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Reviewing the total pagan influence, both Greek and Latin, upon Christian hymnody, it must be understood that, in comparison with Semitic pressure in its wider implication, as well as the strictly Hebraic, pagan influence was relatively slight. It was a matter of centuries before the Hebrew psalms were permitted any rivals whatever in the usage of worship, except other biblical citations or such poems as might be produced by unquestioned churchmen. Even these were sparingly used, for psalmi idiotici, as the novel and original compositions were called, were forbidden by the Church and a new hymnody was thus stifled at its very birth. In a period of confusion marked by the rival use of hymns on the part of the orthodox and non-orthodox, it was felt that worship must be safeguarded. Only after the appearance of the modern vernacular languages in Europe in the period of the ninth century, when the liturgy had been set apart in the Latin tongue, was any real freedom permitted in the composition of new hymns. By that time the clergy were the poets and Latin their chosen medium of expression.8585H. F. Muller, “Pre-History of the Mediaeval Drama,” Zeitschrift f. romanische Philologie 44 (1924), 544-575.
By the time of Ambrose in the fourth century, however, Greek and oriental elements had long since merged in other aspects of civilization and, in the course of time, Christian hymns felt the effect of a universal development. There was a certain departure from biblical models and an emancipation from the old poetic forms in favor of the trend toward accent and rhyme. After all, a new religion had come into existence which demanded an authentic expression of a spiritual aspiration beyond that of the Old Testament models, just as Isaac Watts in the eighteenth century turned from the tradition of psalmody to an original presentment of the new revelation in Christ.
Are we to suppose that the Christians in the Mediterranean world of the first three centuries, representing the average inhabitant of these lands, had no hymns except those cited above? Or others like them? If they had, we are unacquainted with them. It is fair to assume that secular poetry and music eventually exerted an influence upon hymnody. At least the beginning of such influence was apparent in the adoption of popular meters by heretical poets, as well as by the orthodox.8686J. Kroll, op. cit. (see note 3), 273-274. Later, Ambrose perpetuated aspects of popular verse and perhaps music as well.8787E. Norden, “Die Literatur,” in Vom Altertum zur Gegenwart (Leipzig, Teubner, 1921), 41-49. But there is no evidence at hand to support the assumption of a popular hymnody enjoyed either in connection with worship or independently of it.
The problem of music is outside the province of this paper but is involved in any serious study of hymnology at any period of its development. Here the student is almost totally at a loss for manuscript evidence bearing musical notation from the primitive period. The Oxyrhynchus hymn is a solitary example.8888Grenfell & Hunt, op. cit. (see note 79), 22. There are 8 recognizable notes in the Diatonic Hypolydian key of Alypius. The mode is Hypophrygian or Iastian. This does not mean that the subject is altogether obscure. Many statements about Christian practice, inspired by biblical precedent, are found in patristic literature. The traditions both of Hebrew music and of the early Church are well known. It seems clear that melody only was employed and that it was, for the most part, unaccompanied. Instrumentation was opposed and forbidden in public worship of a liturgical nature.8989J. Quasten, Musik und Gesang in den Kulten der heidnischen Antike und christlichen Frühzeit (Münster im W., Aschendorff, 1930), ch. iv.
No student can leave the consideration of early Christian hymnology without a sense of defeat. The past cannot be forced to yield the hidden knowledge of which it is the custodian. Sources are very scanty, especially in proportion to other literary remains of early Christianity. Specifically, there is no collection of hymns in existence which might correspond to a modern hymnary. On the contrary, isolated examples or groups appear from place to place and from time to time in varied forms. But in one respect our evidence is sure, if not complete. Springing from the culture and the vicissitudes of the age, Christian hymns of the early Church, as in every other stage of its development, not only express the spiritual aspiration of the time but also respond to the challenge of a new day.
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