The Old Ones



“I like the old songs. Why don’t you people at the church play any of the old songs?” is a refrain that I have frequently heard from my mother. She is talking about songs that she heard growing up in a Pentecostal church in the forties. Just so that everyone knows what I am talking about, I am referring to songs like Amazing Grace, Victory in Jesus, and I’ll Fly Away. (These songs date from the mid-1800s.) Sometimes they are referred to as gospel hymns or campfire songs. These songs, and those like them, were the staple of protestant worship during the period in which my mother grew up. It is of course natural for her to long for the songs of her childhood.

Gospel hymns however are far from being the earliest examples of Christian music and can hardly be described as “the old songs.” Christian music predates these songs by some 1800 years. One of the earliest references to the use of music in Christian worship was by Pliny the Younger, a Roman magistrate, who described early Christians as singing songs to Christ “as to a god.” This proves that the early Church was already utilizing music to some degree in worship by the end of the 1st century AD.

By the beginning of the 7th century Pope Gregory the Great had made Gregorian Chant the official music of the Western or Roman rite of the Catholic Church. Some features of this music are free rhythm, melody sung in unison (monophonic texture), and it is common to stretch a single syllable over several notes (melismatic), especially words like amen or alleluia. If any music were to be referred to as “the old songs” of the church, it would be this. This type of chant went through several developmental phases until it gave way to more complicated forms, but it has remained the official music of the Roman Catholic Church’s extraordinary form of the Mass. The newer form (ordinary form) of the mass, which has been in practice since the 1960s, utilizes hymns written in the modern era and borrows from protestant hymnody. Some Catholic parishes attempt to preserve the Gregorian chant by incorporating it into the mass during Advent and Lent.

In the protestant world there was an explosion of hymn and chorale writing in Germany and England in the 17th and 18th century and in America in the 19th century. This saw the introduction of my mother’s favorite church music. The 20th century saw the introduction of popular music forms into church services. Indeed in some mega churches in America today the worship service is more like a high-tech pop music concert complete with flashing lights and electric guitars!

The history of Christian music is a huge field of study. We would make a mistake to underestimate its vast scope. Along these lines, we Americans live in a relatively young country, but we can err in overestimating its contribution to history and in particular the history of Christian Music. This is what my mother did when she assumed that American hymnody was the oldest liturgical music. There was a whole world that existed before our country was founded and who we have become as Americans has been shaped by the world that we inherited from our ancestors many centuries ago. Those who prefer to hear American hymnody that was popular in churches in the United States earlier during the twentieth century should instead say, “I would like to hear the songs they played when I was young.” This is clearer and more honest. It also shows that one has an appreciation of the scope of historical music and one’s own context in the timeline of the Christian tradition.

Comments are closed.

Post Navigation