Lessons in the History of Music – Religious, Social and Political Conditions

By W. J. Baltzell

In the study of the history of music regard must be had to the religious, social, and political conditions of the time. Among the Greeks, a people quick in intellectual processes, ardent in devotion to the fine arts, and with a highly developed esthetic sense and a keen appreciation of pure beauty, music would shape in accordance with the national character.

Politically there was no such thing as union; the various states or cities were animated by a strongly jealous spirit, and the ascendancy, politically and otherwise, rested now in one city, now in another.

Musical culture during the first two periods of the five into which we may divide Greek music, seemed to be greatest in Sparta, where it had a marked war-like quality, following the stern character of the people of that state. Later Athens began to dispute the supremacy of Thebes, as a city of the first rank, and wrested the crown from the latter.

The periods of Athenian pre-eminence witnessed the great expansion of every element of Greek life. As poetry and drama were cultivated here with greater assiduity, music went hand in hand, although on lines different from what we should think. It ever remained subordinate to the word.

In the Greek social life music played a great part, and wherever the Greeks went as merchants or colonists they carried with them the principles of Greek art, including music. Greek musicians shone as stars in the musical firmament of Egypt, in the Greek colonies of Italy, and later in Rome, which, after the fall of Greece as a political factor, became the center of the world, political, social, and artistic.

It must not be forgotten that the Roman character was much different from the Greek. The national qualities partook most largely of the warlike, and were developed in times of great stress, of unceasing struggle for national existence. Thus was shaped one of the most marked characteristics of the Roman, a splendid power of organization and cohesion, which was to leaven the world in the course of centuries of conquest and world-wide dominion. It is plain that a people whose organized life was political and centered in the state would not develop a true art-life. While they loved the arts, it was, as a French historian says, “rather as dilettants than as artists.” At first they borrowed their art from their Etruscan neighbors, because they themselves were poor; later they bought from the Greeks, because they felt themselves rich.

As is generally the case, it is in connection with religious ceremonies that we first find traces of music and musical instruments. The priests made their sacrifices and auguries to the sound of the flute and the double flute. These same instruments were used to accompany lamentations for the dead and to sustain the singer’s voice when he chanted songs in praise of the gods and heroes.

The Romans seemed to have borrowed the trumpet from the Lydians, which later became accepted as a characteristic Roman instrument. It was the war-instrument, as the flute was the favored one for religious and social observances.

According to its size and shape it was called Lituus, Buccina, Tube or Cornu. The great trumpets were of two kinds, straight and curved, the latter wide at the bell (representing in some cases the mouth of a dragon), heavy, and borne upon the shoulder. These were used especially in the great triumphal processions. In referring to the musical instruments bearing upon music among the Romans we must not omit the Hydraulis, or water-organ, which was developed by them, and formed the basis from which was evolved our present-day church organ.

In the second period of Roman history, when the city had become a world power, after the fall of Greece, many of the art treasures of the cities of that country were brought to Rome. At the same time, in various ways, in some cases as slaves, artists of all kinds became resident in the capital. The nobles began to imitate Greek customs, to learn the Greek language and literature, to cultivate music according to Greek methods, to use Greek instruments such as the cithara and lyre, to sing Greek songs, and to form companies of singers and players who should furnish entertainment at their feasts and at the public spectacles. The Roman drama was modified by Greek principles, and Greek actors for a time replaced the Roman artists. Still later they borrowed from Egypt the pantomime, with its accompaniment by a numerous body of players.

Music was a favorite distraction in the high ranks of Roman society, and many men known to history were skilful players or fine singers, among whom may be mentioned Sylla, Flaccus, Calpurnius Piso, Titus, Caligula, Hadrian, and, best known of all, Nero.

Writers on the subject of music, among the Romans, are not very numerous or important, as compared with the Greeks. We mention two, Saint Augustine (354-430) and Boethius, the philosopher, (470-525). The former rather philosophized about music than wrote a treatise on the science and art. Boethius, mingling the philosophy of Plato with the Pythagorian theory, composed a true treatise in music in which he attempted to give a consistent explanation of the musical art as then understood. The middle ages adopted his works, and it was not until the great revival of musical study in the sixteenth century that his views were entirely overthrown.

