Project Canterbury

The Relation of Church Music to Ecclesiastical Architecture

An Address before the Music Teacher's National Association
in St. Paul's Cathedral, Detroit.

December 29, 1921.

By the Rev. Winfred Douglas, Mus.Doc.
Canon of Fond du Lac

EDUCATION, as we all know, does not consist in the acquisition of facts or of mechanical mental processes, but in the guiding, the 'leading out,' of living processes which affect the entire being of the learner. And therefore the music teacher's task is to nourish a vital art: to develop, in separate individuals or in groups, the essential musical process-self-expression, in music, of something worth expressing, and for the utterance of which an inner need is felt. When we consider the general condition of Church Music in America, it is quite plain that herein is a problem of musical education which, notwithstanding some progress, is far from being solved. The dullness and feebleness and utter artistic insincerity of a large proportion of the music heard in our churches yield sufficient evidence of the lack of any compelling spiritual necessity in its origin. A very large proportion of it is not merely imitative, but imitative of inferior models. A vital art may not remain imitative, though in its formative stages it will necessarily be imitative of good models: nor may true art spring from unworthy or inadequate motives. The convenience of a choir; the mere desire to have something of one's own heard; the demands of a publisher; the need of cash; the material usefulness of advertising; a feeble impulse to compose something: from such motives nothing deserving the name of art can arise; much less religious art. "The greatest and most enduring art has arisen when men have felt that some great thing should be clearly and repeatedly expressed in a manner comprehensible to every one." Nothing less than a great and enduring art should be the aim of men and women occupied in the noble work of teaching music; a task which I am proud to be sharing. And in the particular department of Church Music which is my field of endeavour, some lessons which may be learned from the past, and illustrated from the sister art of Architecture, will perhaps point out one or two of the forward ways that may lead us out of the bog of artistic inadequacy, falseness, and feebleness all too commonly impeding the progress of American Church Music.

The subject assigned me brings to mind at once the famous characterization of Ruskin, "Architecture is frozen music." This was based upon the idea that both are arts of form, and that a close parallelism may be found between their respective developments. A primary architectural form is the arch. It has unity in the two similar uprights, and variety in the springing curve which unites them. Beginning with this simple form, men finally developed the most complex, yet most organic and logical of all human structures, the Gothic Cathedral of the I3th century; a vast and glorified arch with a roof of stone and walls of glass, whose component parts were whole series of marvelously correlated systems of lesser arches symmetrically balancing one another for the most part; but with the crowning artistic perfection of slight departures from merely mechanical symmetry, which gave a feeling of mystery and wonder to the beholder.

The formal development of music starts in a similar simple unit, the three-part song form. It, like the arch, possesses unity through the repetition of its first phrase to form its close: and it has variety in the contrasting phrase, with its natural tendency toward the dominant, which leads to the repetition of the opening phrase. This simple form also developed little by little into larger structures, until in the modern symphony one finds the formal parallel of the mediaeval cathedral. Again the first member of the form has become not a mere phrase, but an elaborate group of inter-related subjects; the element of variety, a dramatic free working out of the themes proposed: and the great musical arch is completed by the orderly return of the first group; but no longer in merely mechanical symmetry; for the return is so modified by slight alteration that again the sense of mystery is added to deepen the meaning of the logically complete form. And a still vaster application of the principle of unity has embraced the whole symphony in recent years. We see it in the Third Symphony of Brahms, where the opening theme of the first movement appears as a radiant vision from above at the close of the last movement. We see it even more clearly in such a work as Strauss' Ein Heldenleben, where all the varying movements are blended into a superbly proportioned musical structure by the principle of thematic recapitulation after development, and of strict unity of key relationship.

But the symphony is not Church music, however religious its spiritual content may be; and it is evident that we must seek the parallel of Church Music to the Cathedral in some other relation than that of similarity in outward form. We must find a similarity of purpose to guide us to the true relationship. The key to the beauty of a Cathedral is not in the analysis of its manifold beautiful ornament, nor of its constructive system of arches; but the observation of its perfect adaptation to its use. A Cathedral as a mere monument of carven stone is a dead thing. The proposal is sometimes made by enthusiastic radicals that the mediaeval cathedrals should be separated from the life of worship that inhabits them, and made into public museums. Their beauty would largely disappear, for death is never as beautiful as life. It is Ecclesiastical Architecture as part of a living thing, not merely as the cast-off shell of something dead, that bears an instructive relationship to sound Church Music. Processes of life developed the need and shaped the forms of the Cathedral; and to them we must now briefly turn.

