The Origin and Early Development of the European Approach to Music

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The origins of Christian music are but superficially known. Much data has been gathered by historians and musicologists, but the singular error, as Egon Wellez wrote, has been “to treat all happenings in the world from a European view-point.” This has been a trait of European historical writing, and it has distorted the European sense of historical perspective, forbidding the West to enquire deeply and intelligently into the music of Asia Minor and of the Orient in general. The result is that textbooks of musical history still give credence to the fallacious theory that Christian music is a creation sui generis, related only to later Greek theory and, from the beginning, something definitely European — its notes, intervals, modes, and general ideals having already been set along the lines which are now familiar.

Just as the basic doctrines and many of the practices of official Christianity developed by the fathers of the Church were in the main transformations of the myths and rituals that had inspired the East Mediterranean world of the pre-Christian centuries, particularly in Egypt and Syria, so the plainchant of the emerging Church was formed out of a combination of influences forgotten or overlooked by most European historians and theorists. The development of Church plainchant can be, at least to some extent, reconstituted, by following certain lines of inquiry which, during the Twenties, I found outlined in several important books written by French musicologists with broad minds and a deep feeling for the evolution of cultures.

The key to the study of the origin of the music of Christendom and to the development of Church plainchant is the recognition of the place Gnostic communities in Egypt and mainly in Syria occupied in that development. This place has been entirely obscured by the Church fathers’ claim that the Christianity they built was an entirely new departure in religious thought and practice — an obviously erroneous claim, as can be shown at several levels, including that of musical activity. Nevertheless, some musicologists, like Gevaert and Wellesz early in this century, came to realize the importance of Syria’s great Gnostic leaders in the formation of Christian plainchant, particularly perhaps that of Bar Daisan, one of the most influential of these leaders during the first centuries of our era.

