Church Fathers and Church Music

The Fathers of the Church can help us refine our liturgical worship after 50 years of subjection to sentimental pop music.

At the beginning of this 50th anniversary year of Vatican II, Benedict XVI called for a renewed, authentic reading and implementation of the council documents. After suffering through many decades of vulgar, saccharine Church music, it is encouraging to note a rise of musicians who are serious about authentic reform of sacred worship. The recent Sacred Liturgy Conference in Rome was a great success, and there is a spirit of joyful, liturgical rejuvenation among the youth. Today’s composers are considering many facets of sacred music theory and history as they strive for the renewal of theocentric orthodoxy in liturgical worship. A brief look at the last 50 years in light of the early Church Fathers’ teachings provides a surprisingly relevant breath of fresh air.

Most Catholics are all too familiar with the folk music “reforms” to liturgical music of the 1970s and ’80s. Adopting secular music and the spirit of the age, untutored youth began setting music to pop-style rhythms and melodies, usually with acoustic guitar accompaniment. This style of liturgical music became immensely popular, spread rapidly, and was taken up by prolific composers such as Marty Haugen and David Haas. Michael Matheson Miller of the Acton Institute refers to this liturgical Candyland as the “suburban rite.” The problem with this music, noted by more than one critic, is that it is filled with fuzzy doctrine and the spirit of the sexual revolution: “peace,” “love,” and bad style.

On the other hand, many remember the Grammy-award winning CD Chant, which hit the music market in 1994 and became an overnight sensation. Chant, sung by the Benedictine monks of Santo Domingo de Silos, appealed to traditional Christians and New-Age listeners alike. It was considered the perfect antidote to a stressful, workaholic world exacerbated by paltry pop music. The perennial qualities of plainchant became self-evident to the listener of these recordings. But for the monks, plainchant was more than a musical expression that they appreciated and polished like curators of a museum; it was essential to their life of prayer. The monks explained in the jewel-case insert for Chant how they had become physically ill, suffering fatigue and exhaustion, while experimenting with post-Vatican II music for the Divine Office. The sentimental emotion of pop and folk melodies was not sustainable over a seven-hour worship day.

Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, noted that, in addition to recent pontiffs, the early Fathers of the Church also illuminate the function of sacred music. A deeper reading of the Fathers, beloved by Pope Emeritus Benedict, can assist us in liturgical renewal.

St. Basil the Great and charismatic music

Far from being distant and “out of touch,” the words of the Fathers are quite down-to-earth and often humorous. St. Basil the Great, for example, wrote that sacred music must both appeal to the people and trick them into worshipping God:

For when the Holy Spirit saw that mankind was ill-inclined toward virtue and that we were heedless of the righteous life because of our inclination to pleasure, what did he do? He blended the delight of melody with doctrine in order that, through the pleasantness and softness of the sound, we might unawares receive what was useful in the words according to the practice of wise physicians who, when they give the more bitter drafts to the sick, often smear the rim of the cup with honey. For this purpose, these harmonious melodies of the psalms have been designed for us, that those who are of boyish age or wholly youthful in their character, while in appearance they sing, may in reality be educating their souls.

In other words, music must be joyful and beautiful so that people will learn their Faith and want to come and worship God in church. Conversely, St. John Maximovitch said, “The psalms and the hymns that simply gratify the ear but do not inspire somebody to pray are not acceptable.” In fact, that is the main point, as St. Basil goes on to say that liturgical music must always be a work of prayer and worship because liturgy is an imitation of heavenly glory and praise.

One controversial genre that seems to fit Basil’s category of “doctrine disguised for the youth” is charismatic worship music. Orthodox in its theology, this music is certainly focused on the worship of God. Whereas “suburban rite” music tends to focus on holding hands in church and singing “a new church into being,” charismatic music is oriented toward praise and worship. The most legitimate critique of charismatic music seems to be that while it is effective in luring youth out of the rock music culture into the culture of life, it also seems to be an adolescent response to God that is not sustainable, but this obstacle to spiritual growth is surmountable. It is common experience that as serious Christians mature they develop a natural appetite for plainchant and sacred polyphony.

