Last week a couple of blogs compiled the 10 worst hymns of all-time and the 10 best hymns of all-time. Not surprisingly, the lists set off a flurry of comments, as everyone has an opinion as to what music should be played during Mass. I have my own favorite (and not-so-favorite) hymns and I admit that my tastes are eclectic. But some of my favorite liturgical music is found in the Eastern Divine Liturgy: the words are theologically rich and the tunes lift one up to God. One thing interesting about Eastern liturgical music is that it doesn’t use instruments; only the human voice is used.
Archpriest David M. Petras has an interesting article on music in the Divine Liturgy over at SperoNews and it is well worth the read:
From the beginning, music has been an aspect of our worship of God. This was true of the Jews and passed into Christianity. Even pagans worshiped in song. St. Paul writes, “Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another (in) psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and playing to the Lord in your hearts” (Eph 5:18-19). St. Paul therefore tells us that singing is a gift of the Holy Spirit.
The same Holy Spirit is “present everywhere and fills all things.” It is through the Spirit that the Divine Liturgy becomes a “sacrifice of praise,” identified with the one true sacrifice of Our Lord, and it is through the same Holy Spirit that we sing hymns Even before Christ, in the Jewish era, Philo identified spiritual sacrifice with hymns, though he is also very cautious about the adequacy of audible sounds to contain the divine reality.
Only the human voice
For the Christians, the hymns had to have words. Liturgical hymns are not just hummed, they are absolutely not only a matter of melody, notes and meter. They are not just beautiful sounds, but they convey a truth and a concept. This is perhaps why the church early on accepted only the human voice in song and forbade musical instruments. Eusebius of Caesaria was to write, “more sweetly pleasing to God than any musical instrument would be the symphony of the people of God, by which, in every church of God, with kindred spirit and single disposition, with one mind and unanimity of faith and piety, we raise melody in unison in our psalmody” (“On Psalm 91, 4″). The Eastern Church accepted this principle as its tradition. The rejection of instruments, however, was not universal, for the Western Church later allowed their use in the church.