Liturgical Music

A Brief History and simple examples

Early music in the church was shaped by Greek, Syrian, and Hebrew influences. Only a dozen or so examples of Greek music from the ancient world exist; but from these, music historians can ascertain that music was a part of early Greek religious ceremonies. It was primarily monophonic unison melody, void of any sort of harmony or contrasting counterpoint. This early music did allow for embellishment with instruments. History reveals that Greek music was based on theories concerning the nature of music and certain accepted systems and patterns for musical compositions.

Syrian monasteries and churches were scenes of early musical elements in worship as well. Antiphonal psalmody and hymns were first present in Syria and then spread to Milan and further west. Antiphonal psalmody was also evident in the Jewish temples. Antiphonal singing means that two choruses sing "back and forth" to each other, much as an echo, though not always identical music.

In the case of Jewish psalmody, the text was based on verses from the Hebrew "Book of Praises," the Biblical Psalms. The Psalms were sung every day in ancient Hebrew temples. Another method for their musical presentation was the responsorial chant where the Levite leaders chanted Psalms accompanied by various instruments, singing one line and then waiting for the congregation to sing the next. The chant that was sung as a solo from the altar was called the "verse" and the congregational choral response was known simply as the "respond."

Hymns followed the psalms, adapting melodies from the early chants. Catholicism developed the Canticle, lyrical portions of the Bible that were sung at specified times of worship. Canticles are a part of today's liturgy in the Roman Catholic Church. The first written chants were associated with Pope Gregory and therefore are remembered in history as "Gregorian Chants."

As early as the Middle Ages, the Mass was deemed the worship service most important in the Catholic Church. It was organized into two types: the Proper Mass and the Ordinary Mass. Historically, the Proper Mass was seasonal and the music depended upon the particular feast that was to be celebrated. Its movements included the Introit, Collect, Epistle, Gradual, Alleluia, Evangelium, Offertory, Secret, Preface, Canon, Communion, and Post-Communion. The Ordinary Mass was used for services from week to week, unaffected by holy days or season. The Ordinary Mass remained the same each service with five musical sections: the Kyria Eleison, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei.

Because the Gregorian Chants were considered sacred, they were utilized in every early Mass. The basic chant was always found in the lower part, the bass line, and was called the Cantus Firmus. Musicians and composers altered the chants by changing rhythms, voice, harmony, countermelody, descant, and imitation, but the chants were always present. History records Machaut as changing the rhythms. Leonin added a harmonic second part. This technique was built upon by Dufay, who arranged a mass for three and four parts all singing different melodies against one another but in chord harmonies. Perotin added countermelody and descant. Ockegheim was a master of the technique of imitation, writing Mass arrangements that focused on one voice but allowed for the echo of another voice in a lower or higher register. Ockegheim also added harmonies, primarily in thirds. Desprez introduced counterpoint to the Mass, where two distinct melodies played independently against each other, often a few beats apart.

As more and more composers added and altered the basic Gregorian melody, the music for Mass became more complex. It was hard to pick out the text or understand the meaning of the words. In some instances, the music itself was so difficult that singers balked at performance. The organist then played the music or improvised on the theme, thus introducing liturgical organ music.

At the Council of Trent, church leaders met to address the problem of the difficult and extremely varied music before them. The first official catechism was formulated. It was decided that the music for worship must be within reasonable bounds as far as its difficulty so that members of the congregation could participate.

Pope Marcellus asked Palestrina to simplify the church's music

Palestrina tackled the job with dignity and style, simplifying presentation but retaining the beauty of the melody. He limited counterpoint. He also sought to magnify the text so that the words became the most important part of the music and it ministered in its presentation rather than mystifying those listening by its complexity.

In the 1600's and 1700's, some of the world's greatest composers contributed to the Mass. Bach composed a Mass in all twenty-four keys! His most famous was the "B-minor Mass." Monteverdi used dissonance and word painting to express the emotion of the words in the Mass. A. Scarlatti introduced the cantata, a religious musical with five to eight movements, soloists, ensembles, and choruses. Handel created the oratorio, a sacred opera with a narrator. Handel's most famous religious work was "The Messiah." Schutz composed "The Seven Last Words," a work that centered on the theme of Christ's last days (or passions). Mozart wrote eighteen masses. Mozart's masses were so lengthy, however, that only portions of them can be used within the time constraints of a church service. Haydn penned fourteen Masses, all positive and happy, focusing on faith in God. His most famous religious contribution was his oratorio, "The Creation."

In the 18th century, religious music expanded beyond all bounds that had ever been set for it. Composers "borrowed" common melodies and even secular/popular songs, rewriting religious words to them. During this period were birthed hymns, anthems, and choruses for both Catholic and Protestant churches. It was often the case that the same melody was used as a hymn and a cantata or mass. For example, Bach's Cantata #80 is based on the hymn "A Mighty Fortress is our God." Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and "Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee" share a melody line.

