A Brief History of Catholic Church Music

April 2008By Lucille A. Flynn

Lucille A. Flynn, who writes from Clinton, Massachusetts, is a former member of the American Guild of Organists and the current organist at the St. Benedict Center in Harvard, a post she has held for 10 years.

From the beginning of recorded time, it has been man's instinct to raise his voice in praise and supplication to a higher power. We know from the Old Testament that Psalm tones were used in Jewish synagogues. These chants were probably influenced by the cadence of Greek poetry, and may have been the model for the chant sung in the early Christian Church.

History tells us that six rhythmic modes formed the substance and basis for the vocalized verses of the Mass Ordinary. The impetus to use the chant in Mass was supported and encouraged by Pope St. Gregory the Great (590-604). With the exception of the Greek Kyrie, the Ordinary of the Mass was sung in Latin.

The development of Gregorian chant reached its peak in the latter part of the medieval period. It was at this time that one of the most beautiful pieces in our Gregorian repertoire was written. In the middle of the 13th century, Thomas of Celano composed the hauntingly beautiful Dies Irae, which is still chanted in funeral high Masses.

During the Middle Ages, some composers began to disdain the single-line chant and added another melodic line to be sung as melody against melody, or voice against voice. This is called counterpoint and was widely employed by such early composers as Pale­strina and Bach, et al. The demand for music of a harmonic nature spurred the development of an instrument that could deliver multiple sounds. Craftsmen worked on combining wind instruments (e.g., pan-pipes) with stringed instruments (e.g., lutes). They produced a keyboard to bind these dual sounds into one voice, and thus was born the primitive organ.

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Back to April 2008 Issue

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For those who want to listen to Catholic Classic Music, and even some liturgical music, go to YouTube and look for Vienna Boys Choir. Type:
youtube - vienna boys choir
You'll find pieces like:
Laudate Dominum
Dona Nobis Pacem
Ave Verum Corpus
Laudate Pueri Dominum
Agnus Dei
Blue Danube

Try also typing in:
YouTube - Celtic Woman
This a 5- to 6-member Irish-descent singing group. I presume they're not all Catholics but you'll get a flavor of some decency in musical performance as well as clothes decorum. I will also suggest that you read Pope Benedict's article when he was a cardinal: Music & Liturgy available online. This article, I'm convinced, will really enrich your understanding of the role of music not only within the Church, but how it helps form the outside world.
Posted by: humblesoldier
April 13, 2008 03:06 PM EDT
I have sorely missed our traditional chants and
hymns. A local priest gave me a cd of St Benedict
Gregorian Chant. I let it play all the while I am at my computer. It is positively priceless to me. This traditional music during Mass elevates
the mind and heart to God. EWTN has wonderful
music during Mass. Thank you for this article!
Posted by: auntmoha
April 11, 2008 07:56 AM EDT

People would listen to the New York Philharmonic under Bernstein and listen to the popular stuff. No more. Popular music has become so base, so dumbed down, so least common denominator, that the gulf is not traversable.
Posted by: eakter
April 12, 2008 12:00 PM EDT
The above post should ignored. It is part of a larger post that somehow got cut off. There does not appear to be a way to delete it. Sorry. Posted by: eakter
April 12, 2008 12:02 PM EDT
Lucille Flynn, the author of this article, makes mention of a composition by Thomas of Celano called "Dies Irae". Can anyone suggest to me where I might find a CD containing this piece?
I tried searching for it at but with-
out success.
Posted by: dontikkala
April 21, 2008 10:10 AM EDT
Here are a few more pieces that you may like:
Also, these two pieces below, one is a revolutionary song of China and the other is an Irish (love) song [I'm guessing]. But to me there is a striking semblance between the two. I'm saying this because it appears to support Pope Benedict's articulation about the "musical laws of the universe" [Music & Liturgy]. Granting that the Chinese song was inspired by a political 'ideology' to oppose 'western imperialism', nonetheless, this is still a genuine aspiration of people in real human drama.
Besides, it must be borne in mind that that American Imperialism is not a part and parcel of Catholic doctrine and teaching. Which in a certain sense can be described as an activity of a West that has become a Prodigal son [rebellion against the Catholic Church] and part of the process of 'squandering' the [spiritual] wealth that emanated from the Church.

a) My Mother Country
b) The Last Rose of Summer

Also, I find it fascinating that quite a bit of Asian people - Chinese, Japanese, Korean [and even ASEAN countries at a lesser extent] - resonate well with the Catholic-inspired European Classics. There are quite a few Chinese, Japanese and Korean piano players and composers. I have a feeling Pope Benedict is keeping a little excitement in his heart about re-establishing diplomatic relation with China along this line of thought. Can it be because of his understanding of music and God's laws already written in the human [of any race] heart? Analyses like this, of course, cannot be expected to be articulated by the western 'political scientists' [read: belligerent, machiavelian & xenophobic while projecting the image of being 'broadminded'] who understand the world only when he looks at himself as the zenith and 'perfect' end result of his ideological 'evolution' adamantly forgetting what Jesus said: 'I came here to serve, not to be served.
Posted by: humblesoldier
April 13, 2008 05:10 PM EDT
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