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Short lesson in Christianity’s musical history

ABOVE: “A Festival of Lessons & Carols” in December featured the combined choirs of Mount Carmel / Blessed Sacrament and Historic Old St. John’s, the Chelsea Opera singers and the Chelsea Live Jazz Band conducted by Peter Elacqua. Music is a major part of worship in our parish.


Our parish has a long history of worship with music.

In fact, one of our former pastors, the Rev. William Pizzoglio, surprised the congregation in 1948 during the celebration of the church’s 50th anniversary when he composed a work with full orchestra for its Golden Jubilee Mass.

A.J. Valentini

The musical roots of our parish date back years from the likes of organists George Schindler and Helen Ehlinger to our present Music Ministry Director Peter Elacqua, who has continued that noble tradition of orchestrating hymns and creating original pieces.

The Roman Catholic faith is not unique in its use of music. In primitive cultures the use of drums and choral chant were quite common. In Islam, the calls from the minaret of the mosques and five-time daily prayers are sung often. In Buddhism, chanting is used as a means of centering the mind for meaningful meditation. Hindus use “bhajan” songs to express their love and devotion to the divine. Jews have cantors during their religious service.

Music cuts across cultural and language barriers. It is truly a universal language. St. Augustine said, “He who sings, prays twice.”

Old Testament beginnings

The tradition of music in Catholic worship goes back to the Old Testament. One only need listen to the psalms that we still intone today. Though we may not know the exact tonal sequences of the past, the lyrics remain with us, and modern composers invent ways to approach these historic praises to God. Those that we sing in our own liturgy are based on the old texts accompanied by music of contemporary composers such as Marty Haugen, David Haas, Rory Cooney and others.

In the 6th century St. Gregory gathered and codified the existing chants used in services. These meandering melodic lines became known as “Gregorian Chant.” As the Church evolved, the challenge to keep singers on the same melodic line proved difficult.

Guido d’Arezzo (991-circa 1033), a Benedictine monk, is regarded as the developer of musical notation. He realized that the monks consumed enormous amounts of time to memorize each piece. There needed to be a code to follow so that songs could be quickly and accurately learned.

People say d’Arezzo used his hand to indicate the various pitches, but the technique developed as a mnemonic tool after his death. In any case, by referring to the joints and knuckles to which various pitches and intervals were assigned, multiple singers would get a “road map” of a song and the director was able to direct the singing monks on a specific melodic line. Later, these positions were synthesized into a written form using dots on a written staff.

Middle Ages harmonies

In the music of the Middle Ages, simple harmonies were added. To our ears today, the addition of a vocal line a third above or below the melody doesn’t seem so unusual (you can get electronic aps and / or devices that do this automatically for a solo singer). It did meet with some resistance but is nothing compared to what followed.

In the late 1300s to the 1500s, the idea of having multiple voices with individual melodic lines coalescing around specific chords was introduced. Thus, we have the birth of polyphony (many tones). This allowed singers to embellish the sound with the various tambors of their voices much like instruments of different types: soprano as a high register, contralto as a medium high register, tenor as a higher male voice, baritone as a full mid-range male voice, and basso as a deep low male voice. This allowed the music to take on new textures and rhythms.

With multiple harmonies being sung, the Latin text, often staggered across many parts and voices, became harder to understand. Clergy complained, arguing that the sacred text was taking a backseat to musical flourishes. In addition, the “theatrical showiness” seemed secular to many. In fact, some of the early church songs of this period were set to tavern songs!

Palestrina’s Pope Marcellus Mass (1562) was specifically composed to address some of the critiques about the intelligibility of the text and the secular origins of many melodies. Using this piece as a reference, St. Carlo Borromeo, at the Council of Trent, was able to convince other prelates that polyphony could be intelligible, and that music such as Palestrina’s was all too beautiful to be banned from the Church.

Famous composers

In the Renaissance and Baroque periods, music took on an almost mathematical approach to harmonies and tempos. Composers such as Bach, Vivaldi, Handel, Mozart, Gabrieli, Schubert, Scarlatti and others created pieces that challenged the virtuosity of the performers but also the ears of the listeners.

As many sonic layers such as those in fugues — where one melody or phrase is introduced by one part then taken up by another with embellishments and interwoven with the other — bounced off the walls of the churches and cathedrals, worshipers were immersed in a musical cocoon. The effect was intended to elicit emotions and to transport listeners to ethereal places.

We still enjoy these musical works today, which again, speaks to music’s universality.