Purpose is readily discernible in an honest building. I recently saw a new church building with a sloping floor, concentric half-circles of folding theatre chairs all facing a speaker's desk on a small platform, back of which rose the pipes of an organ above a group of choir seats facing the auditorium. This building was perfectly honest, and expressed its primary religious purpose, instruction and exhortation by a preacher. The choir seats betokened music as primarily undertaken for the benefit of the congregation.

It is plain that the primary purposes of the Cathedral are different, if you recall the appearance of a mediaeval interior, or look about you. The pulpit from which I speak is at one side, showing that preaching is but a subsidiary purpose among many others. The choir seats are in groups, and facing each other, showing that a division of the choir not based upon purely musical needs is planned for, and that the music is not considered as only for the enjoyment of the congregation. And in the very centre is the great Altar, with various levels of floor space and groups of steps leading up to it in such a way as makes it plain that the major purpose of the Cathedral is toward what that Altar symbolizes. What is done in a cathedral? What is its life? What has shaped it?

The main task of the Middle Ages which produced the Cathedral was the intellectual restatement of Christianity as received from the Fathers of the Christian Church. It involved a new emotionalization of Latin Christianity, the filling it full of human elements of love, fear, and pity. Men strove to make religious faith fill all life, and to join to itself every emotion of life. This unity and universality of religious relationship embraced art in all its forms. Art was not in mediaeval days a work only of specialists and a luxury of the rich. Art was a part of the life and of the religion of everybody. Whole populations built the cathedrals as a main enterprise of life. Every workman contributed his share to the beauty of the structure, and designed the ornaments which he made. Art was a universal outpouring of emotion in everything made and used; the expression of man's joy in his labour; the making beautiful of all the things to be used, from the least to the greatest. Now mediaeval men rightly deemed that their most useful possession was a certain heritage from the past, namely, the Christian Liturgy; and with an intensity of emotional outpouring which we can but faintly understand, they sought to beautify every circumstance of its performance. This built the Cathedrals, and determined their every detail. Here, in their mutual relations to the Christian Liturgy, we shall find the true parallelism between Church Music and Ecclesiastical Architecture. And here we shall find the particular species of religious music to which our discussion is this morning limited: Liturgical Music; the religious music which has for its purpose the musical clothing of the words of the Christian Liturgy.

The Liturgy, technically, consists of the words of the Church's appointed services, chosen chiefly from the Bible, and wondrously classified so as to show forth, in the time of one year, the life of Christ and the lives of his Saints. The words provided for two sets of services. First, the Mass, which meant personal contact with Christ himself; then the Daily Office, a continued round of praise and prayer, going on day and night, like the ceaseless praise of heaven. The manner of rendering these services was semi-dramatic. All present participated actively, in one way or another; Bishops, Priests, other Clergy, Choir-singers, and the Congregation. In the Mass, the Bishop or Priest visibly represented Christ. In Holy Week, the Passion of Christ was narrated by one person who took the part of the Evangelist, the Celebrant at the altar singing the words of Christ, another those of the characters quoted, and the Choir uttering the words of the crowd. At some of the offices, darkness grew in the great church as light after light was extinguished with each Psalm of the Passion. On Easter Even, the new Light of the Resurrection was visibly kindled, and burned in the Paschal Candle till the Day of the Ascension. The great Nave, the floor of which was the lowest level in the church, symbolized this world: and there the Litany was sung in procession, to picture our earthly life, and pray for all its needs. The Choir, at a higher level, and beyond the great Crucifix which at the Rood Screen symbolized death, represented the life of Paradise, and there the Choir sang the antiphonal offices of divine praise as by white-robed Saints and Angels. The Sanctuary, raised yet higher, portrayed Heaven itself, and there, in the central Mystery of the Mass, God was present upon his throne, the Altar. Day by day throughout the year went on this great semi-dramatic poem of worship, the people's own treasure and solace. All life centred in it and radiated around it; the life of the state, of the family, of the individual person. It was the supremely useful and important thing in life. In corroboration of this statement, let me cite the following words of our great American poetic critic, Edmund Clarence Stedman.

"For centuries all that was great in the art and poetry of Christendom grew out of that faith. What seems to me its most poetic, as well as most enduring, written product, is not, as you might suppose, the masterpiece of a single mind-the "Divina Commedia," for instance-but the outcome of centuries, the expression of many human souls, even of various peoples and races. Upon its literary and constructive side, I regard the venerable Liturgy of the historic Christian Church as one of the few world-poems, the poems universal. I care not which of its rituals you follow, the Oriental, the Alexandrian, the Latin, or the Anglican.

