Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Musical Life of Worship in the Early Church

The early monastic communities literally spent most of the day in prayer, not only in the sacrifice of the Mass/Divine Liturgy and the Divine Office, but also in the peace of meditation.

The Mass
As the focal point of Christian Worship, monks and layperson alike sought to pay homage to the Mass by offering the greatest sacrifice of their time and talents in the most beautiful manner for "only the best is pleasing to God." The splendid churches and Cathedrals wherein the Mass was celebrated was extraordinarily well decorated, and the music sought to portray the sublime simplicity of the mystery it proclaimed.
There are texts for the Mass which do not change, called Ordinary, and texts which change according to the day, called Proper. I have drawn attention to them where they come, but you can also identify them by their name. Ordinary texts are named according to the first words of the prayer, whereas the Proper texts are named according to their function, i.e. Offertory. All the sung parts of the Mass are in bold, and all the spoken parts are in italics.
In the format of the Mass, the priest processes in a cloud of incense as the choir sings the introit, a chanted psalm which changed according to the day. Once all the servers are in place, the choir intones the nine-fold Kyrie, a plea in Greek for the most Holy Trinity to have mercy on us. On Sundays and great feasts that do not fall in Advent or Lent, the Gloria/ Greater Doxology follows, which is a song of praise to God calling for mercy and again confessing belief in the Trinity. The priest then makes a prayer for all present, the collect, and after this, the Liturgy of the Word begins. The subdeacon intones the daily Epistle (letter from the apostles) and the choir responds with a Gradual, which contains texts from the psalms proper to that particular day. The choir then proclaims the Alleluia to preclude the joyous reading from the Gospel of the life Christ, though during Lent, the happy Alleluia is omitted to draw attention to the solemn nature of the season, when it is replaced by a Tract. Should the choir wish to supplement the Alleluia, they would add a sequence, or a jubiulus as a form of extra devotion. After the deacon intones the Gospel, the congregation listens to instruction and meditations on the readings from the priest, known as the sermon, concluding the Liturgy of the Word with the Credo, a statement of belief sung by the choir and prayed by all.
At this point, all who did not profess the fullness of Catholic belief or were not in a state of sanctifying grace had to leave for the Liturgy of the Eucharist. As the priest prepared the bread and wine for the consecration, the choir sang the Offertory, with text drawing attention to the celebration of that particular day. After the secret, a prayer of unworthiness said silently by the priest, and a dialogue between priest and congregation known as the Preface, the choir proclaims Sanctus, holy. The priest then speaks the words of consecration known as the Canon and all the people pray the Pater Noster, the Our Father, after which the choir sings the Agnus Dei, calling attention to Christ's role as the sacrificial lamb who redeemed us from our sins by the shedding of his innocent blood. During communion, the choir sings the Communion psalms, which are again proper to that day, after which the priest intones the Postcommunion prayer and sends the congregation forth with Ite, missa est (go, you are dismissed).

The music of the Mass, up until the travesty which was the free interpretation of the texts from the Second Vatican Counsel, was always chant. Texts for the Mass were gathered into books known as the Missal, and the music was contained in a separate anthology called the Gradual. An excellent rendition of the chants for a Mass may be found in the Mass for Christmas Day, of which, here is the Introit.
There were three ways one could perform chant in the Medieval Ages
  1. Responsories - a soloist alternating with the choir or congregation
  2. Antiphons - two halves of the choir alternating
  3. Direct - singing a text straight
Likewise, there are three styles of setting Mass texts to the music
  1. Syllabic - chants in which almost every syllable has a note
  2. Neumatic - chants in which syllables can have up to seven notes
  3. Melismatic - chants with long passages on a single syllable
The purpose of chant was to proclaim the words of the Mass, to aid in the worship of the community, not distract from it. 

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