The 4th and 5th century were times of great transformations for both the Roman Empire and the Catholic Church. While the history of these two entities criss-crossed on multiple occasions, one could easily see an inverse pattern between the progressive decline of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Catholic Church.
Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 312; he subsequently issued the proclamation of the edict of Milan (Edictum Mediolanense) and designated Constantinople as capital of the Western Roman Empire, in lieu of Rome. This “Constantinian shift” (an expression popularized by U.S. theologian, ethicist, and Biblical scholar John H. Yoder1), along with the split of the Roman Empire into two parts (the Western Roman Empire and its Eastern counterpart, also known as the Byzantine Empire) in 395, precipitated the fall of Rome in 476–an event generally considered as the date of the fall of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Early Middle Ages.
Following the collapse of the Roman empire, the Catholic Church became de facto the only institution with enough power to culturally unify the Western world. The rise of the Christian church materialized in multiple aspects, the most visible of which was the proliferation of churches as we understand them nowadays: edifices built for the sole purpose of worshiping God. Pope Leo the First (400–461) was instrumental in consolidating papal authority and strengthening its spiritual weight within the Catholic Church. An example of the former is his meeting with Attila the Hun outside Rome in 452, convincing him to 1- not attack Rome, 2- withdraw from Italy, and 3- engage in peace talks with Valentinian III, then emperor of the Western Roman Empire (419 – 455). An example of the latter is exemplified in what came to be known as the “Petrine Supremacy” an interpretation of Matthew 16:18-192 spelling out the universal jurisdiction of the Diocese of Rome.
With the power vacuum created by the decline–and eventually collapse–of the Roman empire, and the relentless rise and consolidation of the church through the acknowledgement of the authority of Rome in matters of Faith and Doctrine, came a greater need for regulation and standardization of patterns of Christian praxis throughout Christendom.
That need was fulfilled by a group of influential ecclesiastical writers, usually (but not necessarily) bishops, whose writings, actions, and moral integrity helped establishing Catholic doctrine. Usually referred to as the “Church Fathers”, because of their influence on the later church’s appreciation of the Gospel, these authors were characterized by four main attributes: Seniority, Holiness, Orthodoxy, and Ecclesiastical approval.
Brilliant commentators on the Bible, their writing covered all aspects of Christian life from religious rites to day-to-day activities. Among them was Aurelius Augustinus Hipponensis (aka “St. Augustine of Hippo,” (354-430 C.E.), one of the “most prolific geniuses that humanity has ever known”3 .
Born in the municipium of Thagaste (modern-day Souk-Ahras in Algeria) to a Roman father and a Berber mother, St. Augustine was a philosopher, a theologian, and a Doctor of the Church; the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy refers to him as “one of the main figures through and by whom the merging of the Greek philosophical tradition and the Judeo-Christian religious and scriptural traditions was accomplished”4.
Saint Augustine dealt with the topic of Music in two separate occasions. First, in his 6-volume treatise entitled “De Musica”; and then in his “Confessions” considered by many as the first autobiography ever written in the western hemisphere.
The treatise on music is divided into two parts: The first one–made of the first 5 books–is rather technical. It contains a full description of the rules of rhythmic and metric patterns. The focus on Rhythms rather than Melody is not an oversight, as it seems like St. Augustine never got the chance to finish subsequent volumes of his book:
“Despite the title, Augustine’s De Musica deals exclusively with rhythm; melody was to have been the subject of a separate treatise, apparently never written”5
The last Book of “De Musica” (the only one to be revised) adopts a more philosophical and less of a descriptive approach. Written as a conclusion/morality of the Treatise, St. Augustine analyzes the movements of the heart and the soul, those of the body, and those of the universe. He introduces the concept of a mystical ladder, escalating several levels of harmonies until it reaches the “mother of all harmonies”, the eternal and immutable harmony of God, the source of all movements; but more importantly, the source of energy taming all these movements and making harmony and peace prevail.
St. Augustine’s second reference to Music came in his “Confessions”. In this collection of 13 books, written between 397 and 398, St. Augustine provides an in-depth self-analysis of his search for God. It covers episodes of his life such as his difficult and sinful boyhood, his conversion to Manichaeism, his lustful youth, his movement toward Christianity sparked by the teachings of St. Ambrose of Milan, and the continuous inner agitation he went through before finally converting to Christianity…
“The thirteen books of my Confessions praise the just and good God for my evil and good acts, and lift up the understanding and affection of men to Him”6
Without necessarily setting a precedent, St. Augustine’s take on music is rather interesting as it shows a serious inner dilemma between the natural/human inclination to enjoy music for what it is, pleasurable and harmonious sounds, and the self-discipline needed to look at Music only through “a Platonic principle that beautiful things exist only to remind us of perfect beauty”.7 His passage about music reads:
“However, when I call to mind the tears I shed at the songs of thy Church at the outset of my recovered faith, and how even now I am moved, not by the singing but by what is sung (when they are sung with a clear and skillfully modulated voice), I then come to acknowledge the great utility of this custom. Thus I vacillate between dangerous pleasure and healthful exercise. I am inclined — though I pronounce no irrevocable opinion on the subject — to approve of the use of singing in the church, so that by the delights of the ear the weaker minds may be stimulated to a devotional mood. Yet when it happens that I am more moved by the singing than by what is sung, I confess myself to have sinned wickedly, and then I would rather not have heard the singing. See now what a condition I am in! Weep with me, and weep for me, those of you who can so control your inward feelings that good results always come forth. As for you who do not act this way at all, such things do not concern you. But do thou, O Lord, my God, give ear; look and see, and have mercy upon me; and heal me — thou, in whose sight I am become an enigma to myself; this itself is my weakness.”8
As we observe, the mere thought of being moved more by the melody rather than the lyrics is seen as “sinful”. The very idea of using music in the act of worship is being challenged. Ultimately however, music per se was not totally rejected, as its usefulness in opening people’s minds to Christian teachings and holy thoughts was finally deemed to be true.
What ensued is a simplification of the concept of music in church: instruments were abandoned (due to their “immoral” connotations), and styles associated with the Pagan past were shunned for the benefit of more “meditative” forms, using only the Latin language with very little participation and no discernible rhythm.
Of all the Church Fathers, St. Augustine is singular in that his philosophy was so important and long-lasting that it earned a name, “Augustinism”; with its depth and insights continuing to influence and inspire both medieval church thought as well as contemporary debate on the topic.
1 Yoder, John H. 1996. Is There Such a Thing as Being Ready for Another Millennium?
2 “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
3 Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Volume 2
4 http://plato.stanford.edu – “Saint Augustine” – First published Friday, March 24, 2000; substantive revision Monday, October 2, 2000
5 The Classical Review – New Series, Vol. 1, No. 3/4 (December, 1951), pp. 200-201
6 Paffenroth, Kim and Kennedy, Robert Peter. 2003. A reader’s companion to Augustine’s Confessions
7 Hanning, Barbara Russano. 2009. Concise History of Western Music – p.9
8 Confessions – St. Augustine 10.50