"I am not considering here this Liturgy as divine, though much of it is derived from what multitudes accept for revelation. I have in mind its human quality; the mystic tide of human hope, imagination, prayer, sorrow, and passionate expression, upon which it bears the worshipper along, and wherewith it has sustained men's souls with conceptions of deity and immortality, throughout hundreds, yes, thousands, of undoubting years. The Orient and Occident have enriched it with their finest and strongest utterances, have worked it over and over, have stricken from it what was against the consistency of its import and beauty. It has been a growth, an exhalation, an apocalyptic cloud arisen 'with the prayers of the saints' from climes of the Hebrew, the Greek, the Roman, the Goth, to spread in time over half the world. It is the voice of human brotherhood, the blended voice of rich and poor, old and young, the wise and simple, the statesman and the clown. This being its nature, and as the crowning masterpiece of faith, you find that in various and constructive beauty-as a work of poetic art-it is unparalleled. It is lyrical from first to last with perfect and melodious forms of human speech. Its chants and anthems, its songs of praise and hope and sorrow have allied to themselves impressive music from the originative and immemorial past, and the enthralling strains of its inheritors. Its prayers are not only for all sorts and conditions of men, but for every stress of life which mankind must feel in common-in the household or isolated, or in the tribal and national effort, and in calamity and repentance and thanksgiving. Its wisdom is for ever old and perpetually new; its calendar celebrates all seasons of the rolling year; its narrative is of the simplest, the most pathetic, the most rapturous, and most ennobling life the world has known. There is no malefactor so wretched, no just man so perfect, as not to find his hope, his consolation, his lesson, in this poem of poems. I have called it lyrical; it is dramatic in structure and effect; it is an epic of the age of faith; but in fact, as a piece of inclusive literature, it has no counterpart, and can have no successor."

And now we can definitely place the relationship between Ecclesiastical Architecture and Church Music. As Architecture, in the Cathedral, made complete, precise, and exquisitely adorned provision for all the actions of the Liturgy; so Church Music proper, provides for all of its words. The Cathedral structure, wonderful as it was, was kept subservient to the purposes of the Liturgy yearly enacted in it. At the moment that other motives, of human pride or pleasure, entered in, a decline of Church Architecture ensued; well symbolized by the double fall of the daring vainglorious Cathedral of Beauvais, planned more for the glory of man than of God. Sound Church Music, similarly must be kept wholly subordinate to the words which it beautifully and appropriately utters. The main object in the widespread effort at reform in this field of art is to restore such a right relation to the Liturgy, both in the music to be chosen for performance and in that yet to be composed. The growth of interest in liturgical worship now extends far beyond the limits of those churches properly designated as Catholic. Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, Congregationalists, and other Protestants now possess liturgical books based on the old and great traditions of ordered service; and among them all, it is fitting that the increase of liturgical music should keep pace with the advance of such ideals of worship. The first great body of consciously artistic Church Music grew with the Liturgy, and became the supreme model for liturgical music. It was complete by the end of the 6th century. We know it, rather vaguely, by the name of the great Pope who reformed Liturgy and music alike, St. Gregory the Great, who died in 604 A. D., leaving the Church possessed of some 3,4.00 musical settings of different portions of the Liturgy, every one of which was ideally wedded to the sacred words, with an artistic perfection which has never been surpassed and but rarely equalled in later ages. Among them were 150 Introits, no Gradual Responds, 100 Alleluia Responds, and 23 Tracts, for the Mass; besides the music of the Nicene Creed, Preface, Sanctus, and Lord's Prayer. For the other Offices, some 2000 Antiphons of 52 types of melody; 800 Responds of 20 melodic types; 50 Hymns and other compositions. With the single exception of the hymns, they were all based upon prose texts. Their rhythms were the rhythms of noble Latin speech; then recently emerged from its classic form, distinguished by quantity, or actual lengthening of prominent syllables, to its later form still preserved in the Roman Church, in which accent or stress takes the place of quantity. The ordered sequence of closing syllables in a prose sentence, known as the cursus, shaped the cadences of this antique song. It ranged from the simplicity of syllabic chants for the Psalms to the complexity of the wonderful extended melodies at the Gradual, which even today tax the singer as severely as do the elaborate solos of Sebastian Bach. Yet both were alike conformed to the one purpose of appropriately adorning the unrepeated words of the service. What were some of the excellencies of this first great artistic body of sacred music, which we should seek in our selection of what is sung in church, or imitate in our own efforts at composition? I will roughly indicate them as merits of Form, of Beauty, and of Holiness; and consider them in that order.