The 19th and 20th centuries introduced freedom of style in what history calls the "Liturgical Movement." Religious music underwent a transformation to suit a changing and evolving congregation. Liturgies were simplified and often translated into the country's own language. The Liturgical Movement sought to preserve the history of the traditional music in the church, yet design a style of music that would meet the needs of a more modern parishioner. Music was not only simplified but integrated, with pastors and composers setting religious texts to folk melodies to encourage congregations to join in the singing. Examples of famous hymns set to popular tunes are "Amazing Grace" and "There is a Fountain."

Amazing Grace

John Newton 1725-1807

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound...” So begins one of the most beloved hymns of all times, a staple in the hymnals of many denominations, New Britain or “45 on the top” in Sacred Harp. The author of the words was John Newton, the self-proclaimed wretch who once was lost but then was found, saved by amazing grace.

Newton was born in London July 24, 1725, the son of a commander of a merchant ship which sailed the Mediterranean. When John was eleven, he went to sea with his father and made six voyages with him before the elder Newton retired. In 1744 John was impressed into service on a man-of-war, the H. M. S. Harwich. Finding conditions on board intolerable, he deserted but was soon recaptured and publicly flogged and demoted from midshipman to common seaman.

Finally at his own request he was exchanged into service on a slave ship, which took him to the coast of Sierra Leone. He then became the servant of a slave trader and was brutally abused. Early in 1748 he was rescued by a sea captain who had known John's father. John Newton ultimately became captain of his own ship, one which plied the slave trade.

Although he had had some early religious instruction from his mother, who had died when he was a child, he had long since given up any religious convictions. However, on a homeward voyage, while he was attempting to steer the ship through a violent storm, he experienced what he was to refer to later as his “great deliverance.” He recorded in his journal that when all seemed lost and the ship would surely sink, he exclaimed, “Lord, have mercy upon us.” Later in his cabin he reflected on what he had said and began to believe that God had addressed him through the storm and that grace had begun to work for him.

For the rest of his life he observed the anniversary of May 10, 1748 as the day of his conversion, a day of humiliation in which he subjected his will to a higher power. “Thro’ many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come; ’tis grace has bro’t me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.” He continued in the slave trade for a time after his conversion; however, he saw to it that the slaves under his care were treated humanely.

In 1750 he married Mary Catlett, with whom he had been in love for many years. By 1755, after a serious illness, he had given up seafaring forever. During his days as a sailor he had begun to educate himself, teaching himself Latin, among other subjects. From 1755 to 1760 Newton was surveyor of tides at Liverpool, where he came to know George Whitefield, deacon in the Church of England, evangelistic preacher, and leader of the Calvinistic Methodist Church. Newton became Whitefield’s enthusiastic disciple. During this period Newton also met and came to admire John Wesley, founder of Methodism. Newton’s self-education continued, and he learned Greek and Hebrew.

He decided to become a minister and applied to the Archbishop of York for ordination. The Archbishop refused his request, but Newton persisted in his goal, and he was subsequently ordained by the Bishop of Lincoln and accepted the curacy of Olney, Buckinghamshire. Newton’s church became so crowded during services that it had to be enlarged. He preached not only in Olney but in other parts of the country. In 1767 the poet William Cowper settled at Olney, and he and Newton became friends.

Cowper helped Newton with his religious services and on his tours to other places. They held not only a regular weekly church service but also began a series of weekly prayer meetings, for which their goal was to write a new hymn for each one. They collaborated on several editions of Olney Hymns, which achieved lasting popularity. The first edition, published in 1779, contained 68 pieces by Cowper and 280 by Newton.

Among Newton’s contributions which are still loved and sung today are “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds” and ”Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken,” as well as “Amazing Grace.” Composed probably between 1760 and 1770 in Olney, ”Amazing Grace” was possibly one of the hymns written for a weekly service. Through the years other writers have composed additional verses to the hymn which came to be known as “Amazing Grace” (it was not thus entitled in Olney Hymns), and possibly verses from other Newton hymns have been added. However, these are the six stanzas that appeared, with minor spelling variations, in both the first edition in 1779 and the 1808 edition, the one nearest the date of Newton’s death. It appeared under the heading Faith’s Review and Expectation, along with a reference to First Chronicles, chapter 17, verses 16 and 17.

Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav’d a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears reliev’d;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believ’d!

Thro’ many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promis’d good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.

Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease;
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who call’d me here below,
Will be forever mine.

You may notice a well known verse missing above,

“When we’ve been here ten thousand years

Bright shining as the sun

We’ve no less days to sing Gods praise

Than when we first begun.”