Three cities played a capital part in the history of Syria at that time, Ephesus, Edessa, and Antioch.
It is in Epesus that flourished in those days the, greatest college, wherein the abstruse Oriental speculations and the Platonic philosophy were taught in conjunction. It was a focus of the universal “secret” doctrines; the weird laboratory whence, fashioned in elegant Grecian phraseology, sprang the quintessence of Buddhistic, Zoroastrian, and Chaldean philosophy. Artemis, the gigantic concrete symbol of theosophico-pantheistic abstractions, . . . was conquered by Paul; but although the zealous converts of the apostles pretended to burn all their books on “curious arts,” enough of these remained for them to study when their first zeal had cooled off.(1)
Edessa was one of the ancient “holy cities.” The Arabs venerate it to this day; and the purest Arabic is there spoken. They call it still by its ancient name, Urfa, once the city Arpha-Kasda (Arphaxad) the seat of a College of Chaldeans and Magi, whose missionary, called Orpheus, brought thence the Bacchic Mysteries to Thrace.(2)
Antioch became the capital of all these regions and one of the main centers of Christian influence. Between Alexandria and Antioch, and later Byzantium, a great rivalry arose in ecclesiastical matters, upon which was fostered the Nestorius-Cyril controversy which rent Christianity.
In the Syria of Jesus’s time three great cultural streams converged. Greek culture had become overly intellectualized and materialized under the influence of Aristotle and the sophists. But while the true Orphic Mysteries had degenerated or altogether disappeared, a few groups following the teachings of Pythagoras and Plato still existed. Egyptian culture had been destroyed by Persian and Greek invasions, the archaic wisdom of her hierophants was dead. Yet the Hermetic Gnosis apparently flourished under a new name, and it certainly inspired the Therapeuts to whom I shall presently refer. In Palestine the Essene communities most likely had been greatly influenced by the Buddhist missionaries sent by the Indian king Asoka and known to have settled near the Dead Sea.
About the same time in Alexandria, Ammonius Saccas and his disciple Plotinus began the Neo-Platonic movement, which aroused the enmity of the Christian fathers and ended with the murder of Hypatia in 415 A.D. Simultaneously in Syria, lamblichus reawakened the Pythagorean tradition and (presumably) the archaic tradition of the Orphic Mysteries, and Bar Daisan was born in Edessa, probably in 154 A.D.
Edessa was then ruled by a dynasty of Syrian kings, and Bar Daisan was a friend of a certain Abgar IV. Little is known of him except that he was profoundly versed in the mysteries of Chaldean astrology and wrote influential poems and hymns. One of these poems was preserved and translated under the title, “Hymn of the Robe of Glory” or “Hymn of the Soul” — a beautiful tale of the incarnation and sublimation of the human soul.
What the music of these poems was is not known. Yet Philo Judaeus’s description of the Egyptian Therapeuts (in “On the Contemplative Life”) gives a general impression of how these chants were used, as Therapeuts and Christian Gnostics belong to the same general movement.
Then the president, rising, chants a hymn which has been made in God’s honour, either a new one which he has himself composed or an old one of the ancient poets. For they have left behind them many metres and tunes in trimetric epics, processional hymns, libation odes, altar-chants, stationary choruses and dance songs, all admirably measured off in diversified strains. And after him the others also, in bands, in proper order, take up the chanting, while the rest listen in deep silence, except when they have to join in the burden and refrains; for they all, both men and women, join in.
. . . After the banquet they keep the holy all-night festival. And this is how it is kept. They all stand up in a body, and about the middle of the entertainment they first of all separate in two bands, men in one and women in the other. And a leader is chosen for each . . . They chant then hymns made in God’s honour in many metres and melodies, sometimes singing in chorus, sometimes one band beating time to the answering chant of the other, now dancing to its music, now inspiring it, at one time in processional hymns, at another in standing songs and turning and returning in the dance.
