« Prev I: Primitive and Ancient Religious Music Next »



Leon Gautier, in opening his history of the epic poetry of France, ascribes the primitive poetic utterance of mankind to a religious impulse. “Represent to yourselves,” he says, “the first man at the moment when he issues from the hand of God, when his vision rests for the first time upon his new empire. Imagine, if it be possible, the exceeding vividness of his impressions when the magnificence of the world is reflected in the mirror of his soul. Intoxicated, almost mad with admiration, gratitude, and love, he raises his eyes to heaven, not satisfied with the spectacle of the earth; then discovering God in the heavens, and attributing to him all the honor of this magnificence and of the harmonies of creation, he opens his mouth, the first stammerings of speech escape his lips—he speaks; ah, no, he sings, and the first song of the lord of creation will be a hymn to God his creator.”


If the language of poetical extravagance may be admitted into serious historical composition, we may accept this theatrical picture as an allegorized image of a truth. Although we speak no longer of a “first man,” and although we have the best reasons to suppose that the earliest vocal efforts of our anthropoid progenitors were a softly modulated love call or a strident battle cry rather than a sursum corda; yet taking for our point of departure that stage in human development when art properly begins, when the unpremeditated responses to simple sensation are supplemented by the more stable and organized expression of a soul life become self-conscious, then we certainly do find that the earliest attempts at song are occasioned by motives that must in strictness be called religious. The savage is a very religious being. In all the relations of his simple life he is hedged about by a stiff code of regulations whose sanction depends upon his recognition of the presence of invisible powers and his duties to them. He divines a mysterious presence as pervasive as the atmosphere he breathes, which takes in his childish fancy diverse shapes, as of ghosts, deified ancestors, anthropomorphic gods, embodied influences of sun and cloud. In whatever guise these conceptions may clothe themselves, he experiences a feeling of awe which sometimes appears as abject fear, sometimes as reverence and love. The emotions which the primitive man feels under the pressure of these ideas are the most profound and persistent of which he is capable, and as they involve notions which are held in common by all the members of the tribe (for there are no sceptics or nonconformists in the savage community), they are formulated in elaborate schemes of ceremony. The religious 7[3] sentiment inevitably seeks expression in the assembly—“the means,” as Professor Brinton says, “by which that most potent agent in religious life, collective suggestion, is brought to bear upon the mind”—the liturgy, the festival, and the sacrifice.11Brinton, The Religions of Ancient Peoples. By virtue of certain laws of the human mind which are evident everywhere, in the highest civilized condition as in the savage, the religious emotion, intensified by collective suggestion in the assembly, will find expression not in the ordinary manner of thought communication, but in those rhythmic and inflected movements and cadences which are the natural outlet of strong mental excitement when thrown back upon itself. These gestures and vocal inflections become regulated and systematized in order that they may be permanently retained, and serve in their reaction to stimulate anew the mental states by which they were occasioned. Singing, dancing, and pantomime compose the means by which uncivilized man throughout the world gives expression to his controlling ideas. The needed uniformity in movement and accent is most easily effected by rhythmical beats; and as these beats are more distinctly heard, and also blend more agreeably with the tones of the voice if they are musical sounds, a rude form of instrumental music arises. Here we have elements of public religious ceremony as they exist in the most highly organized and spiritualized worships,—the assemblage, where common motives produce common action and react to produce a common mood, the ritual with its instrumental music, and the resulting sense on the part of the participant of detachment from material interests and of personal communion with the unseen powers.


The symbolic dance and the choral chant are among the most primitive, probably the most primitive, forms of art. Out of their union came music, poetry, and dramatic action. Sculpture, painting, and architecture were stimulated if not actually created under the same auspices. “The festival,” says Prof. Baldwin Brown, “creates the artist.”22Brown, The Fine Arts. Festivals among primitive races, as among ancient cultured peoples, are all distinctly religious. Singing and dancing are inseparable. Vocal music is a sort of chant, adopted because of its nerve-exciting property, and also for the sake of enabling a mass of participants to utter the words in unison where intelligible words are used. A separation of caste between priesthood and laity is effected in very early times. The ritual becomes a form of magical incantation; the utterance of the wizard, prophet, or priest consists of phrases of mysterious meaning or incoherent ejaculations.

The prime feature in the earlier forms of worship is the dance. It held also a prominent place in the rites of the ancient cultured nations, and lingers in dim reminiscence in the processions and altar ceremonies of modern liturgical worship. Its function was as important as that of music in the modern Church, and its effect was in many ways closely analogous. When connected with worship, the dance is employed to produce that condition of mental exhilaration which accompanies the expenditure of surplus physical energy, or as a mode 9[5] of symbolic, semi-dramatic expression of definite religious ideas. “The audible and visible manifestations of joy,” says Herbert Spencer, “which culminate in singing and dancing, have their roots in instinctive actions like those of lively children who, on seeing in the distance some indulgent relative, run up to him, joining one another in screams of delight and breaking their run with leaps; and when, instead of an indulgent relative met by joyful children, we have a conquering chief or king met by groups of his people, there will almost certainly occur saltatory and vocal expressions of elated feeling, and these must become by implication signs of respect and loyalty,—ascriptions of worth which, raised to a higher power, become worship.”33Spencer, Professional Institutions: Dancer and Musician. Illustrations of such motives in the sacred dance are found in the festive procession of women, led by Miriam, after the overthrow of the Egyptians, the dance of David before the ark, and the dance of the boy Sophocles around the trophies of Salamis. But the sacred dance is by no means confined to the discharge of physical energy under the promptings of joy. The funeral dance is one of the most frequent of such observances, and dread of divine wrath and the hope of propitiation by means of rites pleasing to the offended power form a frequent occasion for rhythmic evolution and violent bodily demonstration.

