Ask S. Ceilia - Outlook Guest Column

A parishioner writes:


Dear S. Martin,

I love church music, singing hymns, and listening to the choir and organ. This separation from our normal worship is very difficult for me. I am looking forward to rejoining everyone in church soon, but in the meantime, although I am praying every day, I feel that I would like pray through music more. Unfortunately, although I enjoy it, I don’t really know anything about church musicand I’m embarrassed to ask anyone else. Can you help me find something to listen to and pray with?

I have asked my dear friend, S. Cecilia, to assist me in answering this question. 


S. Cecilia writes:

Music, perhaps more than any other form of art, elevates the soul in worship. It is a shame that some people mistake the joy derived from music as worship itself, rather than an offering of song which is laid at the feet of God. You seem to be drawing this distinction, though, and of course God, in his goodness, invites us to rejoice in our worship.

The category of music called “Church music” is actually a large and extended family of different kinds and styles. I am told that this article will be shared digitally and so I shall include some links to some particularly fine examples for your enjoyment and, crucially, to assist your prayers. This will be the first of two articles concentrating on the musical tradition of Western Christianity. I will try, in the next article, to include at least something about our brothers and sisters in the East.

The church music that is sometimes called ‘Early Music’ spans a period which is usually only vaguely defined,but can be over a thousand years (from A.D. 500 to 1600). Church music in this period was developing in many different ways, but as today, revolved around the singing of sacred texts. 


In addition to forms of chant and plainsong which had developed from ancient ecclesiastical communities, there was also music specifically composed for various occasions and points in the Church’s year. To 21st Century ears, the music of composers such as Perotin and Dufay can seem almost eerie despite its beauty.

Examples on YouTube:

Magnificat, second tone (solemn) sung in modern French style, with organ

The Creed, Credo ‘Lux et Origo’, in modern French Style

Perotin (fl. c. 1200), Viderunt omnes

Dufay (1400 – 1474), Magnificat octavi toni


As particular philosophies of music and composition established themselves, regional styles or “schools” gained prominence and influence, the constraints of which were in turn tested and toyed with by their advocates. In the late Renaissance period of music (1500 - 1600), da Palestrina’s florid style still had room for playful whimsy in which he draws musical allusions to the text (such as in the banging of the drum (date tympanum) and blowing of the horns and trumpets on the words buccinate and tuba).

Meanwhile, in England, Tallis and Byrd were foremost examples of the English school, a school whose influence was waning in their lifetime but which nevertheless still produced works of extraordinary and distinctive beauty, such as the majestic forty part Spem in alium or the evocative and haunting O salutaris hostia. Note how Byrd, an English Roman Catholic, uses the “clashes” created by mimicking pre-Reformation music (as we can hear in Perotin and Dufay) in this Benediction hymn, an overtly theological and political statement.

Examples on YouTube:

Da Palestrina (1525 – 1594), Exsultate Deo

Tallis (c. 1505 – 1585), Spem in alium

Byrd (c. 1540 - 1623), O salutaris hostia


The end of the Renaissance and the early Baroque were worlds marked by the Reformation. Although many composers continued to draw upon the traditional, voice-only styles, and compose in Latin, the use of vernacular language and instruments gained a great deal of traction. Many of these pieces of music, by such giants as Purcell, Monteverdi and Schütz, are very difficult to perform in even the greatest cathedrals due to the complexity of the music and the number of performers required. 


Although musicians were increasingly stretching the musicological bounds, the “language” of harmony used in this period is very accessible to most modern audiences: Purcell uses an English cadence (by the time of his writing, something of an archaism) in his anthem Rejoice in the Lord alway, but in O God, thou art my God, his final refrain has been adapted into the well-known hymn tune Westminster Abbey. 


Examples on YouTube:

Monteverdi (c. 1567 – 1643), Nisi dominus from Vesprodella Beata Virgine

Schütz (1585 – 1672), Selig sind die Toten

H. Purcell, (c. 1659 – 1695), Rejoice in the Lord alway

O God, thou art my God


This brings us firmly into the Baroque period, where we shall end today, and where we can begin the second part with two of the greatest composers who have ever lived.


Until then, I hope that this gives you some confidence in your own research and listening, and also some music with which to pray, not only with your lips, but with your ears and heart also.


Sancta Cæcilia Romana


- Saint Cecilia of Rome (with a little secretarial help from an assistant curate).

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Registered Charity number 1132848



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