But while the Roman Empire was moving on to its fate, the nobles serenely indifferent to the luxuries and vices that were sapping its forces, and while at the banquets, the feasts, the public spectacles, the songs, dances and instruments of every country contributed to the entertainment of the beholders, music being degraded to the duty of ministering to sensual pleasures only, in secret a power was shaping that should drive all pagan arts and pleasures from open cultivation.

In the catacombs, in remote places of the city, pursued, hunted, martyrized, the Christians nevertheless clung to their faith with its simple rites of worship, in which the singing of songs of praise was a marked feature. Whence these songs came is by no means certain, the general opinion being that they were of Greek origin, modified, in many cases, by Hebrew customs. It has been stated that some of the melodies used by the early Christians were used in the Temple services at Jerusalem, and further that a melody still heard, Tonus Peregrinus, is based on an old Hebrew Temple chant. It was natural that the Christians should esteem their songs, to sing which was forbidden by the Roman laws, and thus in the course of years many songs were introduced in the service which had no warrant other than tradition.

During the years of the persecution no systematic cultivation of music was possible. But later, when Constantine accepted the cross, after Christianity had definitely and forever triumphed over paganism, the abuses became such that the ecclesiastical authorities set themselves to the task of reform and of establishing a system of song for the use of the church services which should be appropriate to their religious and artistic ideal.

Two men are generally mentioned as the controlling forces in this movement, although they lived about two centuries apart. The first is St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, 340-397 A.D., from whose name is derived the term Ambrosian modes. Just what principles guided the church fathers in their selection is not thoroughly clear. Undoubtedly they based their work on such knowledge of the Greek system as they could obtain, which can hardly have been very extensive. At the time, too, it was not possible to put the melodies on paper, since there was no recognized system of music notation. Yet from the results it seems certain that the authorities attempted to restore the Greek scales. In this it is plain, from the researches of modern scholarship, that they went astray.

The church scales were founded on the Greater Perfect System of the Greeks, with the restrictions that it was not transposable, whereas , the various Greek modes were transpositions of either the Lesser or Greater Systems. The series of sounds adopted by the church included the notes from G, first line bass clef, to A, second space treble clef, no note being altered by sharp or flat except B, first space above the bass staff, B-flat being admitted.

The Greek names were retained; yet since no notes were changed, it followed that the position of the half tones differed with each mode. The scales to which these names were given were called Authentic, and the decree which established them is credited to Saint Ambrose.

Another series was formed from these mode by commencing a fourth lower, and to these was given the Greek name with the prefix Hypo. To distinguish them from the Authentic modes they were called Plagal. With the innovation the name of Pope Gregory the Great (542-604) is associated.


A melody in an Authentic scale had to end on its keynote, but a melody in a Plagal scale was required to end on the keynote of its related Authentic scale. This was important, for the Dorian and Hypomixolydian are identical so far as the notes are concerned, yet a melody in the former had to end on D, its keynote, while one in the latter must end on G, which is the 4th on its scale, but the keynote of the related Authentic scale.

Two examples of familiar tunes may serve to make this clearer. The melody to “Last Rose of Summer” ends on the keynote. It is Authentic. “Robin Adair” commences on the fifth of the scale, the fourth below the keynote, but ends on the keynote. This is a Plagal melody.

In addition to the keynote another note was of great importance, called the Dominant, a term retained in music today, but with a different meaning. In the Church scales it meant the Reciting note, that is, the note on which the principal part of the words was chanted. In all the Authentic scales, except the Phrygina, the fifth of the scale is the Dominant. In the latter the sixth is the Dominant because the B was a changeable note.

The Dominants of the Plagal scales are a third below the Dominants of the related Authentic scales, except in Hypomixolydian, in which the Dominant is a second below that of the related Authentic scale. Therefore the Dominant is the sixth of all the Plagal scales except the Hypophrygian and Hypomixoldydian, in which it is the seventh.