Far more commonly, however, does the sacred dance assume a representative character and become a rudimentary drama, either imitative or emblematic. It depicts the doings of the gods, often under the supposition 10[6] that the divinities are aided by the sympathetic efforts of their devotees. Certain mysteries, known only to the initiated, are symbolized in bodily movement. The fact that the dance was symbolic and instructive, like the sacrificial rite itself, enables us to understand why dancing should have held such prominence in the worship of nations so grave and intelligent as the Egyptians, Hebrews, and Greeks. Representations of religious processions and dances are found upon the monuments of Egypt and Assyria. The Egyptian peasant, when gathering his harvest, sacrificed the first fruits, and danced to testify his thankfulness to the gods. The priests represented in their dances the course of the stars and scenes from the histories of Osiris and Isis. The dance of the Israelites in the desert around the golden calf was probably a reproduction of features of the Egyptian Apis worship. The myths of many ancient nations represent the gods as dancing, and supposed imitations of such august examples had a place in the ceremonies devoted to their honor. The dance was always an index of the higher or lower nature of the religious conceptions which fostered it. Among the purer and more elevated worships it was full of grace and dignity. In the sensuous cults of Phoenicia and Lydia, and among the later Greek votaries of Cybele and Dionysus, the dance reflected the fears and passions that issued in bloody, obscene, and frenzied rites, and degenerated into almost incredible spectacles of wantonness and riot.


It was among the Greeks, however, that the religious dance developed its highest possibilities of expressiveness and beauty, and became raised to the dignity of a fine art. The admiration of the Greeks for the human form, their unceasing effort to develop its symmetry, strength, and grace, led them early to perceive that it was in itself an efficient means for the expression of the soul, and that its movements and attitudes could work sympathetically upon the fancy. The dance was therefore cultivated as a coequal with music and poetry; educators inculcated it as indispensable to the higher discipline of youth; it was commended by philosophers and celebrated by poets. It held a prominent place in the public games, in processions and celebrations, in the mysteries, and in public religious ceremonies. Every form of worship, from the frantic orgies of the drunken devotees of Dionysus to the pure and tranquil adoration offered to Phoebus Apollo, consisted to a large extent of dancing. Andrew Lang’s remark in regard to the connection between dancing and religious solemnity among savages would apply also to the Hellenic sacred dance, that “to dance this or that means to be acquainted with this or that myth, which is represented in a dance or ballet d’action.”44Lang, Myth, Ritual, and Religion. Among the favorite subjects for pantomimic representation, united with choral singing, were the combat between Apollo and the dragon and the sorrows of Dionysus, the commemoration of the latter forming the origin of the splendid Athenian drama. The ancient dance, it must be remembered, had as its motive the expression of a wide range of emotion, and could be employed to symbolize sentiments of wonder, love, and gratitude. Regularly 12[8] ordered movements, often accompanied by gesture, could well have a place in religious ceremony, as the gods and their relations to mankind were then conceived; and moreover, at a time when music was in a crude state, rhythmic evolutions and expressive gestures, refined and moderated by the exquisite sense of proportion native to the Greek mind, undoubtedly had a solemnizing effect upon the participants and beholders not unlike that of music in modern Christian worship. Cultivated as an art under the name of orchestik, the mimic dance reached a degree of elegance and emotional significance to which modern times afford no proper parallel. It was not unworthy of the place it held in the society of poetry and music, with which it combined to form that composite art which filled so high a station in Greek culture in the golden age.

The Hellenic dance, both religious and theatric, was adopted by the Romans, but, like so much that was noble in Greek art, only to be degraded in the transfer. It passed over into the Christian Church, like many other ceremonial practices of heathenism, but modified and by no means of general observance. It appeared on occasions of thanksgiving and celebrations of important events in the Church’s history. The priest would often lead the dance around the altar on Sundays and festal days. The Christians sometimes gathered about the church doors at night and danced and sang songs. There is nothing in these facts derogatory to the piety of the early Christians. They simply expressed their joy according to the universal fashion of the age; and especially on those occasions which, as 13[9] for instance Christmas, were adaptations of old pagan festivals, they naturally imitated many of the time-honored observances. The Christian dance, however, finally degenerated; certain features, such as the nocturnal festivities, gave rise to scandal; the church authorities began to condemn them, and the rising spirit of asceticism drove them into disfavor. The dance was a dangerous reminder of the heathen worship with all its abominations; and since many pagan beliefs and customs, with attendant immoralities, lingered for centuries as a seductive snare to the weaker brethren, the Church bestirred itself to eliminate all perilous associations from religious ceremony and to arouse a love for an absorbed and spiritual worship. During the Middle Age, and even in comparatively recent times in Spain and Spanish America, we find survivals of the ancient religious dance in the Christian Church, but in the more enlightened countries it has practically ceased to exist. The Christian religion is more truly joyful than the Greek; yet the Christian devotee, even in his most confident moments, no longer feels inclined to give vent to his happiness in physical movements, for there is mingled with his rapture a sentiment of awe and submission which bids him adore but be still. Religious processions are frequent in Christian countries, but the participants do not, like the Egyptians and Greeks, dance as they go. We find even in ancient times isolated opinions that public dancing is indecorous. Only in a naive and childlike stage of society will dancing as a feature of worship seem appropriate and innocent. As reflection increases, the unrestrained and conspicuous 14[10] manifestation of feeling in shouts and violent bodily movements is deemed unworthy; a more spiritual conception of the nature of the heavenly power and man’s relation to it requires that forms of worship should become more refined and moderate. Even the secular dance has lost much of its ancient dignity from somewhat similar reasons, partly also because the differentiation and high development of music, taking the place of dancing as a social art, has relegated the latter to the realm of things outgrown, which no longer minister to man’s intellectual necessities.

