Echoes of the Ancients

logoFor composers, a sense of “newness” can often be obtained by digging into the past for raw materials.  Felix Mendelssohn, for example, looked back to the Baroque period and, in particular, to the music of J.S. Bach for inspiration.   Josquin de Prez, Giovanni da Palestrina, and other composers of the Renaissance frequently used Gregorian chant melodies as the basis for original compositions.  Many composers today couch materials from the past to present a new perspective on those ideas.

The music of the earliest Christian churches, particularly in the years before AD 590 (when Pope Gregory was installed), is a body of work that, it seems, is not particularly well-known or exploited as a compositional resource.  This pre-Gregorian literature is replete with musical materials useful for creative manipulation by composers, as it can be used to evoke a time, place, and feeling that has not widely reached the public ear in nearly two millennia.

The purpose of this article is to make composers aware of this ancient repertory so that they may include it among their creative resources.  This survey will begin with an overview of the Greek musical traditions that were to have important influences on early Christian music.  Later, the music of Judea is examined to give cultural context and additional technical features that would be assimilated into early Church music.

The Greek Influence

Ancient Greek music resembled that of the early Church in three fundamental ways.  First, Greek music was primarily monophonic, that is, melody without harmony or counterpoint.  Second, Greek music was almost entirely improvisational.  Third, Greek music was always associated with words or dancing or both.  Its melody and rhythm were intimately linked to the melody and rhythm of poetry, and the music of the religious drama, in which singers moved to prescribed dance patterns.

However, to say that the music of the early Church resembled Greek music in being monophonic, improvised, and inseparable from a text is not to assert a historical continuity.  It was the theory rather than the practice of the ancient Greeks that affected the music of the early Church.  Those theories were of two classes:  doctrines of the nature of music, its place in the cosmos, its effects, and its proper uses in human society, and systematic descriptions of materials and patterns of musical composition.  It is the latter theoretical body that will be explored here.

The musical theory of the Greeks contained five topics that were relevant to the early Christian repertoire:  notes, intervals, genera, scale construction, and tonoi.  The concepts of note and interval are dependent upon a distinction between two kinds of movement of the human voice:  the continuous, in which the voice changes pitch in a constant gliding up and down without fixing on a pitch, and the diasematic, in which pitches are sustained and discrete distances, called intervals, are perceptible between them.  Intervals such as tones, semitones, and ditones were combined into scales.  The principal building block of the octave scale was the tetrachord, made up of four notes spanning a diatessaron or fourth.  The fourth was one of three primary intervals—the others being the octave and the fifth—that were identified as being consonant.

Tetrachords were classified into three classes, or genera:  the diatonic, the chromatic, and the enharmonic (Fig. 1).  The highest and lowest pitches of these tetrachords were considered the most stable.

Fig. 1. Three genera of Ancient Greek tetrachords

Within the tetrachord, the lowest interval was normally the smallest, the highest interval the largest.  Specifically, in the diatonic tetrachord the two top intervals were whole tones and the bottom one a semitone.  In the chromatic tetrachord the top interval was a semiditone, or minor third, and the two lower intervals were semitones, or minor seconds.  In the enharmonic tetrachord the top interval was a ditone, or major third, and the bottom two intervals were smaller than semitones, close to or actual quarter tones.  Thus, tones such as B# and C were not identical in Greek theory.  The modern piano produces such tones as identical pitches.  Wind and brass players can lip the tones to differentiate the enharmonic tones, and string players can adjust fingers to achieve them.

Tetrachords were combined to form scale patterns.  This joining might be disjunct, with the lowest note of one tetrachord being placed just above the highest note of the other, or conjunct, with the lowest note of the upper tetrachord being identical with the highest note of the lower tetrachord.  Two of the diatonic tetrachords joined disjunctly formed a diatonic octave, or diatonic scale, which became the most commonly-used variety of scale formation.

The modes, or tonoi, on which much of Greek music, and ultimately Jewish and Christian music, was built, differ from our modern naming system of modes.  Both names are given in Fig. 2.

Fig. 2. Ancient Greek modes (with modern names)

A prime example of Ancient Greek music that is contemporaneous with early Christian music is the Epitaph of Seikilos (Fig. 3), which dates from the first century AD.