That verse, originally from the hymn “Oh Jerusalem” was improperly added to Amazing Grace when Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote a scene in Uncle Toms Cabin in which Uncle Tom in a moment of despair is singing hymns but can’t remember all the words and mixes up the lyrics form several disparate hymns. Since they were the popular, well know hymns of the day, people who attended the play enjoyed the joke appropriately, but somehow that particular verse took hold and has been mistakenly reprinted in hymnals of all denominations to this day. It is most apparent when you study the words of the original hymn and realize that John Newton was writing from his own experience about himself only, and all verses are in the first person as “I”, when suddenly the errant verse appears as “we”.

The origin of the melody is unknown. Most hymnals attribute it to an early American folk melody. The Bill Moyers special on “Amazing Grace” speculated that it may have originated as the tune of a song the slaves sang.

Newton was not only a prolific hymn writer but also kept extensive journals and wrote many letters. Historians accredit his journals and letters for much of what is known today about the eighteenth century slave trade. In Cardiphonia, or the Utterance of the Heart, a series of devotional letters, he aligned himself with the Evangelical revival, reflecting the sentiments of his friend John Wesley and Methodism.

In 1780 Newton left Olney to become rector of St. Mary Woolnoth, St. Mary Woolchurch, in London. There he drew large congregations and influenced many, among them William Wilberforce, who would one day become a leader in the campaign for the abolition of slavery. Newton continued to preach until the last year of life, although he was blind by that time. He died in London December 21, 1807. Infidel and libertine turned minister in the Church of England, he was secure in his faith that amazing grace would lead him home.

Kum by Ya

Kumbayah" (Gullah, "Come By My GOD(Yah)") — "Kum ba yah" — is an African-American Hebrew (YAH) spiritual song from the 1930s. It enjoyed newfound popularity during the folk revival of the 1960s and became a standard campfire song in Scouting and other nature-oriented organizations.

The song was originally associated with human and spiritual unity, closeness and compassion, and it still is, but more recently it is also cited or alluded to in satirical, sarcastic or even cynical ways that suggest blind or false moralizing, hypocrisy, or naively optimistic views of the world and human nature. In short, it has become a joke of the “warm and fuzzy” feeling, sappiness and ridicule primarily because of it’s over use in comedy and satireical movies but also because of the general lack of knowledge about what the song actually means.


The origins of the song are disputed. Recent research has found that sometime between 1922 and 1931, members of an organization called the Society for the Preservation of Spirituals collected a song from the South Carolina coast. "Come By Yah", as they called it, was sung in Gullah, the creole, Hebrew, pidgin dialect spoken by the former slaves living on the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia. In Hebrew, "Yah" means "My God", so the lyric could be translated as "Come by my GOD, come by my God(Yah)."Between 1926 and 1928, four more versions of traditional spirituals with the refrain "Come by Here" or "Come by Yah" were recorded in South Carolina and Georgia on wax cylinder by Robert Winslow Gordon, founder of what became the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. In May 1936, John Lomax, Gordon's successor as head of the Library of Congress's folk archive, discovered a woman named Ethel Best singing "Come by Here" with a group in Raiford, Florida.

These facts contradict the longstanding copyright and authorship claim of Reverend Marvin V. Frey. Rev. Frey (1918–1992) claimed to have written the song circa 1936 under the title "Come By Here," inspired, he claimed, by a prayer he heard delivered by "Mother Duffin," a storefront evangelist in Portland, Oregon. It first appeared in this version in Revival Choruses of Marvin V. Frey, a lyric sheet printed in Portland, Oregon in 1939. Frey claimed the change of the title to "Kum Ba Yah" came about in 1946, when a missionary family returned from Africa where they had sung Frey's version and slightly changed the words. This family toured America singing the song with the text "Kum Ba Yah". This account is contradicted by the fact that a nearly identical Gullah version of the song was recorded almost two decades earlier.

When we understand that the title word mean “Come by Here” and listen to the verses;

Someone’s cryin’ Lord, come by here…
Someone’s prayin’ Lord, come by here…
Someone’s singin’ Lord come by here…
Someone’s laughing Lord come by here.

We can see that the song is clearly a moving invocation to God to come fill our lives and remove our despair through the power of prayer and faith.

Folk music revival

Joe Hickerson, one of the Folksmiths, recorded the song in 1957, as did Pete Seeger in 1958. Joe Hickerson later succeeded Gordon at the American Folklife Center The song enjoyed newfound popularity during the folk revival of the 1960s, largely due to Joan Baez's 1962 recording of the song, and became associated with the Civil Rights Movement of that decade. It is a standard campfire song in Scouting, the YMCA, and others. It was also commonly used in Catholic "folk" masses of the 1970s.

Contemporaty Christian Music

In the latter part of the 20th century, a new musical idea once again transformed the music of the church - contemporary Christian music. From the folk rock of the 70's with its guitars and drums to the Christian rap groups of the 21st century, Christian music continues to evolve with artists like Jesse Manibusan, Tom Booth, Casting Crowns, and Skillet to name just a few, who aspire to preserve the message of the church while meeting the needs of an ever-changing world.