As we turn to the subject of music in ancient religious rites, we find that where the dance had already reached a high degree of artistic development, music was still in dependent infancy. The only promise of its splendid future was in the reverence already accorded to it, and the universality of its use in prayer and praise. On its vocal side it was used to add solemnity to the words of the officiating priest, forming the intonation, or ecclesiastical accent, which has been an inseparable feature of liturgical worship in all periods. So far as the people had a share in religious functions, vocal music was employed by them in hymns to the gods, or in responsive refrains. In its instrumental form it was used to assist the singers to preserve the correct pitch and rhythm, to regulate the steps of the dance, or, in an independent capacity, to act upon the nerves of the worshipers and increase their sense of awe in the presence of the deity. It is the nervous excitement produced by certain kinds of musical performance that accounts for the fact that incantations, exorcisms, and 15[11] the ceremonies of demon worship among savages and barbarians are accompanied by harsh-sounding instruments; that tortures, executions, and human sacrifices, such as those of the ancient Phoenicians and Mexicans, were attended by the clamor of drums, trumpets, and cymbals. Even in the Hebrew temple service the blasts of horns and trumpets could have had no other purpose than that of intensifying emotions of awe and dread.

Still another office of music in ancient ceremony, perhaps still more valued, was that of suggesting definite ideas by means of an associated symbolism. In certain occult observances, such as those of the Egyptians and Hindus, relationships were imagined between instruments or melodies and religious or moral conceptions, so that the melody or random tone of the instrument indicated to the initiate the associated principle, and thus came to have an imputed sanctity of its own. This symbolism could be employed to recall to the mind ethical precepts or religious tenets at solemn moments, and tone could become a doubly powerful agent by uniting the effect of vivid ideas to its inherent property of nerve excitement.

Our knowledge of the uses of music among the most ancient nations is chiefly confined to its function in religious ceremony. All ancient worship was ritualistic and administered by a priesthood, and the liturgies and ceremonial rites were intimately associated with music. The oldest literatures that have survived contain hymns to the gods, and upon the most ancient monuments are traced representations of instruments and players. Among the literary records discovered on the site of 16[12] Nineveh are collections of hymns, prayers, and penitential psalms, addressed to the Assyrian deities, designed, as expressly stated, for public worship, and which Professor Sayce compares to the English Book of Common Prayer. On the Assyrian monuments are carved reliefs of instrumental players, sometimes single, sometimes in groups of considerable numbers. Allusions in the Bible indicate that the Assyrians employed music on festal occasions, that hymns to the gods were sung at banquets and dirges at funerals. The kings maintained bands at their courts, and provided a considerable variety of instruments for use in the idol worship.55A full account of ancient Assyrian music, so far as known, may be found in Engel’s Music of the Most Ancient Nations.

There is abundant evidence that music was an important factor in the religious rites of Egypt. The testimony of carved and painted walls of tombs and temples, the papyrus records, the accounts of visitors, inform us that music was in Egypt preëminently a sacred art, as it must needs have been in a land in which, as Ranke says, there was nothing secular. Music was in the care of the priests, who jealously guarded the sacred hymns and melodies from innovation and foreign intrusion.66“Long ago they [the Egyptians] appear to have recognized the principle that their young citizens must be habituated to forms and strains of virtue. These they fixed, and exhibited the patterns of them in their temples; and no painter or artist is allowed to innovate upon them, or to leave the traditional forms and invent new ones. To this day no alteration is allowed either in these arts, or in music at all.”—Plato, Laws, Book II., Jowett’s translation. In musical science, knowledge of the divisions of the monochord, systems of keys, notation, etc., the Egyptians were probably in advance 17[13] of all other nations. The Greeks certainly derived much of their musical practice from the dwellers on the Nile. They possessed an extensive variety of instruments, from the little tinkling sistrum up to the profusely ornamented harp of twelve or thirteen strings, which towered above the performer. From such an instrument as the latter it would seem as though some kind of harmony must have been produced, especially since the player is represented as using both hands. But if such were the case, the harmony could not have been reduced to a scientific system, since otherwise a usage so remarkable would not have escaped the attention of the Greek musicians who derived so much of their art from Egypt. Music never failed at public or private festivity, religious ceremony, or funeral rite. As in all ancient religions, processions to the temples, carrying images of the gods and offerings, were attended by dances and vocal and instrumental performances. Lyrical poems, containing the praises of gods and heroes, were sung at public ceremonies; hymns were addressed to the rising and setting sun, to Ammon and the other gods. According to Chappell, the custom of carolling or singing without words, like birds, to the gods existed among the Egyptians,—a practice which was imitated by the Greeks, from whom the custom was transferred to the Western Church.77Chappell, History of Music. The chief instrument of the temple worship was the sistrum, and connected with all the temples in the time of the New Empire were companies of female sistrum players who stood in symbolic relations to the god as inmates of his 18[14] harem, holding various degrees of rank. These women received high honors, often of a political nature.88Erman, Life in Ancient Egypt, translated by Tirard.