The Liturgy, as we have seen, is a work of art, the highest of all poems; and as such it possesses Form. A musical setting of any portion of it, to be good, must draw its form absolutely from the words set; as did all the Gregorian compositions. Otherwise the music becomes insincere and untrue for its purpose; it hinders, instead of helps, devotion. Thus, for example, words may not be repeated for the sake of musical effect, but only if the service itself calls for their repetition for devotional reasons, as in the Kyrie eleison. Here we shall find vast quantities of modern music utterly defective, because its composers have adopted the less artistic course of composing their musical phrases first, and then fitting in the text as well as possible. The tyranny of the four or eight bar phrase, now justly resented in secular music, has been fatal in sacred art. And we can wisely turn to the fascinating musical problem of exactly setting a liturgical form; of inventing a melos which truly utters the prose text undeformed. Most modern Church Music is imprisoned within the bars. Learn to cast aside the bar line, or to put it where your phrase requires. Let the text sing its own melodies in its own precise form. Very many compositions in our tongue have really drawn their forms from the feeling of the organist for his instrument; not that of the composer for the human voice, nor of the worshipper for the words of his prayer. We all ought to give our choirs practice in unaccompanied singing, even in unaccompanied melodic singing, to develop once more the sense of vocal music, of melodic rhythmic freedom. We need a new choral technique, derived from the human voice and the prose text. And such a fascinating simplicity of procedure means nevertheless a difficult and high artistic aim; for there is the possibility of perfect art in small and novel forms.

Another formal problem arises from the fact that great portions of the Liturgy are responsive between Priest and People, as representing Christ and the Church; the music of such portions must be truly antiphonal, like the words. And this is a problem for the director, not for the composer; for the ancient Responses cannot be surpassed. But the choirmaster must obtain in them a simple directness of speech which is absolutely plain and exquisitely beautiful. Nor must he ever allow the monstrosity of sung Responses when the priest is either unable or unwilling to sing his part.

And again, the divisions of the music must always correspond absolutely to the divisions of the text. This rule is shockingly disregarded in many modern musical settings of the Te Deum and of the Gloria in excelsis. In the Episcopal Church, the latter is most frequently sung to an "Old Chant" in four sections; yet the text is obviously in three perfectly clear divisions of sharply contrasted emotional character: joyful praise, penitent prayer, joyful praise. So with the Te Deum: it consists of a Hymn to the Trinity, v. 1-13; a less jubilant Hymn to Christ, v. 14-21; and four penitential Versicles with their Responses, v. 22-29. Yet musical composers, wholly disregarding this historical and devotional form, proceed to make a vast dynamic climax of the closing words, "let me never be confounded," as though "me" were the most important person in the universe, instead of one of the least. There is too much "me" in both art and religion.

Not only should we never introduce words from one liturgical unit into the music for another, as does Gounod repeatedly in the Messe Solennelle; but we should never alter the words from their due order at all. The service itself is the norm to which all musical forms must be shaped. And the music must not unduly prolong the service. Who has not suffered a devotional shipwreck on the arid reef of innumerable Hosannas after a Benedictus qui venit? We Anglicans may well look back to the admirable standard in most of these particulars set by John Merbecke in the first authorized Communion Service in English. And it should be a cause of rejoicing to everyone interested in the promotion of sound Church Music that this admirable model of good form is included in the New Hymnal of the Episcopal Church.


Just as Architecture beautifies and dignifies the actions of worship by a noble and appropriate setting, so Music is not only to express, but to beautify, the liturgical words. The music must be good music. There should be no place in worship for music that is vulgar or dull or sentimental or cheap or inartistic. That is not to say that the sincere efforts of many untaught persons to offer up to God the best musical worship they can, are to be condemned, however crude the results. But artistic beauty is a quality of production whose aim is the ultimate aim of perfection, that is, God. And in each stage of the development of musical worship, the beauty of perfection must be sought. Not the Anthem which we can sing very badly to our own glorification; but the simple Hymn or Chant which we can sing perfectly to the glory of God, will result in beauty. The needless musical ugliness we endure in church is appalling. Remember that excluding bad music, ugly music, is not to exclude simple music, in which all can join at times. Hymn singing in unison by the whole congregation, with the choir, may be one of the most beautiful and inspiring portions of our worship. So may simple congregational Responses; or under favourable circumstances, larger parts of the service. Anciently, the Kyrie eleison, the Credo, the Sanctus, the Agnus Dei, the Gloria in excelsis were sung by all the people; as well as the Psalms in various Offices. And it is undoubtedly true that great art "is comprehensible to every one," and that without some portions of our musical service in which all can join, it will lack one element of beauty. But we must always remember that bad music cannot be good Church Music. Beauty is a result of something well done, for a purpose beyond aesthetic pleasure; therefore beauty can only be attained by the choice of good music within the capacity of those who sing, whether Priest, Choir, or Congregation.

