ecclesiastical music


Although music was often employed among the Jews to enhance religious ceremonies, the primitive Christians were restrained in their religious manifestations, and it is only in the 4th century that we find mention of psalm-singing, by Tertullian. In the monasteries of Syria and Egypt two forms of rendering the psalms and canticles of the Bible were developed: the antiphonal chant, which consisted in the alternation of two choirs; and the responsorial chant, which was solo singing in which the congregation joined in a refrain. The first was introduced into the Western Church in 386 by Saint Ambrose; and the Alleluia chant, a peculiar kind of responsorial singing in which the Alleluia formed the refrain, was also imported from the East about this time. There was a continuous development in this choral singing, known later as the plain-chant, reaching its climax in the reign of Pope Saint Gregory the Great. Tradition claims that this pope compiled and revised the numerous melodies already accepted, established a schola at Rome for training singers, and drafted an antiphonary for general use. This resulted in the spread of the Gregorian chant, written in neumatic notation and later in the modern staff notation, over the entire Church. Antiphony had been adopted for the Mass in the 5th century; and in the 9th, two new forms of Mass music were added, the Sequences and the Tropes, the famous “Dies Irae” being a product of this period. With the Renaissance and the Reformation came the rise of polyphony and the neglect of plain-song melodies, which were then used as themes or subjects for contrapuntal or many-part treatment and also supplied the basis of the psalms and hymns of Protestantism. Efforts were made by the popes to restore the traditional chant, because its style, which permitted the words of the text to predominate, was more suitable to the Liturgy than the colorful and florid polyphonic music. Palestrina (died 1594) endeavored successfully to fit the figured music to ecclesiastical needs. The Medicean Gradual was a revision of the Gregorian chant which appeared in 1615. A new interest in the plain-chant began to be aroused in the 19th century. The historic validity of the Medicean edition was attacked, a thorough examination of manuscripts was instituted in the Benedictine monastery of Solesmes, France, and after over 20 years of research, the “Liber Gradualis” was published. This was followed by a new epoch inaugurated by Pope Pius X who, in 1904 by his Motu Proprio, ordered that only the traditional plain-chant and the purer and stricter forms of choral music, sung by men and boys, were to be permitted in liturgical functions. Since then, a new Vatican edition has appeared and every effort is being made to revive this ancient chant which has grown up with the Liturgy itself and is an admirable combination of prayer and music.

MLA Citation

  • “ecclesiastical music”. New Catholic Dictionary. CatholicSaints.Info. 6 February 2013. Web. 26 January 2022. <>