Fig. 3. Epitaph of Seikilos

Every note in the octave e-e’, with F and C sharped, is in this song, thus it is clearly identifiable as being in the Phrygian mode—dorian in modern nomenclature.  The most prominent note is A; it is the most frequent note, and three of the four phrases begin on A.  E is the topmost pitch in all four phrases, occurs six times, and is the final note of the piece.  Of subsidiary importance are G, which closes two of the phrases but is skipped over at the end, and D, which closes one phrase.  The major thirds would be perceived today, and probably then also, as bright, as would the rising fifth of the opening.

The repetition of the A is significant, as Greek music theory considered the tone in the middle of the scale—the mese—to be of principle importance in melodic construction.  In the Problems attributed to Aristotle, it is stated:  “in all good music mese occurs frequently, and all good composers have frequent recourse to mese, and, if they leave it, they soon return to it, as they do to no other note.”

The elements of music just explored in the Seikilos example also appear in the music of the Jews and Christians.  The Ancient Greeks provided other cultures, contemporaneous and future, with certain fundamental ideas about music:  a conception of music as consisting essentially of pure, unencumbered melodic line; the idea of melody intimately linked with words, especially in matters of rhythm and meter; a tradition of musical performance based essentially on improvisation within communally accepted conventions and making use of certain traditional melodic formulas; a scientifically founded acoustical theory; a system of scale formulation based on tetrachords; and a musical terminology.  Part of this heritage, particularly the latter three listed, was specifically Greek; the rest was common to most if not all of the ancient world, including Israel and its environs.

The Judean Heritage

The Temple—that is, the second Temple of Jerusalem, which existed on the site of the original Temple of Solomon from 539 BC until its destruction by the Romans in 70 AD—was a place where public worship took place.  That worship consisted mainly of a sacrifice, usually of a lamb, performed by priests, assisted by Levites, and witnessed by lay Israelite citizens.  In the course of the sacrifice, a choir consisting of at least twelve Levites sang a psalm that was accompanied by string instruments.  On important festivals, such as the eve of Passover, Psalms 113 to 118, which have Alleluia refrains, were sung while people made their personal sacrifices, and then a wind instrument perhaps resembling a modern oboe joined the string accompaniment.

There are obvious parallels between the Temple sacrifice and the Christian Mass. The Christian Mass was a symbolic sacrifice in which the priest partook of the blood in the form of wine, and the worshipers joined in partaking of the body of Christ in the form of bread.  But insofar as the Mass is also a commemoration of the Last Supper, it imitates the festive Jewish meal, such as the ceremonial Passover meal, which was accompanied by music in the form of Psalm singing.

The music of the Temple, and later the music of the Church, was constructed in a manner very similar to the Greek tradition described above.   Rhythm was intimately tied to the text, and melodies were constructed in a loose, improvisational manner.  As important as the Greek contributions were, however, local contributions must also be considered to get a complete picture of musical style.  Perhaps the most significant were that the Greek modes were sometimes altered by quarter tones and that the concept of mese, where the tone in the middle of the scale dominated the song, was mostly disregarded.  For example, the following example (Fig. 4), an Arabic folk tune, shares many things in common with the Phrygian mode—modern dorian—except for the pitch E, which is consistently lowered by a quarter tone.

Fig. 4. An Arabic folk tune.

Also in Fig. 5 is seen the free, improvisational rhythmic quality so common to music of this region.  Here, as in all other Temple music and Greek music before it, the rhythm is derived from the text.  Note also that the pitches F and F# are both used frequently, hinting at, but never confirming, both the Greek modes Lydian and Hypolydian—modern Ionian and Lydian.

Fig. 5. An Ashkenazic worship song

Early Christian Liturgy

Some features of the music of Greece and Judea, as explored above, were surely absorbed into the Christian Church during its first two or three centuries.  But certain aspects of ancient musical life were definitely rejected by the Church.  One was the idea of cultivating music purely for enjoyment as art.  Above all, the forms and types of music connected with the great public spectacles such as festivals, competitions, and dramatic performances were regarded as unsuitable for the Church, not so much from any dislike of music itself as from the need to wean the increasing numbers of converts away from everything associated with their pagan past.  This attitude led at first to a distrust of all instrumental music.  However, the Church reluctantly continued to give vocal music a place of increasing importance because its values to the Church were believed to outweigh negative effects it might have—and it was popular with the people.

The oldest extant example of Christian hymnody was found in a large document known as the Oxyrhynchus papyrus, which dates from the third century AD.  To say that this is an indication of all Christian music from this period is purely speculative, however, as no other examples have been found that would support this assertion.