In spite of the simplicity and frequent coarseness of ancient music, the older nations ascribed to it an influence over the moral nature which the modern music lover would never think of attributing to his highly developed art. They referred its invention to the gods, and imputed to it thaumaturgical properties. The Hebrews were the only ancient cultivated nation that did not assign to music a superhuman source. The Greek myths of Orpheus, Amphion, and Arion are but samples of hundreds of marvellous tales of musical effect that have place in primitive legends. This belief in the magical power of music was connected with the equally universal opinion that music in itself could express and arouse definite notions and passions, and could exert a direct moral or immoral influence. The importance ascribed by the Greeks to music in the education of youth, as emphatically affirmed by philosophers and law-givers, is based upon this belief. Not only particular melodies, but the different modes or keys were held by the Greeks to exert a positive influence upon character. The Dorian mode was considered bold and manly, inspiring valor and fortitude; the Lydian, weak and enervating. Plato, in the second book of the Laws, condemns as “intolerable and blasphemous” the opinion that the purpose of music is to give pleasure. He finds a direct relation between morality and certain forms of music, and would have musicians constrained to compose only such melodies 19[15] and rhythms as would turn the plastic mind toward virtue. Plutarch, in his discourse concerning music in his Morals, says: “The ancient Greeks deemed it requisite by the assistance of music to form and compose the minds of youth to what was decent, sober, and virtuous; believing the use of music beneficially efficacious to incite to all serious actions.” He even goes so far as to say that “the right moulding of ingenuous manners and civil conduct lies in a well-grounded musical education.” Assumptions of direct moral, intellectual, and even pathological action on the part of music, as distinct from an aesthetic appeal, are so abundant in ancient writings that we cannot dismiss them as mere fanciful hyperbole, but must admit that music really possessed a power over the emotions and volitions which has been lost in its later evolution. The explanation of this apparent anomaly probably lies, first, in the fact that music in antiquity was not a free independent art, and that when the philosophers speak of music they think of it in its associations with poetry, religious and patriotic observances, moral and legal precepts, historic relations, etc. Music, on its vocal side, was mere emphasized speech inflection; it was a slave to poetry; it had no rhythmical laws of its own. The melody did not convey aesthetic charm in itself alone, but simply heightened the sensuous effect of measured speech and vivified the thought. Mr. Spencer’s well-known expression that “cadence is the comment of the emotion upon the propositions of the intellect” would apply very accurately to the musical theories of the ancients. Certain modes (that is, keys), on account of convenience of 20[16] pitch, were employed for certain kinds of poetical expression; and as a poem was always chanted in the mode that was first assigned to it, particular classes of ideas would come to be identified with particular modes. Associations of race character would lead to similar interpretation. The Dorian mode would seem to partake of the sternness and vigor of the warlike Dorian Spartans; the Lydian mode and its melodies would hint of Lydian effeminacy.99See Plato, Republic, book iii. Instrumental music also was equally restricted to definite meanings through association. It was an accompaniment to poetry, bound up with the symbolic dance, subordinated to formal social observances; it produced not the artistic effect of melody, harmony, and form, but the nervous stimulation of crude unorganized tone, acting upon recipients who had never learned to consider music as anything but a direct emotional excitant or an intensifier of previously conceived ideas.

Another explanation of the ancient view of music as possessing a controlling power over emotion, thought, and conduct lies in the fact that music existed only in its rude primal elements; antiquity in its conception and use of music never passed far beyond that point where tone was the outcome of simple emotional states, and to which notions of precise intellectual significance still clung. Whatever theory of the origin of music may finally prevail, there can be no question that music in its primitive condition is more directly the outcome of clearly realized feeling than it is when developed into a free, intellectualized, and heterogeneous 21[17] art form. Music, the more it rises into an art, the more it exerts a purely aesthetic effect through its action upon intelligences that delight in form, organization, and ideal motion, loses in equal proportion the emotional definiteness that exists in simple and spontaneous tone inflections. The earliest reasoning on the rationale of musical effects always takes for granted that music’s purpose is to convey exact ideas, or at least express definite emotion. Music did not advance so far among the ancients that they were able to escape from this naturalistic conception. They could conceive of no higher purpose in music than to move the mind in definite directions, and so they maintained that it always did so. Even in modern life numberless instances prove that the music which exerts the greatest effect over the impulses is not the mature and complex art of the masters, but the simple strains which emanate from the people and bring up recollections which in themselves alone have power to stir the heart. The song that melts a congregation to tears, the patriotic air that fires the enthusiasm of an assembly on the eve of a political crisis, the strain that nerves an army to desperate endeavor, is not an elaborate work of art, but a simple and obvious tune, which finds its real force in association. All this is especially true of music employed for religious ends, and we find in such facts a reason why it could make no progress in ancient times, certainly none where it was under the control of an organized social caste. For the priestly order is always conservative, and in antiquity this conservatism petrified melody, at the same time with the rites to which it adhered, into 22[18] stereotyped formulas. Where music is bound up with a ritual, innovation in the one is discountenanced as tending to loosen the traditional strictness of the other.

I have laid stress upon this point because this attempt of the religious authorities in antiquity to repress music in worship to a subsidiary function was the sign of a conception of music which has always been more or less active in the Church, down even to our own day. As soon as musical art reaches a certain stage of development it strives to emancipate itself from the thraldom of word and visible action, and to exalt itself for its own undivided glory. Strict religionists have always looked upon this tendency with suspicion, and have often strenuously opposed it, seeing in the sensuous fascinations of the art an obstacle to complete absorption in spiritual concerns. The conflict between the devotional and the aesthetic principles, which has been so active in the history of worship music in modern times, never appeared in antiquity except in the later period of Greek art. Since this outbreak of the spirit of rebellion occurred only when Hellenic religion was no longer a force in civilization, its results were felt only in the sphere of secular music; but no progress resulted, for musical culture was soon assumed everywhere by the Christian Church, which for a thousand years succeeded in restraining music within the antique conception of bondage to liturgy and ceremony.

