The Book of Psalms in our Bibles was God's inspired songbook for His old covenant people, Israel, and it served them for centuries in the worship to Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. These same holy Psalms (in the Septuagint) became the tradition of the first century churches who adopted them as their belovedcatalog of praise music and included them in divine liturgies! The holy Apostles left the churches with a blessed, perpetual heritage of Psalm singing that continues long after their earthly ministries ended.
Here is a collection of important quotes from the early Church Fathers and theologians that prove Psalm singing was ALWAYS an integral part of Christ-centered worship in the one, Holy, Apostolic Church.
St. Jerome (348-420 AD) "In the cottage of Christ [the monastery] all is simple and rustic: and except for the chanting of psalms there is complete silence. Wherever one turns the laborer at his plow sings Alleluia, the toiling mower cheers himself with psalms, and the vine-dresser while he prunes his vine sings one of the songs of David." [Who was St. Jerome?]
St. John Chrysostom (349-407 AD) “Learn to sing psalms, and thou shalt see the delightfulness of the employment. For they who sing psalms are filled with the Holy Spirit, as they who sing satanic songs are filled with an unclean spirit.” – Homily XIX on Eph 5:15-17, NPNF1-13. “The grace of the Holy Ghost hath so ordered it, that the Psalms of David should be recited and sung night and day. In the Church’s vigils—in the morning—at funeral solemnities—the first, the midst, and the last is David. In private houses, where virgins spin—in the monasteries—in the deserts, where men converse with God—the first, the midst, and the last is David. In the night, when men sleep, he wakes them up to sing; and collecting the servants of God into angelic troops, turns earth into heaven, and of men makes angels, chanting David’s Psalms.” [Who was St. John Chrysostom?]
Commodianus (3rd century AD) “Ye are rejecting the law when ye wish to please the world. Ye dance in your houses; instead of psalms, ye sing love songs. Thou, although thou mayest be chaste, dost not prove thyself so by following evil things.” – The Instructions of Commodianus in Favor of Christian Discipline. [Who was Commidianus?]
St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) “The Donatists reproach us with our grave chanting of the divine songs of the prophets in our churches, while they inflame their passions in their revels by the singing of psalms of human composition.” – Letter to Januarius, NPNF01-1 “. . . What testimonies do I bring forward? That of the Psalter. I bring forward what you sing as one deaf: open your ears; you sing this; you sing with me, and you agree not with me; your tongue sounds what mine does, and yet your heart disagrees with mine. Do you not sing this?” – Exposition of Psalm 96 [encouraging the congregation to understand that the psalms they sing point to the reign of Christ over the church]. [Who was St. Augustine?]
St. Athanasius (296-373 AD)“…each one sings the Psalms as though they had been written for his special benefit, and takes them and recites them, not as though someone else were speaking or another person’s feelings being described, but as himself speaking of himself, offering the words to God as his own heart’s utterance, just as though he himself had made them up. Not as the words of the patriarchs or of Moses and the other prophets will he reverence these: no, he is bold to take them as his own and written for his very self. Whether he has kept the Law or whether he has broken it, it is his own doings that the Psalms describe; everyone is bound to find his very self in them and, be he faithful soul or be he sinner, each reads in them descriptions of himself.” – Letter to Marcellinus. [Who was St. Athanasius?]
Tertullian (155-220 AD)“Perpetua sang psalms, already treading under foot the head of the Egyptian;” – The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas, Schaff’s ANF03. “. . . Where the flesh is one, one is the spirit too…Between the two echo psalms and hymns; and they mutually challenge each other which shall better chant to their Lord. Such things when Christ sees and hears, He joys.” – Ad Uxorem, Book 2 ch.8 [encouraging husbands and wives to sing psalms to each other as a sign of Christian unity in marriage] Tertullian also mentions singing songs from the scripture as part of the Lord's Supper celebration. [Tertullian]
St. Clement of Alexandria (150–215 AD) “Further, among the ancient Greeks, in their banquets over the brimming cups, a song was sung called askolion, after the manner of the Hebrew psalms, all together raising the pæan with the voice, and sometimes also taking turns in the song while they drank healths round; while those that were more musical than the rest sang to the lyre. But let amatory songs be banished far away, and let our songs be hymns to God. Let them praise, it is said, His name in the dance, and let them play to Him on the timbrel and psaltery. And what is the choir which plays? The Spirit will show you: Let His praise be in the congregation (church) of the saints; let them be joyful in their King. And again he adds, The Lord will take pleasure in His people. For temperate harmonies are to be admitted; but we are to banish as far as possible from our robust mind those liquid harmonies, which, through pernicious arts in the modulations of tones, train to effeminacy and scurrility.” – The Paedagogus, Book 2, ch.4 [Clement here exhorts fathers to led their families is “hymns to God” during feasts, explaining his meaning of this term by quotation from Psalm 149]. [Who was St. Clement of Alexandria]
St. Cyprian of Carthage (200–258 AD) “Let the temperate meal resound with psalms; and as your memory is tenacious and your voice musical, undertake this office, as is your wont. You will provide a better entertainment for your dearest friends, if, while we have something spiritual to listen to, the sweetness of religious music charm our ears.” – Epistle 1 (To Donatus), in ANF05 [Who was Cyprian?]
