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Celebrating Liturgica Music

Western Catholic Liturgics

Understanding the origin of the liturgical practice and music of the Western Roman Church begins with the early Christian developments and follows the local development of the rite of the Church of Rome. It requires considering such things as the Old Roman Rite, the similarities and differences between Eastern and Western Christianity, the development of Gregorian chant, the reforms of Charlemagne, and the use of Latin versus the use of Greek. The liturgical history of the Church of Rome was shaped to a significant extent by the impact and effects of the barbarian invasions, an experience that Western Christendom experienced to a much greater and more horrific degree than its Eastern brethren.

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The Early Church in Jerusalem

As described in the Early Christian Liturgics article, the early Christian Church began in Jerusalem under the leadership of the first bishop, James the brother of the Lord. A liturgical rite bearing his name is among the earliest. Thanks to the missionary work of St. Paul, within a few years Christian churches were located all the way from Jerusalem to Rome, the capital of the Empire. The liturgical rite of the Jerusalem Church became the foundation of the worship form and practice of these new churches from Antioch to Rome and beyond. Upon this foundation developed the forms, practices and music that became recognizable as the Western rites.

Of note is the curious contrast between the fact that Greek was the common language of the Roman Empire, yet Latin was the official liturgical language of the Roman Catholic Church until the second Vatican Council in 1962. The Roman Empire developed upon the foundations of the older Greek state and culture that was distributed across the Mediterranean basin, and Greek remained the common language of the region. Even at the peak of its power and reach, most of the Roman Empire spoke Greek, with Latin reserved as the official language of the state, and the language in common usage only in Rome and parts of Italy.

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Local Variations in the West

The liturgical forms of Western Roman Christianity include many rites that developed in the first few centuries following the apostolic age, as similar liturgical developments were occurring in the Eastern Church. While all of these rites were originally based on the liturgical practice of the "mother church" in Jerusalem, local variations in structure developed over time through the addition of prayers and other elements related to the Eucharist. These structural differences resulted in the various rites such as the Ambrosian, Gallican, Mozarabic, etc. Each local church tended to develop its own unique musical form, built on the ancient tradition, but expressive of local customs. Yet the liturgical form and musical practice throughout the early Church was surprisingly similar through the eighth century. (See Sacred Sample) The Western Church was less centralized than the Eastern Church in the fourth to sixth centuries, and not only tolerated but almost endorsed different liturgical customs as long as they were not heretical.

The term commonly used for the liturgical rite of the Church of Rome prior to the early ninth century is the Old Roman Rite or Liturgy. The Old Roman Rite and its related chant form developed from the common liturgical practices of the Church of Rome and were formalized in the revision of the Rite by Pope Gregory the Great in 595. It is representative of the consistency of liturgical form and music in the early Church. It remained so through the eighth or ninth century when Charlemagne reformed both the liturgy and the liturgical music of the Western Roman Church. Using the liturgical rite of St. Gregory the Great and the chant form of the Church of Rome as the basis, Charlemagne undertook to create a liturgical and musical standard for his recently founded Holy Roman Empire. The result of this reform was a uniform liturgical rite for the Roman Catholic Church, and a new form of liturgical music that we now call Gregorian Chant-which became the liturgical music standard of the Western Church for centuries to come. (See Sacred Sample)


From Greek to Latin

The language of the early Roman Rite before Gregory the Great was Greek. However, more and more Latin was used over time, although Greek was retained in specific sections such as the Kyrie and the Trisagion. Perhaps the best description of the transition from Greek to Latin and of the broad historical and cultural forces that affected the Western Roman Church following the barbarian invasions of Europe are in the words of Gregory Dix, in his book The Shape of the Liturgy:

"The local church of Rome had begun as a Greek-speaking body; the majority of its members were Greek-speaking Levantines living in the foreign quarters of the city. But it began to use Latin in its liturgy, probably in the latter half of the second century, as the faith spread among the Latin-speaking inhabitants; though the use of Greek went on side by side with Latin down to the fourth-perhaps even the fifth century. Elsewhere in the West, for example in Africa, Latin had been used by the church from the second century.

"In the fourth-fifth centuries, when Greek was ceasing to be spoken in the West but Latin was still a lingua franca in which, for example, all public notices were posted up from Northumberland to Casablanca and from Lisbon to the Danube, it was natural that all Christian rites should be in Latin in the West. In the fifth century the barbarian settlements brought a variety of teutonic dialects into the different Western provinces, and a cross-division of language everywhere between the new masters and the old populations. Even among the latter the rapid decline of civilization brought an inability to keep up the old cultures by complicated language. All through the sixth and seventh centuries the barbarians and provincials were mingling and profoundly affecting each other's speech. Languages were everywhere in flux and European speech was a chaos of local patois. The composition of vernacular rites was impossible; there is not even a vernacular literature worth speaking of anywhere in the West from this period. The church still stood for all that was left of the old tradition of civilization, and could only conserve that in so far as it was protected from contemporary influence in a Latin armor.

"The revival of civilization which begins in the eighth century came about by the recovery of just those traditions of the past which were most favorable to the renewed use of Latin. It culminates in Charlemagne's 'restoration of the Roman empire', and his imposition throughout his dominions of the Roman rite. Neither policy was calculated to elevate the position of the vernacular languages which are just beginning to take a recognizable form in the ninth century. But the adoption of the 'local Roman' Gregorian Sacramentary as the core of the universal Western rite had an important result, quite apart from things ecclesiastical. It placed at the basis of all Western culture the only tradition of the use of Latin in which the language had evolved without break from the classical tongue of Cicero and Virgil, through the excessive and supple silver Latin of the third and fourth centuries, to the 'ecclesiastical Latin' of the age of Leo and Gregory, without any serious admixture from outside.

"The culture which sprang from the work of Charlemagne, but which finally made sure of life only in the eleventh century, was not a formal restoration of the classical imperial culture such as the sixteenth century artificially essayed, but it was its true descendant in many ways. As such it was emphatically an international culture-or at this stage when nations were still embryonic, it is truer to say an inter-regional culture-whose natural instrument was a common language. And since religion was at the very heart of this new culture, Latin (which by now was not so much common to all regions as not particularly limited to any of them) was still used in the church." [1]

The development of many elements of the Christian Church were subject to history and culture. Clearly, the Western Church experienced this to a significant degree with the barbarian invasions of Europe all the way to Rome, and the centuries of Dark Ages that followed. In that period, the Church was one of the very few constant organizations in society, and the five centuries until Charlemagne established his Roman Empire were chaotic. During this period various other rites emerged and developed in the West, yet the Church of Rome continued to exert singular influence. So great, awesome, and mystical was the rite of the Roman Church, that in Charlemagne's youth his father sent emissaries to Rome to establish diplomatic relations with the Papacy and so great was their amazement that within a few years the Roman liturgy and its chant became in their eyes the most exalted expression of the type of civilization they wished to promote." [2]

The establishment of a standard Roman Rite by Charlemagne was the beginning of the end of the other local Western rites, and assured that Latin would continue to be the liturgical language of the Western Church (excepting, of course, the Protestant groups which split off in the Reformation and reverted to the vernacular) down to recent times. Gregorian chant, the liturgical music that resulted from Charlemagne's efforts, became the standard music of the Western Roman Catholic Church into the late twentieth century.


Benjamin D. Williams

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[1] Dix, Gregory; The Shape of The Liturgy: Seabury Press, New York, 1982, p. 617.

[2] Peres, Marcel; Vespers of Pascha