Partly as a result of this subjection of music by its allied powers, partly, perhaps, as a cause, a science of harmony was never developed in ancient times. That music was always performed in unison and octaves, as 23[19] has been generally believed, is, however, not probable. In view of the fact that the Egyptians possessed harps over six feet in height, having twelve or thirteen strings, and played with both hands, and that the monuments of Assyria and Egypt and the records of musical practice among the Hebrews, Greeks, and other nations show us a large variety of instruments grouped in bands of considerable size, we are justified in supposing that combinations of different sounds were often produced. But the absence from the ancient treatises of any but the most vague and obscure allusions to the production of accordant tones, and the conclusive evidence in respect to the general lack of freedom and development in musical art, is proof positive that, whatever concords of sounds may have been occasionally produced, nothing comparable to our present contrapuntal and harmonic system existed. The music so extravagantly praised in antiquity was, vocally, chant, or recitative, ordinarily in a single part; instrumental music was rude and unsystematized sound, partly a mechanical aid to the voice and the dance step, partly a means of nervous exhilaration. The modern conception of music as a free, self-assertive art, subject only to its own laws, lifting the soul into regions of pure contemplation, where all temporal relations are lost in a tide of self-forgetful rapture,—this was a conception unknown to the mind of antiquity.


The student of the music of the Christian Church naturally turns with curiosity to that one of the ancient nations whose religion was the antecedent of the Christian, and whose sacred literature has furnished the worship of the Church with the loftiest expression of its trust and aspiration. The music of the Hebrews, as Ambros says, “was divine service, not art.”1010Ambros, Geschichte der Musik. Many modern writers have assumed a high degree of perfection in ancient Hebrew music, but only on sentimental grounds, not because there is any evidence to support such an opinion. There is no reason to suppose that music was further developed among the Hebrews than among the most cultivated of their neighbors. Their music, like that of the ancient nations generally, was entirely subsidiary to poetic recitation and dancing; it was unharmonic, simple, and inclined to be coarse and noisy. Although in general use, music never attained so great honor among them as it did among the Greeks. We find in the Scriptures no praises of music as a nourisher of morality, rarely a trace of an ascription of magical properties. Although it had a place in military operations and at feasts, private merry-makings, etc., its chief value lay in its availability for religious purposes. To the Hebrews the arts obtained significance only as they could be used to adorn the courts of Jehovah, or could be employed in the ascription of praise to him. Music was to them an efficient agent to excite emotions of awe, or to carry more directly to the heart the rhapsodies and searching admonitions of psalmists and prophets.


No authentic melodies have come down to us from the time of the Israelitish residence in Palestine. No treatise on Hebrew musical theory or practice, if any such ever existed, has been preserved. No definite light is thrown upon the Hebrew musical system by the Bible or any other ancient book. We may be certain that if the Hebrews had possessed anything distinctive, or far in advance of the practice of their contemporaries, some testimony to that effect would be found. All evidence and analogy indicate that the Hebrew song was a unison chant or cantillation, more or less melodious, and sufficiently definite to be perpetuated by tradition, but entirely subordinate to poetry, in rhythm following the accent and metre of the text.

We are not so much in the dark in respect to the use and nature of Hebrew instruments, although we know as little of the style of music that was performed upon them. Our knowledge of the instruments themselves is derived from those represented upon the monuments of Assyria and Egypt, which were evidently similar to those used by the Hebrews. The Hebrews never invented a musical instrument. Not one in use among them but had its equivalent among nations older in civilization. And so we may infer that the entire musical practice of the Hebrews was derived first from their early neighbors the Chaldeans, and later from the Egyptians; although we may suppose that some modifications may have arisen after they became an independent nation. The first mention of musical instruments in the Bible is in Gen. iv. 21, where Jubal is spoken of as “the father of all such as handle the kinnor and ugab” (translated in the revised version “harp and pipe”). The word kinnor appears frequently in the later books, and is applied to the instrument used by David. This 26[22] kinnor of David and the psalmists was a small portable instrument and might properly be called a lyre. Stringed instruments are usually the last to be developed by primitive peoples, and the use of the kinnor implies a considerable degree of musical advancement among the remote ancestors of the Hebrew race in their primeval Chaldean home. The word ugab may signify either a single tube like the flute or oboe, or a connected series of pipes like the Pan’s pipes or syrinx of the Greeks. There is only one other mention of instruments before the Exodus, viz., in connection with the episode of Laban and Jacob, where the former asks his son-in-law reproachfully, “Wherefore didst thou flee secretly, and steal away from me; and didst not tell me, that I might have sent thee away with mirth and with songs, with toph and kinnor?”1111Gen. xxxi. 27.—the toph being a sort of small hand drum or tambourine.

