Religious song is the general designation given to the numerous poetical and musical creations which have come into existence in the course of time and are used in connection with public Divine worship, but which are not included in the official liturgy on account of their more free and subjective character. It has its origin in the desire on the part of the faithful, a desire even encouraged but always guided and controlled by the Church, to participate actively in the public religious ceremonies of the Church. While the psalms were sung in traditional fashion during the early Eucharistic celebrations at the public meetings, and the love-feasts, or agapae, or the early Christians, there soon sprang up the custom of improvising songs, participated in by the whole assembly, which, though religious in burden, by their spontaneity and freedom stood in contrast to the psalms and other lyric parts of the Holy Scripture in use at the Eucharistic celebration. These creations in course of time lost their spiritual character, dignity, and fervour as the institution which gave them birth and of which they formed an important part degenerated in character, departed from its original purpose, and became an occasion for pleasure and dissipation. The songs thus originated continued in use long after the institution had lost official sanction, and have become known in history by the name of the institution which gave rise to them.
As Christianity spread, there was an ever greater increase of spontaneous creations of this kind originating in the desire on the part of their authors to get nearer to the people and to convey to them by this means instruction as well as edification. As early as the fourth century there had come into use so many chants, hymns, and songs, in various parts of the Christian world, and abuses and aberrations had become so general, that the Council of Laodicea (360-381) forbade the singing of any text not taken from Holy Scripture . The hymns by St. Hilary and St. Ambrose of Milan (especially the latter) — which now form a part of the liturgy — had for their original purpose the instruction of the people by having them sing in striking metrical form and to vigorous melodies the fundamental truths of religion. The sequences and tropes which came into existence with such exuberance in the early Middle Ages, while popular in form, sprang directly from the liturgy and always partook of its character. In those regions where the liturgical language remained at the same time the tongue of the people, at least in a modified form, participation in the official chant of the Church on the part of all was general for many centuries, and in consequence the influence of the spirit of the liturgy and its music prevented the early development of a more subjective religious poetry and music than was to be the case in later times in other regions. This is probably the reason why in Italy, Spain, and the other Latin countries the religious song in the vernacular has never taken root.
While this was also true of France, for a considerable time, we find there an early and rapid growth of songs of every kind, bearing a strong national character. Every important event in the domestic and religious life of the people soon found expression in song. The festivals of the Church inspired them and became by these means in turn impressed upon the popular imagination. One of these characteristically French songs is the noël , or Christmas song, which had great vogue in the eleventh century, a vogue which reached its height in the seventeenth century and has survived in a certain form, ever to our day. The noël , the words of which were often paraphrases of liturgical texts, set to melodies naive and pastoral in character, was popular in every section of the kingdom and sung in every dialect in use. Processions, pilgrimages, and especially the mystery and miracle plays gave rise to many forms of songs. The troubadours in the south and trouveres in the north exerted great influence on the development and propagation not only of secular but of religious songs as well. Among the many forms in use was the complaint, a song in narrative form of which the "Story of the Resurrection" (O filii et filiae) is a prominent type. The pastorale was another form which flourished from the twelfth to the sixteenth century, sometimes having religious texts and then again voicing secular sentiments. With the sixteenth century began the custom of substituting secular airs in use at the time for the melodies to which the sacred texts of the noëls , complaints, etc., had thus far been sung; they were not only modelled on the Gregorian chant but had a distinctively niave simple character. This substitution sometimes involved even the partial taking over of the profane text as well. This was the beginning of the decadence which finally, in some places, reached the point where chansons de galanterie , or love songs, were completely transformed into cantiques , or religious songs, by merely substituting the name of the Blessed Virgin or that of Jesus Christ, for the name of the beloved one mentioned in the original. The modern French cantique, which has taken the place of the traditional religious songs, is sentimental, quasi-military, and savours of the world, plainly showing the influence of the favourite French musical form, the opera.
