From the beginning, music has been an aspect of our worship of God. This was true of the Jews and passed into Christianity. Even pagans worshiped in song. St. Paul writes, "Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another (in) psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and playing to the Lord in your hearts" (Eph 5:18-19). St. Paul therefore tells us that singing is a gift of the Holy Spirit.
The same Holy Spirit is "present everywhere and fills all things." It is through the Spirit that the Divine Liturgy becomes a "sacrifice of praise," identified with the one true sacrifice of Our Lord, and it is through the same Holy Spirit that we sing hymns Even before Christ, in the Jewish era, Philo identified spiritual sacrifice with hymns, though he is also very cautious about the adequacy of audible sounds to contain the divine reality.
Only the human voice
For the Christians, the hymns had to have words. Liturgical hymns are not just hummed, they are absolutely not only a matter of melody, notes and meter. They are not just beautiful sounds, but they convey a truth and a concept. This is perhaps why the church early on accepted only the human voice in song and forbade musical instruments. Eusebius of Caesaria was to write, "more sweetly pleasing to God than any musical instrument would be the symphony of the people of God, by which, in every church of God, with kindred spirit and single disposition, with one mind and unanimity of faith and piety, we raise melody in unison in our psalmody" ("On Psalm 91, 4"). The Eastern Church accepted this principle as its tradition. The rejection of instruments, however, was not universal, for the Western Church later allowed their use in the church.
Singing was a part of Jewish worship and it passed over to the Christian Church. We find the texts of many early Christian hymns in the letters of St. Paul, as, for example, Col 1:15-20 and Phil 2:6-11. Both of these hymns have strong and clear teachings about who Jesus is and the mystery of the Incarnation. After the Apostolic era, the church was sometimes reluctant to admit hymns into its worship because dissidents were composing songs with words that contradicted authentic theology. Only psalms from canonical Scripture were allowed. However, eventually the church confronted this problem directly and began to write hymns that proclaimed the true faith in beautiful words and melodies.
The Council of Laodicea, in 363-364, formulated canons permitting hymnody only by canonical singers (Canon 15) and from canonical books (Canon 59). Perhaps as part of the reaction against false teaching, the early desert monks also rejected singing. Abbot Pambo at the end of the fourth century, said that "monks have not come into the desert to place themselves before God in pride and presumption, to sing melodic songs and make rhythmic tunes." However, music was also to be recognized by monks as a gift of the Holy Spirit, and soon they would be the chief composers of many volumes of stichera, canons and other hymns.
The early services in the Great Church of Holy Wisdom, the source of the Byzantine rite, were arranged for popular celebration and were called, in fact, "asmaticos" vespers and matins. The Greek word "asmaticos" might be translated into English as "lyrical," or "sung." This was because of the outstanding beauty of their melodies and the competence of the choirs. The time from Justinian to the Fourth Crusade in the 13th century was the high point of the office of the Byzantine Church. From the Great Church in Constantinople, it was copied in the outlying areas and provinces.
The "asmaticos" rites were destroyed in the 13th century. For various political reasons, Western crusaders took the city of Constantinople without much opposition on April 13, 1204. Giving in to temptation, they pillaged the city for three days. This had terrible consequences for the Byzantine Liturgy.
Pope Innocent saw the occupation as an occasion for the reunion of the churches. Unfortunately, he had no concept of "particular churches" or "rites" that would only come later. In his mind, the Greeks went into schism when they left the jurisdiction of Rome, and they had no rights.
The pope sent Cardinal Benedict to be his legate "to form the Greek Church more completely in devotion and purity of faith according to the institutions of the most holy Roman Church, which the Lord appointed to be the mother and mistress of all churches." A Roman patriarch and the Roman Liturgy were forced upon the city. The occupation introduced themes and ideas that would take centuries to overcome. Many Orthodox remember this with bitterness until today, though of course now attitudes have changed and this could not happen again.
The result, however, was that when the city was reclaimed by the Greeks 60 years later, it was judged impossible to restore the "asmaticos" rite, for the empire was greatly reduced in the resources available to it. Instead, they adopted a simpler system of music, one based on the eight tones, and the offices as found in the Holy Land, revered as closer to the prayer and worship of the apostles.
The "asmaticos" rite, however, was still maintained in Thessalonica, the second city of the empire, until the 15th century.
What was significant in this reform was that music was still regarded as most important for true worship. The words of the hymns and prayers are not ordinary human words and must not be spoken simply. They have a divine character and point to a meaning beyond their mere enunciation. They must be sung or chanted.
In parish life today, the quality of the music may vary according to the resources available. One cannot expect the perfection which is found in the public media. On the other hand, we must struggle and work to provide the best we can, keeping in mind always that the music glorifies and conveys the meaning of the words that are sung, which must not be buried in the performance. To sing what we believe is our common worship.
Archpriest David M. Petras’ book, “Time for the Lord to Act: A Catechetical Commentary on the Divine Liturgy,” is available. Order from Byzantine Seminary Press.