After the Exodus other instruments, perhaps derived from Egypt, make their appearance: the shophar, or curved tube of metal or ram’s horn, heard amid the smoke and thunderings of Mt. Sinai,1212Ex. xix. and to whose sound the walls of Jericho were overthrown;1313Jos. vi. the hazozerah, or long silver tube, used in the desert for announcing the time for breaking camp,1414Num. x. 2-8. and employed later by the priests in religious service,15152 Chron. v. 12, 13; xxix. 26-28. popular gatherings, and sometimes in war.16162 Chron. xiii. 12, 14. The nebel was either a harp somewhat larger than the kinnor, or possibly a sort of guitar. The chalil, translated in the English version 27[23] “pipe,” may have been a sort of oboe or flageolet. The band of prophets met by Saul advanced to the sound of nebel, toph, chalil, and kinnor.17171 Sam. x. 5. The word “psaltery,” which frequently appears in the English version of the psalms, is sometimes the nebel, sometimes the kinnor, sometimes the asor, which was a species of nebel. The “instrument of ten strings” was also the nebel or asor. Percussion instruments, such as the drum, cymbals, bell, and the Egyptian sistrum (which consisted of a small frame of bronze into which three or four metal bars were loosely inserted, producing a jingling noise when shaken), were also in common use. In the Old Testament there are about thirteen instruments mentioned as known to the Hebrews, not including those mentioned in Dan. iii., whose names, according to Chappell, are not derived from Hebrew roots.1818Chappell, History of Music, Introduction. All of these were simple and rude, yet considerably varied in character, representing the three classes into which instruments, the world over, are divided, viz., stringed instruments, wind instruments, and instruments of percussion.1919For extended descriptions of ancient musical instruments the reader is referred to Chappell, History of Music; Engel, The Music of the Most Ancient Nations; and Stainer, The Music of the Bible.

Although instruments of music had a prominent place in public festivities, social gatherings, and private recreation, far more important was their use in connection with religious ceremony. As the Hebrew nation increased in power, and as their conquests became permanently secured, so the arts of peace developed in 28[24] greater profusion and refinement, and with them the embellishments of the liturgical worship became more highly organized. With the capture of Jerusalem and the establishment of the royal residence within its ramparts, the worship of Jehovah increased in splendor; the love of pomp and display, which was characteristic of David, and still more of his luxurious son Solomon, was manifest in the imposing rites and ceremonies that were organized to the honor of the people’s God. The epoch of these two rulers was that in which the national force was in the flower of its youthful vigor, the national pride had been stimulated by continual triumphs, the long period of struggle and fear had been succeeded by glorious peace. The barbaric splendor of religious service and festal pageant was the natural expression of popular joy and self-confidence. In all these ebullitions of national feeling, choral and instrumental music on the most brilliant and massive scale held a conspicuous place. The description of the long series of public rejoicings, culminating in the dedication of Solomon’s temple, begins with the transportation of the ark of the Lord from Gibeah, when “David and all the house of Israel played before the Lord with all manner of instruments made of fir-wood, and with harps (kinnor), and with psalteries (nebel), and with timbrels (toph), with castanets (sistrum), and with cymbals (tzeltzelim).”20202 Sam. vi. 5. And again, when the ark was brought from the house of Obed-edom into the city of David, the king danced “with all his might,” and the ark was brought up “with shouting and with the sound of a trumpet.”21212 Sam. vi. 14, 15. Singers 29[25] were marshalled under leaders and supported by bands of instruments. The ode ascribed to David was given to Asaph as chief of the choir of Levites; Asaph beat the time with cymbals, and the royal paean was chanted by masses of chosen singers to the accompaniment of harps, lyres, and trumpets.22221 Chron. xvi. 5, 6. In the organization of the temple service no detail received more careful attention than the vocal and instrumental music. We read that four thousand Levites were appointed to praise the Lord with instruments.23231 Chron. xxiii. 5. There were also two hundred and eighty-eight skilled singers who sang to instrumental accompaniment beside the altar.24241 Chron. xxv.; 2 Chron. v. 12. See also 2 Chron. v. 11-14.

The function performed by instruments in the temple service is also indicated in the account of the reëstablishment of the worship of Jehovah by Hezekiah according to the institutions of David and Solomon. With the burnt offering the song of praise was uplifted to the accompaniment of the “instruments of David,” the singers intoned the psalm and the trumpets sounded, and this continued until the sacrifice was consumed. When the rite was ended a hymn of praise was sung by the Levites, while the king and the people bowed themselves.25252 Chron. xxix. 25-30.


With the erection of the second temple after the return from the Babylonian exile, the liturgical service was restored, although not with its pristine magnificence. Ezra narrates: “When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, they set the priests in their apparel with trumpets, and the Levites the sons of Asaph with cymbals, to praise the Lord, after the order of David king of Israel. And they sang one to another in praising and giving thanks unto the Lord, saying, For he is good, for his mercy endureth forever toward Israel.”2626Ezra iii. 10, 11. And at the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem, as recorded by Nehemiah, instrumentalists and singers assembled in large numbers, to lead the multitude in rendering praise and thanks to Jehovah.2727Neh. xii. Instruments were evidently employed in independent flourishes and signals, as well as in accompanying the singers. The trumpets were used only in the interludes; the pipes and stringed instruments strengthened the voice parts; the cymbals were used by the leader of the chorus to mark the rhythm.