On account of their total unfamiliarity with the Latin language, the Germanic races were prevented from participating in the liturgical chant introduced with Christianity itself by their first missionaries. At most they joined in singing the Kyrie Eleison, and that in the form of a refrain. This primitive practice became so general that it survived long after songs in the vernacular had come into universal use. The latter would frequently end with the above invocation, which was gradually abbreviated into "Kyrieleis". The songs or hymns in the vernacular were themselves called later on "Kyrieleis" and "Leisen". The word "lay", which designates a vast song literature of a whole subsequent period, is derived from "Leisen". To wean their neophytes from pagan beliefs and practices, the early missionaries were wont to make use of melodies familiar to the people, apply Christian texts to them, and turn them into effective means of instruction. This practice soon led the naturally emotional and subjective race to give vent to their growing religious feelings in words and melodies of their own invention, so that as early as the latter part of the ninth century words in the vernacular were mixed with those of liturgical chants, the former forming a sort of glossary to the latter. From this time on there is a constant growth in songs of all kinds in honour of Jesus Christ , the Blessed Virgin, the saints, inspired by the great feasts ; songs called forth by national events, the Crusades, and, as elsewhere, processions and pilgrimages, many of them created and all of them fostered by the minnesingers and poets of the day. The texts in the vernacular and the melodies originated from the earliest days of Christianity up to the Reformation in Germanic countries; they were usually sung by the whole congregation, and belong to what is most sturdy and profound in sentiment and expression in this field. The fact that some 1500 melodies, antedating the Reformation, have come down to us gives us some idea of the hold the religious song had upon the people. The Reformers, like the Arians of the fourth century, availed themselves of the love for song on the part of the people, and converted it into an insidious and powerful means for the dissemination of their erroneous doctrines. The impetus thus given to singing exclusively in the vernacular by the leaders of Protestantism was so widespread and powerful that it soon reacted upon those who remained loyal to the faith of their fathers. It resulted not only in the creation of a large number of new hymn books but also in the custom, which has not yet been rooted up in all places, of singing in German during liturgical services.
A number of influences have contributed to the degeneration of the hymn in the vernacular which reached its limit in the eighteenth century. The most potent factors in its decay were the growth of Rationalism affecting even those within the fold and the ever-increasing ascendancy of secular music, resulting in the seventeenth century in the abandonment of the Gregorian modes, upon which practically all hymn melodies had been modelled, and the substitution of the modern keys. With the revival of the Catholic spirit at the beginning of the nineteenth century came a return to early ideals. Poets and musicians of the right stamp, both clerical and lay, inspired by the spirit of the Church and later fostered by the power agency of the Saint Cecilia Society, have restored to the Catholic people of German-speaking countries a song literature in the vernacular tongue, which is as rich in variety as it is sturdy in its expression of faith. In France a vigorous effort is being made, as part of the Gregorian restoration, to reconstruct a sound and wholesome taste among the people by the republication and propagation of proses, rhythmes , sequences, and other chants in honour of Jesus Christ , the Blessed Virgin, the saints, or the church festivals, written in one or other of the Gregorian modes, and in vogue during the ages of simple and lively faith. Competent church musicians and Gregorianists are successfully creating similar new melodies to standard texts. Their use is becoming widespread.
There is very little trace of the existence in early times in most English-speaking countries of religious songs in the vernacular. The missionaries sent from Rome in the sixth century introduced the liturgical chant into the British Isles and seem to have made but little effort to utilize any characteristically national melodies already existing. Unlike their colleagues in regions across the Channel, the gleemen, harpers, and bards of old continued to cultivate chiefly the secular field, and their productions and activity had not much influence on the creation and development of a national religious song literature, nor does Celtic musical and poetical culture seem to have been directed into that channel. While polyphonic music had attained a highly flourishing state before the sixteenth century, it was only at the time of the Reformation that singing in the vernacular assumed greater importance in England. As in the other Protestant countries the song in the vernacular became a great factor in British national worship. On account of most unpropitious conditions during several hundred years English-speaking Catholics had created but very little of any permanent value until, about the middle of the last century, a new era was inaugurated by religious poets like Faber and Newman. Unfortunately their lyrics have as yet seldom found adequate musical interpretation. What is true of transatlantic English-speaking Catholics holds good in a greater degree in the United States of America. Partly on account of the scarcity of suitable and worthy hymns in the English vernacular and partly on account of incompetency on the part of those who undertake to supply the deficiency, the taste of the people has been formed by trivial and superficial tunes, generally echoes of the opera, the shallow popular air, and even the drinking song set to sentimental and often trivial texts. Of late years, however, several collections of hymns in the vernacular, indicating a return to what is best in religious poetry and in popular sacred song, have come into existence and are gradually making their way into general use.
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