the conflict between hellenism and judaism in the music of the early christian church

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Early Christian church music was influenced by Hellenist and Judaic elements - how are these to be assessed?





(a) (b) (c) (d)

Hellenistic Jewish Christian musical


(a) musical rendition and notation (b) melos, structure, and form (c) Academy, Synagogue, and Church


(a) static (ethnic and local traditions) (b) dynamic (expansion of Hellenized Christianity)







H E problem with which we shall deal in the following pages, is an old one. Since musical history was first written, it has been a subject of inquiry. In the Middle Ages that history was narrowly regarded as an ecclesiastical matter and was viewed from a theological basis. Only in the Renaissance, when Ornitoparch, Glafean, and Tinctoris ventured a more secular treatment of musical history, do we encounter the beginnings of a systematic search for the primary sources of ancient music. During the nineteenth century the historic-philological method was applied to these sources, combined with profound musicological analysis by scholars such as Bellermann, von Jan, Gevaert, and others. Their efforts led to concrete and significant results, although they overemphazised the Greek-Hellenistic stratum in the music of the early Church. The theological writers of the early Middle Ages were all but neglected, however, and many valuable clues in their writings were therefore overlooked. The new trend of cultural and religious history has rectified that onesidedness and a more balanced portrait of the problem can now be drawn. The "territorialistic ,, approach of scholars like Rostovzteff, Strzygowski, and Herzfeld has produced many fine results and has taught us a series of lessons which are now in some respects in direct opposition to the concepts and methods of former schools. Their main principles are : (i) Hellenism cannot be separated from the culture of the Near East; (2) But the historic development of Asia Minor during the seven or eight centuries of Hellenism must be understood as a continuation of previous millenia, not as an entirely new era. 1 (3) The ancient traditions of the Near East have often been transformed into, and disguised as, Hellenistic "Pseudomorphoses" (Spengler).x

Cf. Strzygowski, Asiens Bildende Kunst, p. 596.




(4) The all-important religious tendencies of the time should not be evaluated in ecclesiastical or systematic terms exclusively, as was done by Schuerer; for the ancient, indigenous traditions were stubborn and capable of deceptive adjustments to new ideas and forms. A complete musicological study ought, then, to investigate our problem on the basis of the three different levels on which the musical contest between Hellenism and Judaism took place, namely: the practice of rendition; melodic tradition and structure; philosophical and theological attitudes. The key to the solution of the entire question would be a comprehensive analysis of the ethnic and local musical traditions of the peoples in the Hellenistic sphere and epoch. Unfortunately our knowledge of their music is quite insufficient, since almost all of our sources spring from the philosophic-theologic realm, whose authors showed little interest in an unbiased representation of the lore of the dii minorum gentium. In spite of this handicap I shall endeavour to utilize SyrianAramaean sources, insofar as they are accessible to me; musicologists have heretofore examined them too little. This writer is firmly convinced that the Syrian and Northwest Mesopotamian countries played a far greater role in the development of Church music than is generally recognized. It is true that the Syrians were not a very creative people, and that their function was mainly that of translator and gobetween. Just because of this we must carefully trace that function, for it is our only opportunity to appraise the relative shares of Judaism and Hellenism in the music of the Syrian Church. In general it seems amiss to search for every detailed indication of some single ''influence*' or other. Asiatic culture grew not in years or decades, but in centuries and millennia. We cannot and should not evaluate the whole fabric from individual wefts or threads. Consequently, this study does not pretend to be more than an introduction to the far greater complex of liturgico-musical interrelations between Church and Synagogue.





