals reflected the material luxuries of power in an empire that still had extensive trading routes where Europe, Asia and Africa hinge together. There was a romanitas here that became vital to the essentially Romano-barbarian institution of kingship that was the new political order of the West. As men formerly acknowledged by Roman constitutional titles like patricius either vanished or gradually turned into territorial kings, a ruler like Clovis (c. 466-511), king of the Franks, might eventually find little reason to continue resisting any pressure from his bishops to accept Christianity (not necessarily in its Catholic form, although that is what Clovis chose). The kings offered a sub-Roman court to their lay magnates and bishops, valuable advisers in most things. To have capable singers in the great churches of the realm gave a Roman, quasi-imperial profile to a king's authority as surely as any coins he struck in imitation of Byzantine originals.

Much of the best evidence for the work of the early-medieval singers is Frankish. The second generation of Christian kings in Francia certainly had one monarch seeking a gifted singer for his court and church: Theuderic (c. 485-533), a son of Clovis. Whether he resided in Cologne, Reims or Trier, Theuderic expected to enjoy dishes cooked with olive oil, pepper, ginger and cloves brought up from Marseille (a culinary manual addressed to him still survives) and he recognised that to hold Roman state in this way and to commandeer the old palaces as he did at Trier inevitably entailed the maintenance of the Roman Catholic religion that his converted subjects espoused. Theuderic therefore decided that he should recruit clergy in southern Gaul where his father had given him extensive duties. …

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The West Finds Its Voice: The Western Musical Tradition of Trained and Professional Performers, Conductors and Composers Can Trace Its Origins to the Forms of Christian Worship That Developed in Europe during the First Millennium
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