St. Basil the Great (330-379 AD) "The book of psalms uproots the passions with a certain melodic enjoyment and a delight that instills pure thoughts." [Who was St. Basil?]
St. Ephraim the Syrian (306-373 AD) "Just as the angels stand with great fear and chant their hymns to the Creator, likewise should we stand in psalmody." [Who was St. Ephraim?]
Ancient Christian Hymns
Western Rite parishes have the wonderful privilege of making use of the best music written for the Church from all the ages past, with a special obligation to use that which is from the Orthodox West. This is primarily Gregorian chant which is named in honor of our patron, St. Gregory the Great, because of his role in helping to organize it. It is apparent that, from the beginning, the church sought to develop a uniquely Christian music, set apart from pagan worship and secular celebrations. The earliest example (c. 300) of a Christian hymn with music which has been discovered (the “Oxyrhynchos Hymn”, named for the Egyptian town where the papyrus manuscript was found) was written in Greek musical notation and in the style of other Greek music of that day. But in the flowing melody for the Amen of the hymn, the seeds of Western-style chant are evident.
As Christianity spread westward, this Western chant style developed to a high degree, providing suitable musical accompaniment to the texts sung at the Eucharist and the daily offices. Monasteries played an important role in the development of church song and for hundreds of years, the melodies themselves and the manner of singing them were passed down in an unwritten oral tradition. By the time written musical notation was becoming common in the West (c. 10th century), the manuscripts show a complete repertoire of sacred music for all the services of the church. While there were regional variations, Western chant was (and is) characterized by unison singing (one line of music – no harmony), flowing rhythm, and the singing of many musical notes to one syllable of text (melismas). This type of chant is sometimes called “plainsong”.
As was also true for Byzantine chant, Gregorian chant gradually gave way to the inventions of clever musicians, as the art of polyphony (many lines of music sung at the same time) developed and harmony was preferred over one melodic line. Beautiful polyphonic music has been written for use in the church, but in numerous ages during the 2,000 year history of Christianity, the chant has been revived (and inevitably, revised).
Nineteenth and twentieth-century musicologists have written tomes on the subject of Gregorian chant, and there are numerous theories on the interpretation of notation, rhythm, and vocal style. For those of us in the Church, however, the chant is not just a historical subject to be taken apart and studied, but a living means of praising God. To the best of our ability, with the knowledge we have, we use these beautiful melodies in concert with the angels in Heaven. Gregorian chant comprises much of the music that we sing in our services at St. Gregory’s. The melodies of the Ordinary chants of the Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus & Benedictus, Agnus Dei), the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Asperges are all Gregorian chant (plainsong) melodies. The chants which the choir sings at various points in the services (Introit, Gradual, Alleluia, Offertory, Communion) are all sung to Gregorian chant melodies. The Psalms and canticles of Matins and Vespers are also sung to plainsong melodies. Our parish’s patron saint has greatly influenced our choice of music! In the early Church, the psalms were the hymns of the congregation, but in later centuries, congregational singing of psalms and other hymns was supplanted by the more expert (and complicated) offerings of the professional singers. The Protestant Reformation began to revive the practice of congregational singing and we are able to make use of some of that revival, “baptizing” it for Orthodox use. In addition to the plainsong hymns of the Middle Ages, we make use of hymn-tunes composed in later centuries, with melodies, harmony, and rhythm in a variety of styles. The St. Ambrose Hymnal, compiled by our pastor, Fr. Nicholas Alford (as his project for our Archdiocese’s Doctor of Ministry program) includes hymns from many different nations, centuries, and traditions. The hymn texts have been chosen for their agreement with Orthodox theology and the tunes were selected as ones which would best complement the texts. As we, like all the followers of Christ in all the world and in all ages come together in worship, let us, like the psalmist, “..be joyful in the Lord…, serve the Lord with gladness, and come before his presence with a song.” [Ps. 100:1]