Let us, however, be clear that the Fathers were not friendly to popular music and secular culture. The guardians of early Christianity were very particular about both the content and style of sacred music because they lived in a secular culture hostile to Christian morals. Church music was primarily the product of Jewish synagogue worship which prayerfully developed with Christian usage into practices that were fitting for liturgical worship.

What the Church Fathers said about pop music

The Greek philosophers set the foundation for Christian music theory. Plato and Aristotle recognized that all music has a distinctly moral character. In Aristotle’s theory, music imitates the states of the soul—anger, gentleness, temperance, etc. He taught that good music has a good effect on man’s character, while bad music has a bad effect. The second-century Greek musicologists Cleonides and Aristides Quintilianus recognized that certain music possessed a soothing character which was particularly fitting for hymns and praise, and that it led the soul to harmony with God.

On the other hand, early Christian writers consistently attacked pagan, instrumental music (ancient pop music) because of its inseparable connection to pagan ceremony and lewd customs. John Chrysostom called musical instruments, dancing, and obscene songs “the devil’s garbage.” The Fathers were particularly concerned with the sexual immorality which accompanied the popular music scene of the early centuries A.D. From their writings one gets a glimpse of vulgar culture during this time, not unlike our post-modern culture today. The three most frequently referenced venues of crass pagan music criticized by the Fathers were the theater, wedding receptions, and drinking parties.

The theater was full of cultic pagan references and characters, but the primary fault of the theater was its sexually offensive content. Wedding receptions were occasions for singing coarse marriage songs and carousing. A common feature of late-night banquet parties was the young female lyre player who played alluring music which inevitably led to sexual sin among the participants. Tatian (c.180 A.D.) was one of the first to write a polemic against such immodesty. In his letter to a Greek acquaintance he refers to the archetype of such a musician: “And this Sappho is a lewd, lovesick female who sins to her own licentiousness, whereas all our women are chaste, and the maidens at their distaffs sing of godly things more earnestly than that girl of yours.” Pseudo-Basil and his contemporaries drew a similar connection between seductive music, drinking parties, and sexual license.

Polemics like this raise the question of whether or not popular styles of music are an appropriate accompaniment to prayer in the liturgy. On a certain level, pop styles may appeal to many people, but are they naturally oriented toward God? The Fathers deemed these music styles “guilty” by association and our own post-modern pop is hardly better. Folk music is by definition focused on the affairs of people, while rock music quite effectively arouses erotic passions. As Elvis Presley once said, “The beat of rock n’ roll is sex”—not exactly appropriate for divine liturgy. Yet unfortunately, not all Christian composers have successfully avoided the mistake of incorporating intrusive, base, pop music styles into liturgical prayer.

Sacramentum Caritatis, ars musica, and the “New Song”

As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote in his letter Sacramentum Caritatis (2007), “The introduction of musical genres which fail to respect the meaning of the liturgy should be avoided” (42). Ecclesial music composers of the future will safeguard orthodox worship through a thorough study of and fidelity to the ancient traditions of music that have organically and prayerfully developed under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

As much as they despised popular Greek music, the Fathers simultaneously acknowledged classical music as an important academic discipline. Pythagoras, Plato, and Aristotle had worked out a scheme for education which became solidified by Martianus Capella (fifth century). The seven classical liberal arts included the study of music (ars musica). Ars musica was a mathematical discipline that was measurable. Music theory gave structure to this art: the philosophy of mathematical function as well as character formation. The Church wholeheartedly adopted this plan of education.

As in earlier times, secular music theory can continue to help Christians better understand their own music tradition and articulate it to a contemporary audience. In a culture in which classical training in music is often no longer valued, contemporary Christians would do well to revive ars musica as a discipline of our own educational tradition. The future of authentic Christian worship lies in the legitimate preservation and interpretation of its musical traditions passed on from generation to generation.

St. Clement of Alexandria was one who saw great value in gleaning whatever is good, true, or useful from the secular, Greek intellectual tradition. Clement was a proponent of integrating Greek philosophy and musical study into Christian catechesis, yet he believed that Christians must carefully select ideas and examples which are in tune with Christian truth: “He who culls what is necessary [from Greek studies] for the benefit of the catechumens… need not abstain from the love of learning… But by no means ought he to linger over these, except in so far as there is benefit from them, so that having taken this and secured it he can return homewards to the true philosophy.”