Hellenistic What we know about the Hellenistic music of the Near East comes to us through three channels of information, viz. Greek, Jewish, and Christian, none of which even pretended to be objective. The authors of our historic sources were :2 a. The Greek intellectuals who spoke with condescension and occasionally with contempt of all music which did,not strictly follow the "pure and straight" () path of classic Greek music. 3 It was their ever-repeated lament that the stand ard of Hellenistic music had fallen far below the level of a serious art. This indictment is even today echoed by modern scholars such as Riemann and Reinach, although our conceptions of the ' 'purity" of classic Greek music have undergone con siderable modification. 4 For the mixture of Hellenic and Near East lore, the ancient authors showT little regard, and we have to interpret their remarks with a good deal of caution. b. The Jewish intellectuals, our second category of sources, viewed with enmity and with great fear, the ever-broadening inroads of Hellenism in Jewish life. If the bias of the Greek authors rested upon esthetic-philosophic reasons, the sharp pre judice of the rabbis, on the other hand, was caused by a burning desire to erect a protective "fence around the Law," which prevented them from attaining any objective attitude. Consider ing the vast number of Greek terms even in the talmudic lan guage, it must be admitted that their fears were not altogether groundless.Dealing with a symbiosis of several nations during a period of seven or eight centuries, it was necessary to simplify the manifold sources into a few main categories. Since most of the really relevant sources will be discussed in detail later on, the danger of over-simplification is not too imminent. 3 Cf. Plutarch, De Musica, eh. 17, quoting Plato. 4 Cf. H. Riemann, Handbuch der Musikgeschichte, I. 1, p. 163 ff., also Th. Reinach, article "Musica" in Daremberg-Saglio, Dictionnaire des anti quites grecques et romaines, vol. 3, 2, p. 2074-2088. A far more positive attitude toward the music of Hellenism in W. Vetter 's article on "Music" in PaulyWissowa, Realenzyklopaedie des klassischen Altertums.2




c. The authors of the Christian Church during the four centuries of unfolding Christianity displayed a slowly changing attitude. At the outset their conception of the spiritual value of Hellenistic culture was all but identical with the orthodox Jewish, but gradually they came to terms with it, and finally just before the final collapse of the Roman Empire they began to appreciate its nobler implications. This generalization reckons with many exceptions, but the victory of the Gentile-Hellenistic Church over the Judaeo-Christian sects in Nicea 325 clearly demonstrates the spiritual trend of the times. We shall see, later on, t h a t the Church even absorbed some Hellenistic tunes and musical ideas, incorporating them in its older Judaeo-Syrian stratum. In general our sources pay more attention to instrumental music than to songs. We must not assume, however, that this instrumental music was independent of vocal rendition. Quite to the contrary, vocal music is taken as a matter of course, since the ancient nations could hardly conceive of any music whose chief element was not song. The instrument is merely the variable element. It is in this sense t h a t we hear of the various types of music which accompanied the religious ceremonies. The chanted words formed the liturgy, the instruments added the specific color. Music in the Hellenistic cults of secular music we know next to nothing had manifold functions. The most character istic were: accompaniment of sacrificial worship; apotropaic protection from evil gods; epiclese; katharsis before and initia tion into the mysteries; funeral; magic and sorcery. The most frequent sacrifices were solemn libations. Plutarch relates that these libations were accompanied and dignified by a sacred paean. s On another occasion he offers a rationalistic expla nation when he assumes t h a t music was played during the sacrifices to cover up the groaning of the beasts or, in the Carthas Plutarch, Quaest. conviv. 7, 7, 4, #712: ov , , ai yp , awemipiyyeTaL ieov. About origin and conception of the paean, see F. Schwenn, "Gebet und Opfer" in Religionswissenschaftliche Bibliothek, ed. W. Streitberg, Heidelberg 1927, p. 18 f.




ginian sacrifices to Saturn, the crying of the children. 6 Actually, the function of music in all these cases was apotropaic a principle which holds true even of some of the Temple music of Jerusalem. The sistra of the Egyptians to drive away the evil Typhon, the bells of the Phrygians to chase away hostile shadows and Demons, even the paamonim on the garment of the High Priest, when he entered the Holy of Holies 7 and hundreds of other illustrations demonstrate, beyond any doubt, the basically magic and apotropaic power of music. 8 The efficacy of music for the purpose of epiclese was a strongly implemented belief of all polytheistic religions. Music invokes the Gods to render help and assistance to the praying person. In the cult of Rhea Cybele, o