Church Music


If there is something most of us probably agree on, is that music has played and remains a crucial element in all Christian worship, from a very early stage in Church History. No matter how we look at Church music, whether it is a modern “gather together” around a lovely fire on a sandy beach, watching the Sunset, praying and singing Kumbaya; or a Pontifical High Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica, with almost every Patriarch and the Diplomatic Representatives of almost 150 Nations on Earth in attendance, Music is something as precious to Christian Liturgy – any liturgy! – as a Love letter will be to the most-in-love young couple of fiancées.

This is a cultural reality impossible to overstate in Christianity. From the Western churches to the great Orthodox Communities and Nations of the East and beyond, and from the upper communities in the most Northern outreaches to the most Southern confines of planet Earth, wherever one goes and finds Christian Faithful, one will be certain that music and prayers will be interwoven together as intimately as the relationship of Christ with the One and Whole Church, His “Bride“. His Church:

“Crux Fidelis” by King John IV of Portugal, whose daughter Catherine of Braganza married King Charles II of England, remains part of English repertoire since 1649 and is sung regularly in Cathedrals and churches around Great Britain to this day. An accomplished composer, King John IV authored two important documents, “In Defence of Pallestrina” and “A Defence of Modern Music”, both first published in Lisbon in 1649.


Pope Gregory I, The Great (b. 540, Pope from 590 to 640), generally receives all the credit for “inventing” the plain chant which was to take his name and become known as “Gregorian Chant”, but the origins of this particular style of chanting date far back, to the earliest beginnings of the Roman Rite in the 3rd. Century. In any event, St. Gregory the Great did not invent plainchant, but he was its greatest collector.

A short two-minute example of Gregorian Chant, typical of the 6th Century.


Perhaps unsurprisingly, the transition from plainchant, sung in one single voice shared by all the singers, trailed a rather slow journey into polyphonic music; where separate melodic lines [voices] come together to form a harmonic composition. Whilst initially a combination of Gregorian Chant and Polyphony may have been a natural choice in the humble and very early beginnings of Polyphony, we may safely say it became a genre in its own right, creating a style which gave rise to some of the greatest names in Polyphony, among them Allegri, Tomaz Luiz de Victoria and possibly the greatest of all, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina.

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (b. 1525 – d. 1594), authored hundreds of masterpieces

However, the Golden Age of Polyphony was by no means limited to Continental Europe. Indeed, it could be argued that it was in England Polyphony found the perfect breeding environment, to develop and flourish in ways which remain seen as unsurpassed in many aspects, from harmonical richness to creative composition and fullness in the relationships between the various voices in the score.

English Composers - Polyphonic Renaissance

Accounting for no less than 64 composers, the Golden Age of English Polyphony probably reached its zenith during the Reign of Queen Elizabeth I, from 1558 to 1603, although we could argue that this specially rich period in polyphonic music production may have started a little earlier, around 1533.

Today, annually and around the World, English Renaissance Polyphony is mainstay and forms part of the repertoire in Cathedrals and Basilicas worldwide, both Anglican and in the Roman Latin Rite, as well as concert repertoire in evening concerts performed quite often in churches and auditoria.

Below a glorious example penned by William Byrd (b. 1540 – d. 1623), illustrates the extraordinary compositional richness and all-in-one complex simplicity, for four voices (soprano, contralt, tenor and bass):

“Ave Verum Corpus”, William Byrd (b. 1540 – d. 1623), London, England


Anglican Chant tradition steeps deep in the legacy inherited from both Gregorian Chanting and Renaissance Polyphony and today all major churches, namely the Roman Catholic, Church of England and Anglican Communion, the Lutherans and Presbyterian churches, all perform Anglican Chant in their liturgies. The reason for that?… It is incredibly beautiful and highly spiritually lifting.

It is very clever too because it combines the richness of harmonic polyphony with the natural rhythm of speech, in order to sing unmetric text, such as the Psalms. It uses a cadence of speech matched usually to the 1st bar in the guiding score, followed by the 4th bar, then the 8th bar, the 12th bar and so on. Musical notation in the remaining bars in the score is used for phrase pause, start or termination, with the harmony matching with an intermediate tone, or a conclusive tone, pleasing to the Human ear. Thus there is no fixed time-length to the notes in each bar, as that depends on the length of the text.