Notwithstanding the prominence of instruments in all observances of public and private life, they were always looked upon as accessory to song. Dramatic poetry was known to the Hebrews, as indicated by such compositions as the Book of Job and the Song of Songs. No complete epic has come down to us, but certain allusions in the Pentateuch, such as the mention in Numbers xxi. 14 of the “book of the wars of Jehovah,” would tend to show that this people possessed a collection of ballads which, taken together, would properly constitute a national epic. But whether lyric, epic, or dramatic, the Hebrew poetry was delivered, according to the universal custom of ancient nations, not in the speaking voice, but in musical tone. The minstrel poet, 31[27] it has been said, was the type of the race. Lyric poetry may be divided into two classes: first, that which is the expression of individual, subjective feeling, the poet communing with himself alone, imparting to his thought a color derived solely from his personal inward experience; and second, that which utters sentiments that are shared by an organization, community, or race, the poet serving as the mouthpiece of a mass actuated by common experiences and motives. The second class is more characteristic of a people in the earlier stages of culture, when the individual is lost in the community, before the tendency towards specialization of interests gives rise to an expression that is distinctly personal. In all the world’s literature the Hebrew psalms are the most splendid examples of this second order of lyric poetry; and although we find in them many instances in which an isolated, purely subjective experience finds a voice, yet in all of them the same view of the universe, the same conception of the relation of man to his Creator, the same broad and distinctively national consciousness, control their thought and their diction. And there are very few even of the first class which a Hebrew of earnest piety, searching his own heart, could not adopt as the fitting declaration of his need and assurance.

All patriotic songs and religious poems properly called hymns belong in the second division of lyrics; and in the Hebrew psalms devotional feeling touched here and there with a patriot’s hopes and fears, has once for all projected itself in forms of speech which seem to exhaust the capabilities of sublimity in language. These psalms were set to music, and presuppose music in their 32[28] thought and their technical structure. A text most appropriate for musical rendering must be free from all subtleties of meaning and over-refinements of phraseology; it must be forcible in movement, its metaphors those that touch upon general observation, its ideas those that appeal to the common consciousness and sympathy. These qualities the psalms possess in the highest degree, and in addition they have a sublimity of thought, a magnificence of imagery, a majesty and strength of movement, that evoke the loftiest energies of a musical genius that ventures to ally itself with them. In every nation of Christendom they have been made the foundation of the musical service of the Church; and although many of the greatest masters of the harmonic art have lavished upon them the richest treasures of their invention, they have but skimmed the surface of their unfathomable suggestion.

Of the manner in which the psalms were rendered in the ancient Hebrew worship we know little. The present methods of singing in the synagogues give us little help, for there is no record by which they can be traced back beyond the definite establishment of the synagogue worship. It is inferred from the structure of the Hebrew poetry, as well as unbroken usage from the beginning of the Christian era, that the psalms were chanted antiphonally or responsively. That form of verse known as parallelism—the repetition of a thought in different words, or the juxtaposition of two contrasted thoughts forming an antithesis—pervades a large amount of the Hebrew poetry, and may be called its technical principle. It is, we might say, a rhythm 33[29] of thought, an assonance of feeling. This parallelism is more frequently double, sometimes triple. We find this peculiar structure as far back as the address of Lamech to his wives in Gen. iv. 23, 24, in Moses’ song after the passage of the Red Sea, in the triumphal ode of Deborah and Barak, in the greeting of the Israelitish women to Saul and David returning from the slaughter of the Philistines, in the Book of Job, in a large proportion of the rhythmical imaginative utterances of the psalmists and prophets. The Oriental Christians sang the psalms responsively; this method was passed on to Milan in the fourth century, to Rome very soon afterward, and has been perpetuated in the liturgical churches of modern Christendom. Whether, in the ancient temple service, this twofold utterance was divided between separate portions of the choir, or between a precentor and the whole singing body, there are no grounds for stating,—both methods have been employed in modern times. It is not even certain that the psalms were sung in alternate half-verses, for in the Jewish Church at the present day the more frequent usage is to divide at the end of a verse. It is evident that the singing was not congregational, and that the share of the people, where they participated at all, was confined to short responses, as in the Christian Church in the time next succeeding the apostolic age. The female voice, although much prized in secular music, according to the Talmud was not permitted in the temple service. There is nothing in the Old Testament that contradicts this except, as some suppose, the reference to the three daughters of Heman in 1. Chron. xxv. 5, 34[30] where we read: “And God gave to Heman fourteen sons and three daughters;” and in verse 6: “All these were under the hands of their father for song in the house of the Lord.” It is probable, however, that the mention of the daughters is incidental, not intended as an assertion that they were actual members of the temple chorus, for we cannot conceive why an exception should have been made in their behalf. Certainly the whole implication from the descriptions of the temple service and the enumeration of the singers and players is to the effect that only the male voice was utilized in the liturgical worship. There are many allusions to “women singers” in the Scriptures, but they plainly apply only to domestic song, or to processions and celebrations outside the sacred enclosure. It is certainly noteworthy that the exclusion of the female voice, which has obtained in the Catholic Church throughout the Middle Age, in the Eastern Church, in the German Protestant Church, and in the cathedral service of the Anglican Church, was also enforced in the temple worship of Israel. The conviction has widely prevailed among the stricter custodians of religious ceremony in all ages that there is something sensuous and passionate (I use these words in their simpler original meaning) in the female voice—something at variance with the austerity of ideal which should prevail in the music of worship. Perhaps, also, the association of men and women in the sympathy of so emotional an office as that of song is felt to be prejudicial to the complete absorption of the mind which the sacred function demands. Both these reasons have undoubtedly combined in so many historic epochs to keep all the offices of ministry in the house of God in the hands of the male sex. On the other hand, in the more sensuous cults of paganism no such prohibition has existed.