The lack of melodic beauty is the bane of present day composition in all fields. Music has developed with more and more complexity, more and more piling up of effects drawn from every source except pure melody. The true opportunity for advance, in Church Music, at least, is in the invention of comparatively simple, brief musical settings of great melodic beauty, and of extraordinary faithfulness to the ideal of worship: which brings us to our final consideration.


The kind of beauty which characterizes the Liturgy is the beauty of holiness. It is not only a beauty of literary form, but of spiritual content. Its every purpose is a holy purpose: the expression of holy emotions, the statement of holy truths, the awakening of holy desires, the inviting to holy acts. This kind of beauty must also characterize the music of the Liturgy. The music must pray, the prayer must sing. Music is not sacred merely because set to sacred words; it is so only when it corresponds absolutely to their spirit. Indeed we have notable instances wherein the essentially religious spirit of melodies originating with secular-which does not mean irreligious-words has brought them into the worthy service of the sanctuary. Hassler's song of suffering human love becomes that tenderest expression of divine sacrificial anguish, the Passion Chorale. Isaak's deeply felt song of parting from his native city, Innsbruck, becomes the solemner farewell to earthly life, "O world, I now must leave thee." Who has not felt the profound pathos and intense religious faith of this great melody in Brahms' great Chorale Prelude, composed while he was dying! Yes, the music must pray, the prayer must sing. And as the choirmaster's task must be the choice of music which is intrinsically religious, and not merely because associated with holy words, so the composer's task is to invent sacred music which could not imaginably be anything else. To do so, what must he study? Harmony, counterpoint, musical form only? No. If he were to become a ballet composer, he must study the wonderful art of emotional expression by the human body, so imperfectly expressed by the word Dancing. If he were to become an opera composer, he would have to study Drama, live in its atmosphere, absorb its methods and essence. And if he is to become a composer of worship music, he must not only study Prayer, learn of the great masters of prayer; but he must live a life of prayer: for his music must pray, and it cannot unless he does.

And this quality must not be merely a general feeling of solemnity: it must faithfully reflect the spiritual purpose of each liturgical unit. Thus the singing of the Nicene Creed is liturgically an act of religious faith by the whole body of Christian people. If its music, therefore, is like a little dramatic cantata, setting forth objectively the events of the life of Christ, the music no longer corresponds with the spiritual purpose of the Creed, and so loses its quality of sacredness. The music must pray the prayer of the text, and that only. It is in precisely such cases as this that the future Church composer must study and practically assimilate the principles of divine worship. There have been but three supreme schools of liturgical composition which could meet the necessary tests of great art with which we began. "The greatest and most enduring art has arisen when men have felt a need that some great thing should be clearly and repeatedly expressed in a manner comprehensible to every one."

Such art was the Gregorian Plainsong, which is just as musically valid today as it was in the Seventh Century; such art was the Classic Polyphony of the Sixteenth Century, embodied in the heavenly masterpieces of Palestrina, Vittoria, Lassus, and others; and such art is that of the present century in the Russian Church, where again the purest liturgical ideal has inspired a group of living composers to demonstrate in our own day that musical progress does not involve the loss or alteration of its strictest observance in these three necessary qualifications: precise faithfulness of form, lofty beauty, intense prayerfulness. Such a gem of service music as Rachmaninoff's noble "Songs of the Church" is an unsurpassed treasure and model for the musician who desires fittingly, beautifully, and devoutly, to compose music for some portion of the Christian Liturgy. But this he must not do by imitation of external forms. It is useless to attempt the idiom of another age or country; to write mock-Palestrina, or to copy Russian devices. Success in this field will only come when men set themselves to embody the liturgical ideal with music precisely suited to the English tongue, as did those great artists with the Latin and the Slavonic.

After so long a lapse, Cathedral building is again not only a religious desire, but a practical necessity and an actual achievement: and again musicians are turning toward a branch of their inspiring art which may correspond in similarity of purpose, in economy and directness of means, in splendour of beauty, with those noblest of the structures of man. Ecclesiastical Architecture and Church Music together will continue, as of old, to enshrine the greatest of man's earthly treasures, the divine poem outwardly expressing his inner worship of the Almighty and all-loving God.

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