A theme in Clement of Alexandria’s work, Protrepticus, is that Christ, the “New Song,” orders the music of the cosmos according to a new harmony. Clement tells us that the enemies of this new harmony are those pagan musicians who are “deceivers, corrupting human life under the pretext of music, possessed by a kind of artful sorcery for purposes of destruction, outrageous in celebrating their orgies, deifying misfortune, the first to lead men by the hand to idols… and by means of their songs and incantations to subject to the most dire servitude the noble freedom of those who lived as citizens under heaven.” Christ, on the other hand, has brought new order to the universe by becoming man: “The Lord made man a beautiful instrument after his own image; certainly [Christ] is himself an all harmonious instrument of God, well-tuned and holy, the transcendental wisdom, the heavenly Word…”

Toward a renewal of harmonious worship

In the following passage Clement synthesizes the above teachings of the Fathers by making a beautiful distinction between well-ordered and disordered music: “Now temperate harmonies are to be admitted, but the pliant harmonies are to be driven as far as possible from our robust minds. These, through their sinuous strains, instruct one in weakness and lead to ribaldry, but the grave and temperate melodies bid farewell to the arrogance of drunkenness. Chromatic harmonies, then, are to be left to ‘colorless’ carousals and to the florid and meretricious music.”

Clement makes clear that there is more to sacred music than sacred lyrics. The melodies and harmonies themselves are either conducive to worship or not. According to this criterion, it seems clear that most pop music is not conducive to liturgical worship. On the other hand, we know from music history that some popular music melodies of ancient times were adapted to fit sacred lyrics—a tradition that has persisted up until the modern day. By the end of the fourth century, pagan hymn music was being “baptized” and integrated into ecclesial prayers. One example of this is a pagan hymn called the “Nemesis Hymn of Mesomedes” (c. 130 A.D.) which was incorporated into a Kyrie in Gregorian tone seven. Yet, there was something unique, glorious, and inspiring about that melody that was capable of lending itself to worship. The Irish folk tune that accompanies “Be Thou My Vision” is a modern example of a well-ordered adaptation.

Sacrosanctum Concilium gave clear guidelines for composers of new sacred music. It affirmed that Christian countries which share the great body of sacred music, with roots in the early Church, are not locked into a static canon of liturgical music. The sacred music tradition is a living icon of Christ who is ever ancient, ever new:

“Composers, filled with the Christian spirit, should feel that their vocation is to cultivate sacred music and increase its store of treasures. Let them produce compositions which have the qualities proper to genuine sacred music…The texts intended to be sung must always be in conformity with Catholic doctrine…”

Benedict’s call for liturgical renewal is timely and there are young musicians in the Church who are eagerly preparing themselves to answer this vocational call. The teachings of the Fathers offer much-needed inspiration and direction. Threats to the post-modern Church are very similar to those of the third century: anti-Christian sentiment, secularism, and sexual licentiousness. Sacrosanctum Concilium and Sacramentum Caritatis clearly state that the way forward for the development of Christian music must include a dedicated study of traditional Church music as well as a sustained effort to teach this music to the faithful for liturgical worship. At the same time, new Church music must be composed—not by ill-formed neophytes with guitars—but by mature, prayerful, classically trained musicians who have been mentored in plainchant and sacred polyphony and are living the full sacramental life of the Church. Certainly, it would behoove Christian music composers to pay close attention to the warnings and encouragements of the early Fathers, who also lived in a secular pagan society. Their wisdom, far from being irrelevant, is surprisingly germane.



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About Christopher B. Warner 18 Articles
Christopher B. Warner lives with his wife and son on a hobby farm in West Michigan. He has three degrees in Theology including an M.A. from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. His graduate research focused on what Sacred Scripture, Patristics, and Catholic social teaching have to say about marriage & family issues and domestic financial management. He and his wife are small-business owners. In his spare time, Christopher works with couples as a small-business and personal finance coach at