There is difference of opinion in regard to the style of melody employed in the delivery of the psalms in the worship of the temple at Jerusalem. Was it a mere intoned declamation, essentially a monotone with very slight changes of pitch, like the “ecclesiastical accent” of the Catholic Church? Or was it a freer, more melodious rendering, as in the more ornate members of the Catholic Plain Song? The modern Jews incline to the latter opinion, that the song was true melody, obeying, indeed, the universal principle of chant as a species of vocalism subordinated in rhythm to the text, yet with abundant movement and possessing a distinctly tuneful character. It has been supposed that certain inscriptions at the head of some of the psalms are the titles of well-known tunes, perhaps secular folk-songs, to which the psalms were sung. We find, e. g., at the head of Ps. xxii. the inscription, “After the song beginning, Hind of the Dawn.” Ps. lvi. has, “After the song, The silent Dove in far-off Lands.” Others have, “After lilies” (Ps. xlv. and lxix.), and “Destroy not” (Ps. lvii.-lix.). We cannot on a priori principles reject the supposition that many psalms were sung to secular melodies, for we shall find, as we trace the history of music in the Christian era, that musicians have over and over again borrowed profane airs for the hymns of the Church. In fact, there is hardly a branch of the Christian Church that has not at some time done so, and even the rigid Jews in modern times have employed the same means to increase their store of religious melodies.


That the psalms were sung with the help of instruments seems indicated by superscriptions, such as “With stringed instruments,” and “To the flutes,” although objections have been raised to these translations. No such indications are needed, however, to prove the point, for the descriptions of worship contained in the Old Testament seem explicit. The instruments were used to accompany the voices, and also for preludes and interludes. The word “Selah,” so often occurring at the end of a psalm verse, is understood by many authorities to signify an instrumental interlude or flourish, while the singers were for a moment silent. One writer says that at this point the people bowed in prayer.2828Synagogue Music, by F. L. Cohen, in Papers read at the Anglo-Jewish Historical Exhibition, London, 1847.

Such, generally speaking, is the most that can definitely be stated regarding the office performed by music in the worship of Israel in the time of its glory. With the rupture of the nation, its gradual political decline, the inroads of idolatry, the exile in Babylon, the conquest by the Romans, the disappearance of poetic and musical inspiration with the substitution of formality and routine in place of the pristine national sincerity and fervor, it would inevitably follow that the great musical traditions would fade away, until at the time of the birth of Christ but little would remain of the elaborate ritual once committed to the guardianship of 37[33] cohorts of priests and Levites. The sorrowing exiles who hung their harps on the willows of Babylon and refused to sing the songs of Zion in a strange land certainly never forgot the airs consecrated by such sweet and bitter memories; but in the course of centuries they became lost among the strange peoples with whom the scattered Israelites found their home. Many were for a time preserved in the synagogues, which, in the later years of Jewish residence in Palestine, were established in large numbers in all the towns and villages. The service of the synagogue was a liturgical service, consisting of benedictions, chanting of psalms and other Scripture passages, with responses by the people, lessons from the law and the prophets, and sermons. The instrumental music of the temple and the first synagogues eventually disappeared, and the greater part, if not the whole, of the ancient psalm melodies vanished also with the dispersion of the Levites, who were their especial curators. Many details of ancient ritual and custom must have survived in spite of vicissitude, but the final catastrophe, which drove a desolate, heart-broken remnant of the children of Judah into alien lands, must inevitably have destroyed all but the merest fragment of the fair residue of national art by sweeping away all the conditions by which a national art can live.

Does anything remain of the rich musical service which for fifteen hundred years went up daily from tabernacle and temple to the throne of the God of Israel? A question often asked, but without a positive answer. Perhaps a few notes of an ancient melody, or a horn signal identical with one blown in the camp or 38[34] in the temple court, may survive in the synagogue to-day, a splinter from a mighty edifice which has been submerged by the tide of centuries. As would be presumed of a people so tenacious of time-honored usages, the voice of tradition declares that the intonations of the ritual chant used in the synagogue are survivals of forms employed in the temple at Jerusalem. These intonations are certainly Oriental in character and very ancient, but that they date back to the time of David cannot be proved or disproved. A style of singing like the well-known “cantillation” might easily be preserved, a complete melody possibly, but the presumption is against an antiquity so great as the Jews, with pardonable pride, claim for some of their weird, archaic strains.

With the possible exception of scanty fragments, nothing remains of the songs so much loved by this devoted people in their early home. We may speculate upon the imagined beauty of that music; it is natural to do so. Omne ignotum pro magnifico. We know that it often shook the hearts of those that heard it; but our knowledge of the comparative rudeness of all Oriental music, ancient and modern, teaches us that its effect was essentially that of simple unison successions of tones wedded to poetry of singular exaltation and vehemence, and associated with liturgical actions calculated to impress the beholder with an overpowering sense of awe. The interest which all must feel in the religious music of the Hebrews is not due to its importance in the history of art, but to its place in the history of culture. Certainly the art of music was never more highly honored, 39[35] its efficacy as an agent in arousing the heart to the most ardent spiritual experiences was never more convincingly demonstrated, than when the seers and psalmists of Israel found in it an indispensable auxiliary of those appeals, confessions, praises, and pious raptures in which the whole after-world has seen the highest attainment of language under the impulse of religious ecstasy. Taking “the harp the monarch minstrel swept” as a symbol of Hebrew devotional song at large, Byron’s words are true:

“It softened men of iron mould,

It gave them virtues not their own;

No ear so dull, no soul so cold,

That felt not, fired not to the tone,

Till David’s lyre grew mightier than his throne.”

This music foreshadowed the completer expression of Christian art of which it became the type. Inspired by the grandest of traditions, provided with credentials as, on equal terms with poetry, valid in the expression of man’s consciousness of his needs and his infinite privilege,—thus consecrated for its future mission, the soul of music passed from Hebrew priests to apostles and Christian fathers, and so on to the saints and hierarchs, who laid the foundation of the sublime structure of the worship music of a later day.

« Prev I: Primitive and Ancient Religious Music Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection