THE DEVELOPMENT OF MEDIAEVAL CHORUS MUSIC
It has already been noted that the music of the Catholic Church has passed through three typical phases or styles, each complete in itself, bounded by clearly marked lines, corresponding quite closely in respect to time divisions with the three major epochs into which the history of the Western Church may be divided. These phases or schools of ecclesiastical song are so far from being mutually exclusive that both the first and second persisted after the introduction of the third, so that at the present day at least two of the three forms are in use in almost every Catholic congregation, the Gregorian chant being employed in the song of the priest and in the antiphonal psalms and responses, and either the second or third form being adopted in the remaining offices.
Since harmony was unknown during the first one thousand years or more of the Christian era, and instrumental music had no independent existence, the whole vast system of chant melodies was purely unison and unaccompanied, its rhythm usually subordinated to that of the text. Melody, unsupported by harmony, soon runs its course, and if no new principle had been added to this antique melodic method, European music would have become petrified or else have gone on copying itself indefinitely. But about the eleventh century a new conception made its appearance, in which lay the assurance of the whole magnificent art of modern music. This new principle was that of harmony, the combination of two or more simultaneous and mutually dependent parts. The importance of this discovery needs no emphasis. It not only introduced an artistic agency that is practically unlimited in scope and variety, but it made music for the first time a free art, with its laws of rhythm and structure no longer identical with those of language, but drawn from the powers that lie inherent in its own nature. Out of the impulse to combine two or more parts together in complete freedom from the constraints of verbal accent and prosody sprang the second great school of church music, which, likewise independent of instrumental accompaniment, developed along purely vocal lines, and issued in the contrapuntal chorus music which attained its maturity in the last half of the sixteenth century.
This mediaeval school of a capella polyphonic music is in many respects more attractive to the student of ecclesiastical art than even the far more elaborate and brilliant style which prevails to-day. Modern church music, by virtue of its variety, splendor, and dramatic pathos, seems to be tinged with the hues of earthliness which belie the strictest conception of ecclesiastical art. It partakes of the doubt and turmoil of a skeptical and rebellious age, it is the music of impassioned longing in which are mingled echoes of worldly allurements, it is not the chastened tone of pious assurance and self-abnegation. The choral song developed in the ages of faith is pervaded by the accents of that calm ecstasy of trust and celestial anticipation which give to mediaeval art that exquisite charm of naïveté and sincerity never again to be realized through the same medium, because it is the unconscious expression of an unquestioning simplicity of conviction which seems to have passed away forever from the higher manifestations of the human creative intellect.
Such pathetic suggestion clings to the religious music of the Middle Age no less palpably than to the sculpture, painting, and hymnody of the same era, and combines with its singular artistic perfection and loftiness of tone to render it perhaps the most typical and lovely of all the forms of Catholic art. And yet to the generality of students of church and art history it is of all the products of the Middle Age the least familiar. Any intellectual man whom we might select would call himself but scantily educated if he had no acquaintance with mediaeval architecture and plastic art; yet he would probably not feel at all ashamed to confess total ignorance of that vast store of liturgic music which in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries filled the incense-laden air of those very cathedrals and chapels in which his reverent feet so love to wander. The miracles of mediaeval architecture, the achievements of the Gothic sculptors and the religious painters of Florence, Cologne, and Flanders are familiar to him, but the musical craftsmen of the Low Countries, Paris, Rome, and Venice, who clothed every prayer, hymn, and Scripture lesson with strains of unique beauty and tenderness, are only names, if indeed their names are known to him at all. Yet in sheer bulk their works would doubtless be found to equal the whole amount of the music of every kind that has been written in the three centuries following their era; while in technical mastery and adaptation to its special end this school is not unworthy of comparison with the more brilliant and versatile art of the present day.