In their ceremonies and rituals these Gnostic groups used incantations and musical formulas. Bar Daisan, being a theurgist and a great Chaldean scholar, must therefore have produced magical chants and hymns. Such hymns were constructed by strophes, and all the strophes were sung to a musical theme or mode, which was called ris-qolo by the Syrians and later heirmos by the Greeks and Byzantines. The old Syrian cantics of the Nestorians were called sougitha, which seems to relate them to the Hindu samgita – -the archaic combination of poetry, ritual, and music.
It is almost impossible to doubt that Christian liturgy and Christian music arose from the once universal, though more or less corrupted body of sacromagical practices used in the Kabbalistic, Chaldean, Egyptian and Greek Mysteries. Plinus, for example, reported that the early Christians congregated for the purpose of chanting a carmen, that is, a magical incantation. And of the two great currents of thought which, according to Porphyry, blended into Christianity — the Oriental and the Neo-Platonist philosophies — the former probably had more influence than the latter in forming the substance of Syrian music.
Bar Daisan was not the only great Gnostic to compose hymns. So most likely did the leaders of such groups as the Apollinarists and (during the fourth century in Spain) the Priscillanists. The French historian of music, Combarieu, writes in his History of Music (Volume 1, p. 203):
Arius, the great heretic condemned by the Council of Nicea (325 A.D.) won through his hymns a great number of followers. St. Ephraim wrote concerning this that the “plague of corruption had hidden itself under the garb of musical beauty.” Thus various councils betook themselves with the task of forbidding or severely restricting this free expression of devotion.
It now seems clear that the Church fathers followed a similar procedure, which led to the formation of the early Church plainchant. They copied the music created by the Gnostic teachers and wrote new words for it. St. Ephraim in Edessa imitated Bar Daisan; St. John Chrysostom (Archbishop of Byzantium, 390 A.D.), the Arians; Gregorius of Nazianzen (329-389), the Apollinarists; St. Hilarius (Bishop of Poitiers), the later Gnostics of Asia Minor; and St. Damasus, the Spanish pope, no doubt took a great deal from the chants used by the Priscillanists and their great leader, the Egyptian Marcus.(3) After this wholesale plagiarism had been perpetrated, the Gnostic communities were savagely persecuted and their books destroyed, as was destroyed the Neo-Platonic school in Alexandria. Christianity emerged triumphant, with a new orthodoxy and a new music.
The next step was the “catholicization” of both dogmas and music. It was systematically pursued for some six centuries until the Roman rite and Gregorian plainchant became the official rule for Western Europe and music was reduced to diatonism. The diatonization of music in the West was finally accomplished at the time of Guido d’Arezzo (around 1000 A.D.), when the new notation by staff was generally adopted and the age of polyphony began to dawn.(4)
What at first did not come directly from the Syrians to the Europeans was transferred later through the intermediary of the Arabs. But the Arabic culture was fundamentally influenced, and indeed was probably the result of the creative activity of the people of the Near East Islam conquered, especially of what might be called greater Syria and also Persia. In fact, the Nestorian movement of the fifth century, which spread throughout Syria, Mesopotamia, and even as far as China, had very much to do with preparing the ground for Islam. The great school of Edessa, then called the Athens of Syria, was permeated by Nestorian doctrines; closed by the Emperor for this very reason, it was transferred to Nisbis in Persia. The Nestorian monastery of Basra was famous. Tradition holds that the young Mohammed was strongly influenced by a famous monk from Basra, Bahira. Later, Sufism — the most precious contribution made by this period to civilization — appears to have been the result of a combination of Hebraic and Persian mystic traditions; and the influence of Sufi ideals and music became during the Crusades a powerful factor in the development of the new music of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in Western Europe.
Says S. M. Swemer in A Moslem Seeker After God:
The Nestorians were the most powerful non-Moslem community while the Caliphs reigned at Bagdad (750-1258) and had a higher tradition of civilization than their masters. They were used at court as physicians, scribes and secretaries, and thus gained great influence . . . The Arab scholarship which came to Spain and was a great factor in Medieval learning begins in great part with the Nestorians of Bagdad. They handed down to their Arab masters the Greek culture which was inherited in Syrian translations.
Mr. E. Rey, in his most interesting book, Les Colonies Franques Syrie au XIIeme et XIIIeme Siecle (1883), also writes:
Towards the middle of the Vth century Edessa had become the literary metropolis of Cis-Euphratesian Syria, where the Greek and Syrian cultures were at their apex. Edessa had many rich libraries and a famous Academy in which the works of the main Greek philosophers, especially Aristotle, were translated . . . Long before Mohammed, the Nestorians were the only ones to practice medicine among the Arabs, and Haret-Ibn-Caida, physician and friend of the prophet, was a Nestorian.
Later, under the Abassides, a Mohammedan renascence of philosophical studies occurred . . . but one must realize that all the philosophical sciences came to them from the Syrians, educated in those schools derived from the famous Academy of Edessa, which seems to have served, four centuries later, as a model to the Benedictine School of Mount Cassin. To the same Syrians . . . was reserved the honor of bringing to and spreading among the Latin colonies the lights of the Orient . . . The Latin nobility was caught in the stream of this intellectual and scientific activity . . . among whom Renaud de Sagette was one of the most proficient students of the culture and sciences of the Orient; he gave hospitality to an Arab doctor whose function it was to read and comment to him the works of Oriental scientists … Most French lords were studying the Arabic language . . . The taste for songs and chansons de geste was also very great in Syria [about 1200].
The Middle Ages, from the year 1000 to the year 1400 and after, were pregnant with a sort of Alchemico-Gnostic renascence, against which popes and kings fought desperately. The Templars were burned alive and scattered, so were the Albigenses, the Waldenses and many others in the West; in the East, the Paulcians, the Cathari, the Bogomils, and so on.
A text quoted by Dom. J. Jeannin in his article, ‘Le Chant Liturgique Syrien,”(5) sheds a great deal of light on concepts and practices in the eastern Churches, which are closely apparent to pre-Christian sacromagical ideas, though transformed to fit the mythos of the Christ-life. These ideas were most likely not unknown to the members of knightly orders and to the men who became troubadours and troveres and influenced the birth of the Ars Nova around 1300 A.D. The following text was written by a Syrian author and bishop, Bar-Hebraeus (1226-1286), and is part of his book, Ethicon: On the natural cause of modes:(6)
The first inventors of the modal art built the modes upon four foundations, according to the number of the four qualities which are: cold, hot, humid, dry. As one can never find any one of these in an unalloyed and uncombined condition (which can be seen in the elements, for what is hot is either humid, like water and phlegm, or dry like earth and black bile), it is necessary to find as a limit to the varieties of modes the number twelve [see below].
. . . Thus have the Persian musicians discovered twelve modes. But as the ecclesiastics — Greek, Syrian and others — they have conceived eight modes. They have come to the conviction based upon experience that the first and the fifth modes develop the hot and humid [principles]. But in the first the humid is found to be more tender and langorous, for it is very soft and mysterious, wherefore the Canon of the Nativity was composed in this mode. It is truly a joyous festival, fecund in happiness and rich in jubilation . . . in like manner the Canon of the Resurrection, which was announced with great rejoicing to the disciples and the Holy Women.
. . . Because the biting hot element is to be sensed in the fifth mode, the Canon of the Ascension has been composed in that mode, for, that very day, when our Lord parted from his disciples and ascended into Heaven, they became enkindled with the fire of Love, burning with the desire of Him and consumed with love for Him, and without the weight of their bodies they would have fled through the air with Him . . .
The author further analyzes each of the eight modes, giving the correspondences as follows:

Corresponding Feasts
Hot and Humid
Cold and Humid
Hot and Dry
Presentation to the Temple
Cold and Dry
Hot and Humid
Cold and Humid
Hot and Dry
Cold and Dry
Martyrs Day
Italics designate preponderant element.
(To find the four remaining modes which the Persians alone used consider dualities as balanced without a preponderant element, thus four more combinations.)

Bar-Hebraeus concludes with these significant words:
Such are the foundations upon which the artful ancients built the modes. But those who followed after them did not reach the heights of their knowledge. They have desired fame while developing this art and they have composed Canons on any mode whatsoever, even if they did not correspond.
These quotations may not mean much to the ordinary musician of today, yet they reveal a common alchemical and magical basis for Persian and Syrian music and prove that Christianity, at least Oriental Christianity, originally accepted alchemical and magical elements in its music. They show that the yearly ritual of Christian festivals originally had been a symbolic expression of cosmic forces, solar or otherwise, in all points similar, for example, to the old Chinese festivals. Like the Chinese, at least an influential group of Christian musicians related musical modes to cosmic elements manifesting throughout the year, these cosmic elements being symbolized by the four qualities or four alchemical principles. It also indicates that ambition, pride, and self-gratification corrupted the Church musicians and bishops, as we can easily believe on the faith of other documents, and that confusion and the loss of the alchemical basis of music ensued.
Bar-Hebraeus’s text becomes still more illuminating when we consider that the creation of the eight modes of plainchant has been traced to St. John of Damascus. About 710 A.D. he compiled or composed a series of liturgical songs called octoechos in Antioch, Syria. These songs were the descendants of the ris-qolos and heirmei of Bar-Daisan and the Gnostics, which had been “adapted” by St. Ephraim in Edessa, then in Antioch by a series of religious leaders. Among these leaders were Flavianus and Diodorus who, “members of a brotherhood of ascetics and having later become bishops, tried to interest the Greeks of Antioch in the psalms, by dividing the chanting in two choruses: antiphonia.”(7) St. Romanos (in Homs, Syria) also wrote numerous hymns in Greek on the patterns given by St. Ephraim. St. John of Damascus codified all these hymns, which collectively were called canons (as Bar-Hebraeus still calls them five centuries later). He is said to have accomplished for Oriental Christianity what St. Gregory did for Roman Christianity by composing his famous Antiphonary.(8)
If the above quotations from Bar-Hebraeus mean anything at all, they must refer to those musician-bishops of Syria who composed the liturgical canons for the many festivals of the year. It is not known, however, when the corruption he mentioned began or whether or not St. John is to be counted as one of the “artful ancients” or one of the ambitious followers. But if these Syrian musicians conceived their modes and music in such a Gnostic-Alchemical way, further investigation is in order.
St. Ambrosius of Milan, the founder of Ambrosian plainchant in the fourth century, copied some of the Greek heirmei and wrote many hymns in the Oriental fashion. Moreover, Mr. A. Gevaert has gone so far as to claim with unshaken determination that “the work of compilation and composition of the Roman liturgy attributed by the tradition to St. Gregorius the Great was really accomplished by the Hellenic popes who occupied the pontifical throne at the end of the seventh and the beginning of the eighth centuries.”(9) These popes came from Antioch, together with many Syrians who had fled before the Mohammedans during the sixth century. Gevaert writes that they brought to Rome the knowledge of ecclesiastical modes, neumes, ornated songs, and so on, as is patent from the fact that the names adopted to designate these things are all transliterated from the Greek.
Gregorian plainchant was gradually constituted, codified, and further impoverished by its contact with the Nordic races, who had no musical culture and harsh voices unable to produce the subtleties of Oriental singing. A well known story recounts the experience of Roman singers, sent at the request of Charlemagne to reform the choristers of the Imperial chapel; they returned disgusted with the barbarians and their guttural way of singing. The attitude of the barbarian lords is further exemplified by the following story quoted by Gevaert:
In 454 the Gaul patrician Sidonius Apollinarius, talented poet who became bishop of Clermont (Auvergne) felicitates Theodoric, the Visigoth king of Toulouse, because he does not tolerate in his palace either hydraulic organs or choral compositions studied under the direction of some professional musician, or exhibitions of instrumentalists virtuosi or exotic singers, but instead finds pleasure solely in hearing this type of vocal and string music which uplifts the soul while charming the ears.
Very little is known concerning the actual manner in which the melodies of the earlier plainchant struck the ears of listeners. We know the framework of plainchant, but would one consider a human being to be well defined by an x-ray photograph of his or her body? Yet this is all that remains of plainchant. One can only speculate about what the units of medieval musical notation, the neumes, actually stood for. Even as late as the eleventh century, Guido D’Arezzo compared the neumes to “a well without a rope, the waters of which, abundant as they may be, cannot quench the thirst of any human beings.”(10) A rather strong confession!
Notation of the type represented by Medieval neumes is found all over the world, from Japan to Africa. It has both a symbolic and a mnemotechnic value. It is symbolic in the way Egyptian hieroglyphs or Chinese ideograms are conventionalizations of natural motions with an inner meaning. It is mnemotechnic because unless one knows from oral tradition the exact meaning of the formulas, one can never be certain of what they represent.
The oral tradition is lost; it was already lost centuries ago. Thus one has to rely upon written explanations to know how the earlier neumes were actualized in sequences of tones, and this makes the most varied interpretations possible. For a long time musicologists hypnotized by the diatonic theory and the Greek tradition interpreted neumes only as diatonic figures. They have recently admitted that chromaticism and even enharmonism were integral parts of early plainchant. Yet they appear eager to interpret “enharmonic” progressions as “laxities” and “witnesses to an uncertain taste.”(11)
It seems impossible to deny the existence of chromaticism (as we would say today) in the usual Gregorian chant. It has made use of a very great number of small intervals which did not exist in the theoretical scale which the masters, after the ninth century adopted from Greek or Latin authors. From there the diatonic scale has entered the field against the richer Gregorian tonality which allowed numerous deviations from diatonic intervals. This struggle lasted several centuries and ended in the adoption of the staff which, built exclusively on the principle of diatonism, did not allow the musicians using it to express the subtleties of the original tonality.(12)
In the West the dieses enharmonicae remained in use until the eleventh century; those divisions consisted of two quarter-tones [?] within each natural half-tone of the scale. The division of the monochord — the instrument of teaching — according to the three modes (diatonic, chromatic, enharmonic) — fills half of the treatises of the Middle Ages. Lastly the subdivision of the gamut was slightly different [?] from our temperament, and gave to the execution this pungent savour (saveur piquante) which we find still among Greeks, Turks, Arabs, etc.(13)
Dr. Jacobosthal, professor at the University of Strasbourg, goes so far as to claim to have proven that chromaticism was the original substance of the early Christian songs and that the diatonic modes were evolved slowly out of this chromatic materials.(14)
Moreover, besides this chromaticism and enharmonism — which may have been very different from what these terms represent today — the production and execution of the neumes themselves (that is, of the fundamental melodic formulas) were quite unlike anything Western music knows today. Musicologists, like M. Gastoué, mention texts describing strange modes of execution, but he does not seem to realize that these prove the present conception of music unlikely in the old plainchant. Neumes are classified in various categories. About the “liquescent” neumes Guido d’Arezzo writes, “the notes of the melody are in many cases liquescent as are some letters; so that, as one begins them, one passes by soft gradations from one to the other.” Other neumes called “ornaments” contained “a quivering sound, or the constituents of which are joined the one to the other,” also as “a triple percussion, a triple vocal emission like handbeats.”(15)
These quotations, and others found in treatises on the practice of plainchant, seem to indicate that these early Medieval chants were entirely different from what we hear performed as plainchant today. Anyone having heard traditional recitations of Japanese or Chinese poetry (that is, recitation including complex rhythms, accents, and patterns of intonations) and who reads the texts quoted above should come to the conclusion that ancient plainchant must not have been very different from Asiatic equivalents.
The “melodification” of Gregorian chant most likely occurred after Guido d’Arezzo’s reformation, that is, after the general use of the musical staff and the supression of all microintervals, which Guido helped accomplish in the eleventh century. For he stated that these microintervals were “fruits of corruption,” “laxities brought about by lack of reasoning.” After him, treatises mention them no longer. The original neumes, which were complex tones, became musical notes. And notes, in the sense given to them by classical music, are abstract entities — mere points defining complex patterns indicated on written scores.
Several types of plainchant or rites — the Ambrosian rite in Milan, the Gallican rite in France (probably impregnated with Greek influences through Marseilles and the Provence), the Visigothic, and later the Mozarabic rite in Spain — existed during the early days of Christianity. Some of these rites were very different from the Roman rite which was developed at the Papal Court during the seventh century. The autocratic power of Rome forced the various national clergies, often with great difficulty, to adopt the Gregorian plainchant and the manner in which it was sung in the churches and convents of the Middle Ages. This paved the way for the development of polyphony, tonality, and the formalism of the classical age of European culture.

1. Isis Unveiled by H. P. Blavatsky, Volume 11, P. 155. Return

2. ibid., P. 550. Return

3. cf. Les Origines du Chant Romain by A. Gastoué, P. 60; and Lavingnac’s Encyclopedie de la Musique, Volume 1, P. 543. Return

4. La Diatonization da chant Gregorian par la portie musicale by Dr. Peter Wagner (Tribune de St. Gervais, 1904). Return

5. Journal Asiatique, 1912 Return

6. Edition Bejan, p. 69ff. Return

7. Encyclopédie de la Musique, p. 543. This brotherhood of ascetics must have been of the type organized by the Therapeuts, who sang and danced in a similar manner. Return

8. Ibid., p. 545. Return

9. See for example, La Milopie antique dans le chant de l’église latine. Return

10. Gevaert, op. cit. Return

11. A. Gastoué, op. cit., P. 159. Return

12. Dr. Peter Wagner, op. cit. Return

13. Gastoué, op. cit., P. 134. Return

14. see Combarieu’s Histoire de la Musique. Return

15. A. Gastoué, op. cit., pp. 172f. Return

The Origin and Early Development of the European Approach to Music