The Oxyrhynchus hymn (Fig. 6) centers on C and all of the Bs are flat, thus it is in the Hypophrygian mode—mixolydian in the modern nomenclature.  The rhythm, as in Greek and Judean songs, is free and based on a text.

Fig. 6. The Oxyrhynchus hymn.

That singing took a prominent role in early Christian worship is well-documented.  For example, St. Augustine, an important philosopher of the early Church, wrote:

Then it was first instituted that after the manner of the Eastern churches, hymns and psalms should be sung lest the people should wax faint through the tediousness of sorrow:  and from that day to this [this was written c. AD 400] the custom is retained, divers, yea, almost all Thy congregations, throughout other parts of the world, following herein.

And in the New Testament:

Let the gospel of Christ dwell among you in all its richness; teach and instruct one another with all the wisdom it gives you.  With psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, sing from the heart in gratitude to God (Col 3:16).

As has been seen and documented, the music of the early Church was been based on Greek tradition.  This is confirmed not only by the Oxyrhynchus papyrus but also by a number of paintings from sarcophagi which depict the use of Greek instruments in Christian musical worship.  It is well-known that the Greeks used a series of modes in the construction of their melodies and that the text setting was largely based on the metric scheme and accent of the words.  From this it is reasonable to assume that Christian music of this early period would have done the same.

Christian Music Expands

Beyond the influences of Greek and Judean traditions, the beginning of a unique musicality among Christendom began to take shape around the fifth century AD, when Christianity began to spread to different cultures.  It is from the church established in Byzantium that perhaps the clearest and richest example of this expansion of the early Christian repertoire is evident.

Byzantium, or Constantinople, was the seat of the most powerful government in Europe and the center of a flourishing culture which blended Greek and Judean elements.  Byzantine melodies are not composed in a key or mode but are composed using a certain group of formulas, called “echos” or modes.  This seems to be the basic principle of musical composition in the Syro-Palestinian region, and it spread from there with the expansion of early Christian music to the countries of the Byzantine Empire and to those of the Mediterranean basin.

The character of Byzantine music was considerably modified by the language to which it was sung.  The original form remained unaltered only in a few bilingual chants in which they original language survived as a relic.  And, unlike in the old Greek and Jewish music, improvisation was a less accepted practice.

The following (Fig. 7) was composed by Ioannes Plousiadenos.  This hymn features no chromatic alteration and focuses on the pitch D, thus it is in the Phrygian mode—modern dorian.  It features marked accents within a non-metric scheme that compliments the text.

Fig. 7. Byzantine hymn on the text of John 14:9, 6:56

As the church continued to spread, more regional variants of early Church music began to crop up.   The Franko-Roman type, which came to be known as Gregorian, after Pope Gregory, would soon supplant all others in a standardization of the church liturgy.   Examples that still remain of other regional types show very few differences from the Gregorian chant literature.

Practical Considerations for the Composer

The music explored in this survey does not fit easily into modern metric schemes.  This is an important consideration when choosing which ancient melodies to use in composition, and especially if writing for younger student musicians.

Language can be a problem when drawing from early Christian sources for setting.  English translations of the texts can be problematic to find and, even if such translations can be found, it is unlikely that the translations will fit logically with the tunes, which were constructed to fit the original language.  Also of concern is proper pronunciation of ancient texts.  Pronunciation study in such languages as Aramaic, Hebrew, or Ancient Greek will be helpful for both the composer and performer.

Quarter tones, as has been seen, feature prominently in the melodic material of this ancient music.  There is currently no standardized notation for quarter tones.  The use of the / symbol—as seen in Fig. 4—is one possible notation.  However the composer chooses to notate the quarter tone, a clear explanation should appear in the score and in the parts.

Professional musicians should have little difficulty producing quarter tones reliably.  For student musicians, however, quarter tones should be used with caution.  The younger musician will more reliably produce the quarter tone if it is approached and left from standard pitches in the modern chromatic scale.

Wind and string instruments are capable of producing quarter tones through manipulation of embouchure and finger position, respectively.  Percussion and keyboard instruments should not have quarter tones written in their parts unless it is known that a specially-manufactured instrument is available.


Christian liturgical music, prior to the standardization of liturgical music by Pope Gregory, was both rich and unique from a modern standpoint.  The music of this period embraced the knowledge of the Greeks and the folk traditions of Judea and eventually blossomed into its own style as Christianity spread to diverse cultures.  Composers today now have at their disposal not only the abundant Gregorian repertoire, but examples and stylistic elements of the music that preceded it.

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