The system appears to have developed in England in the 18th Century and has grown into a major form of singing unmetric text, all over the World. Below, an excellent illustrative example of Anglican Chanting and a good recording of Psalm 130 – De Profundis – performed by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge:

Psalm 130 “De Produndis” – Anglican Chant – Choir of King’s College, Cambridge

Though unrelated to Psalm 130, the illustration above explains in a simplified format, how Anglican Chant relates to text. The notation above is actually almost entirely made up of minims, except a single semibreve on the 2nd bar in the treble clef staff. Obviously, the illustration was chosen for simplicity reasons, not musical notation values.

Anyway, let’s imagine for a minute… Just remove all the note legs in the 3rd and 4th bars, so you would be left with just whole notes (semibreves). These would be the sections to sing the middle section of a given phrase in a text. The beginning of the phrase would be sung using the notation in the 1st bar, and the end of the phrase would be sung with the notation in the concluding bar, the 4th bar in the case above.

Naturally, this is a simple example, thus it is a bit of a crudité, but in effect at its simplest, it explains the essential principle in Anglican Chant.


Musical score manuscript, penned by Johann Sebastian Bach

The term “Baroque” derives originally from the Portuguese word “barroco”, which was used to describe odd-shaped pearls, characterised by a surface with lots of interesting irregular or prolific variations. The term was adopted all over Europe, to describe overly ornamented art, architecture, decoration and music, among other forms of creative expression.

Whilst it is true we generally hear about just a handful of Baroque composers – for example Bach, Handel, Telemann, Vivaldi, Purcell, etc – the fact is the Baroque period gave rise to over 1022 composers in Europe, between the last 20 years of the 17th Century and 1798, at the end of the 18th Century.
From the end of the 17th Century, musical eras also started to overlap; Classicism for example had its beginning roughly in 1750, overlapping with the Baroque period which carried on at least until 1798. The same is true of the Romantic Period which began around 1810, whilst the preceding period – Classicism – carried on at least until 1850.

The overlapping of the Baroque with the Classic periods, added to the high number of active composers, produced a musical Legacy worth literally tens of thousands of works, of which the Public only knows a relatively small portion. Recording houses are responsible for this, preferring to produce repeated versions of the same mainstream pieces and composers, rather than investigating in the re-discovery of unknown works and forgotten composers.

An example of this are the Solemn Vespers for a Confessor, by Mozart, recorded hundreds of times by a variety of performers over the years, leaving in the shade similar works of equivalent quality and composing skill. But there are hundreds of scores written for Vespers liturgies and it is only recently some performers and recording houses started to explore lesser known composers. Below, is one such example, the Vespers for the Solemnity of St. Peter and St. Paul, composed by Antonio Caldara (b. 1670 – d. 1736):

“Vespers for the Solemnity of Sts. Peter & Paul”, by Antonio Caldara (b.1670-d.1736)

Although all Baroque music is overly ornamented and theatrical, English Baroque is generally less ornamental, but more monumental, less theatrical and more understated. Several factors contributed to that, firstly the immense influence of George Frideric Handel, a German composer who preferred London as his permanent abode; the Reformation which in England established Anglicanism, and reformed Liturgies, all contributed to a slightly different feel in Baroque English music. The video clip below will hopefully illustrate exactly that, in a rendition of Handel’s Zadok The Priest, performed in its rightful setting, during the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II:

“Zadok the Priest”, by G. F. Handel


Sacred music – or perhaps better said, Church music – in the 20th Century is characterised by reliance on a combination of styles, or a collection of hymns, along with some traditional and even Latin texts. The average Parish however will follow the Common Hymnal.

The greater diversity and multicultural nature of modern society, introduced a great deal of change in how Church music integrates with Liturgy. Ethnic diversity and an unprecedented ecumenical dialogue between large and small Christian communities, spiritual renewal movements – Taizé, for example – and a greater offer in the ways to live the Christian Faith, have brought about the greatest musical revolution in Christendom.

An interesting example among many, is fusion church music, which combines Gregorian or Polyphonic music, along with Latin text, plus modern music additions and new rhythms, to bring about an all-new spiritual experience. Following below, the Tantum Ergo (the last two versions of the Pange Lingua, by St. Thomas Aquinas) is one such example, in fact a perfect case study, illustrating exactly one of the many possible versions and permutations, combining the tradition with renewal:

Tantum Ergo, I Nomadi

Another example, virtually all music composed by or commissioned for the Ecumenical Communities of TAIZÉ, is created keeping in mind its charisma orientation to Christian Youths as well as Youth from other faiths who feel curious about the Christian message to modern day Humanity.

For many years at the forefront of Christian renewal, TAIZÉ opens its welcoming arms to Christian communities outside the visible structure of the Roman Catholic Church, bringing together literally tens of thousands of young women and men from all walks of life, all walks of Christian Faith, all social and cultural backgrounds and all four corners of the World. As an experience, it is truly unforgettable and it is by no means unusual for those who experienced TAIZÉ in their youth, to experience a particular spiritual connection when later in their adult life, they listen to this Community’s very beautiful music.

Below, TAIZÉ‘s Confitemini Domino, a very ancient Christian text (Palestrina composed for it too) is set to a calm ballad-like tune of incredible simplicity, carefully orchestrated. The composition ends in the continuous accord of the beginning, creating an endless repeat circle, making it possible to sing it for hours.

It sounds rather boring, but actually it isn’t boring at all. It is incredible!!!… But you have to experience Summer Camp with TAIZÉ Community, along with another 15, 20, 25 thousand youths, to realise how and why these tunes can be played on infinite repeat, and how the repeat creates a soothing experience, where one is a grain of sand in a sea of young voices, all singing the same.

It is impossible to miss the Spirit of the Holy Trinity calmly descending from the Heavenly Cosmos, through the Summery starry night, into the heads and hearts of those who one day will take the steering wheel of Humanity’s destiny. Absolutely beautiful!
In the presence of the Eucharistic Jesus, adored by 25 thousand souls and pairs of eyes?!… Heavenly bliss!

Outside the liturgical context, contemporary Christian music brings inspiration and spirituality. Just as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez contributed with music which was adapted for the modern liturgy all over the World, today we find masses of authors, poets, songwriters and composers, creating amazing music, which, while it was created outside the liturgical context, may contribute to the spiritual renaissance of the 21st Century in communities across the World.

Such creations often transmit a heritage, enriching in musical value as well as spiritual life. Next in this discussion, you will hopefully appreciate a composition by the Russian author, musician and songwriter Simon Khorolskiy, entitled “Jesus, Keep Me near the Cross”. This particular version is in Russian, but it was important to see how Christian Orthodox cultural and musical heritage influenced modern Christian-inspired musical composition. The result is truly amazing.

“Jesus, Keep Me near the Cross”, by Simon Khorolskiy, featuring the violinist Katie Gayduchik Courtesy of the Author


by Rev. Lewis G. Walker, Canon Principal at the
Canons Regular of the Sacred Heart of Jesus

We touched some of the most relevant points in the long History of Christian Sacred Music. It is one of the most beautiful journeys in Christianity we are invited to explore. It is full of beautiful melodies, God-inspired, so many thousands of compositions written by God-filled composers, who appear as if they were penning their creations there, at the foot of the Holy Cross, kissed by the infinite Love of Jesus, showered in blood and water from His side.

Powerful thing, music… Sometimes I wonder whether Humanity is known to outside Earth, to other civilisations in the outer Universe… And if so, what is Humanity best known for… And I find myself hoping we are best known for singing, for there is no better sign of Our Father’s presence in the Universe, than our extraordinary ability to feel through singing and to communicated our innermost thoughts and emotions.

Of course, it is impossible to squeeze in one page the immense world of Sacred Music. It was not the intention either. As with all pages on St. Catherine’s Seminary, we open the window and show you the sky. How you will fly is up to you really.

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