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  January 12, 2001 Program  

One Thousand Years of Church Music In an Hour

Notes by John E. Hamersma
Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan


  Worship and music: an introduction
  This program of sacred music ranges from ancient Jewish chant to contemporary worship-music styles in the Judeo-Christian tradition. It is music from a variety of times and places that has been and is used to facilitate worship.

While music from different times and places contrasts in style, all music shares in the basic human impulse to express ideas, feelings, experiences, and history in melody, poetry, body movement, and drama. Often melody, poetry, movement, and drama have been combined, forming a composite art to express the "mind" of a people.

Worship is a fundamental human activity which uses melody, poetry, drama, and movement to express the common human desire to find meaning beyond our own existence.

  Preserving and experiencing: chant

Chant is the ancient and traditional sacred musical language of worship. While some chant is closer to speaking than singing, other chant is more fully developed melodically. Both kinds of chant use relatively few notes in simple melodic structures and move in meditative rhythms. Its purpose has been the preserving and the experiencing of sacred truths in text and music. That is, chant is both the practice and the preservation of religious belief. It is intended both for worship and for corporate memory. As such, chant is word-based music which moves both the listener and the singer from this world and from the limits of the body to the world of God and to unlimited eternity. While we hear it in a concert setting today, this is not music for human pleasure but music for the ears of God.

While the music of pure chant is melody alone, the first work on the program is a four-voice arrangement of a Hebrew song, El Yivneh Hagali l ("The Lord Will Build Galilee") and the hymn Adon Olom ("The Lord of the Universe"). The chant-like melody of the song is heard at the outset, sung by unison voices, and thereafter it is heard in various voices to a variety accompaniments in the other voices. The chant of the hymn is sung by the first tenors, "Adon olom," in the middle section of the piece.

The second work is a Gregorian Chant, the style of chant used in the Western (Latin) Christian Church. It has its roots in Hebrew chant. Benedicta sit" is the entrance Psalm of the Mass for Trinity Sunday, the Sunday following Pentecost. It is sung as the clergy process to the altar, moving with text and melody to begin the drama of the Mass. The chant begins with an antiphon (refrain) "Blessed be the Holy Trinity and undivided Unity; we shall proclaim him because he has granted us his mercy." The chant is begun by a solo voice and is continued by the choir in unison. A solo voice sings a Psalm verse ("O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!") followed by the antiphon sung in organum (parallel singing with voices five notes apart). Next, the solo voice begins the Lesser Doxology ("Glory to the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit") which is continued by the choir ("as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.") The chant is concluded with the antiphon sung again in organum.

  Offering and ornamenting: motet
  Already in the chant just sung, we heard the adding of voices to the otherwise unison chant. Though the practice of adding voices began much earlier, our first information on the part-singing of chant is from the 9th century. The earliest composing of organum and other adornment of the church’s song was by musicians whose names are not known to us. As in early iconography, what was done for the church was done for God and not for human recognition. Their offering in ornamenting is an act of worship..

In time, musicians added more and more to the chant of the church, not only notes but texts as well. The motet began as a textual decoration of polyphony (chant to which voice parts had been added). Both kinds of ornamentation (adding to the liturgical text and adding to the traditional chant melodies) were intended to fill a liturgical function, offering worship to God using the official and traditional musical language of the church, chant. Later the practice of polyphony with added text came to be separated from the chant into an independent composition called the motet.

The first motet to be heard, O Sacrum Convivium by Tomás Luis de Victoria, uses the text of a chant but not the melody. The text is that of the antiphon, or refrain, sung with the Magnificat ("Song of Mary") at Vespers (evening service) on the Feast of Corpus Christi, a feast celebrating the Holy Eucharist (Communion). "O, holy feast at which Christ is received, and remembrance of his passion is renewed. The mind is filled with grace and with future glories pledged to us. Alleluia!" As is fitting for a feast day, this is a joyous setting highlighting such words as "feast," "received," "remembrance," "grace," and "glories" with happy melismas (more than one note for a syllable). The Holy Eucharist and what it represents for the worshiper is cause for joy. This music is not only for the worship of God but also for the delight of human ears.

The motet of the English Reformation church is known as the anthem. If Ye Love Me by Thomas Tallis is one of the earliest of the English anthems. Its text is John 14:15-17: "If ye love me, keep my commandments, and I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another comforter, that he may bide with you forever, even the spirit of truth." Tallis was one of the first musicians to write for the new Anglican (English) liturgy and one of the earliest of his (1547-1548) pieces is this anthem. Just as musicians ornamented chant as an offering, so the motet and anthem are liturgical ornaments, offered in worship while at the same time delighting human senses.

  Persuasion and ostentation: motet and cantata
  Monteverdi’s music spans the transition from Renaissance musical style to that of the Baroque Era. This Crucifixus is from a collection of sacred pieces published at Venice in 1641, though it may have been composed some earlier. It is written in the old Renaissance style of the motets by Victoria and Tallis but with certain Baroque characteristics. First, the compositions in this collection Selve Morale e Spirituale, were expected to be accompanied by instruments, which was not the Renaissance ideal. Second, this motet is intended to move the affections, that is, the entire person. This belief, widely held in the 17th century, maintained that music is to represent an affection (such and love or anger) by ostentatious (effectively exhibited) musical ideas that are intended to presuade the listener to feel a certain way.

This setting from the Nicene Creed ("For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried") is a lament, a motet of mourning the death of Jesus "for our sake." This affect of lament is expressed in such display as a chromatic descending (descending by half-steps) melody heard on "crucified" and a slumping three-note motive (C, D, B) on the word "suffered." While this music preserves memory, practices worship and offers musical and textual ornamentation to God, it is primarily intended toi produce an emotional response in the worshiper.

Cantata No. 196, Der Herr denket an uns, ("The Lord has been mindful of us") uses text from Psalm 115. This cantata appears to have been written just prior to Bach resigning as organist at St. Blasius Church in Mühlhausen when he was 23 years of age. It may have been written for a wedding there. The text of this movement from that cantata, a duet for tenors and baritones, is that of verse 14: "The Lord bless you more and more, you and your children." The affection is "bliss" and by that the listener is persuaded to spiritual joy.

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