The Temple, the Church Fathers and Early Western Chant, by James McKinnon

October 1, 1999

The TempleThe Temple, the Church Fathers and Early Western Chant, by James McKinnon. Brookfield, Vermont: Ashgate Publishing Company, 1998. xii + 300 pages. ISBN 0-86078-688-9.

The Temple, the Church Fathers and Early Western Chant is a collection of articles written by the renowned musicologist and liturgical historian James McKinnon from 1965-1996. Topics vary widely: the "invention" of music (Pythagoras or Jubal), the role of musical instruments in ancient worship and literature, the liturgical use of the psalms in Judaism and early Christianity, the emergence of chant genres, and even a superb analysis and critique of Antoine Chavasse's work on the dating of early chant.

I recall a few graduate school discussions of the variety of "shrines" that scholars tend to erect in the nooks and crannies of academia. McKinnon's book examines some such "shrines" erected prior to and during the mid-twentieth century, and—for this reader—it shattered some of these "shrines" (or, at least it caused me to genuflect less reverently before them). He challenges much of the conventional wisdom (still present in secondary sources such as music history and liturgical history texts) that is based on the work of—or on facile and incomplete readings of the work of—scholars like Werner, Idelssohn, Sachs, Dix, Duchesne, Wagner, Apel, Quasten and Chavasse. The following few examples of destroyed or damaged idols might entice you to explore in depth some of the insights in this fine book.

McKinnon's first four chapters deal with the treatment of Greek and Hebrew myths that have informed our attitudes about music, especially instrumental music, and tangentially about psalmody. Whether his question is what led to our Dionysian and rather pejorative concept of the aulos, or why instrumental music is denigrated by most patristic authors, McKinnon provides a thorough and close reading of sources and both a fresh approach and new insights into the question. Nor is McKinnon one to mince words, witness: "the psalmody of the early Synagogue is a myth fostered by a curious coalition of Anglican liturgists and Jewish musicologists" (p. 84).

The fifth and sixth chapters of this collection move his discussion of the role of instrumental music into the Middle Ages. In these, McKinnon seems reticent about using iconographic and literary evidence to justify some of the instrumentally accompanied "historical performance practice" renderings of the medieval sacred repertoire that are appearing more frequently in the CD bins of our music emporiums. His careful reading and classification of the sources, especially of the psalm commentaries in which the most important references occur, lead him to conclude that allegory alone is the intent of most commentators. One musicological shrine unable to withstand his scrutiny is the monk Wulfstan's supposed description of an enormous tenth-century organ (e.g., 400 pipes!) in the Old Minster of Winchester, something accepted as fact by Willi Apel and others. A careful examination of the literary genre and a working out of the technological problems involved in the existence of such an instrument indicate that it was a creation of monastic hyperbole, not of British organ-building technique.

Turning towards vocal music in his seventh chapter, McKinnon draws an important distinction between a cappella practice and a cappella doctrine, and he contends that medieval a cappella practice was based on factors other than the Neoplatonic (and patristic) position that instruments were coarse, unspiritual and unsuited for worship. He sees the Cecilians and others as discoverers of an ideology that could be used as a weapon against some of the excesses of sacred music employing a combined instrumental and vocal texture, excesses that had begun in the Baroque period. He believes that such an ideology "would have puzzled our medieval and ancient ancestors" (p. 241).

Having turned to numerous conceptual "shrines" about chant and text, McKinnon spends the second half of this anthology scrutinizing these idols. A reading of primary sources concerning both Temple and synagogue practice leads him, in his eighth chapter, to challenge the facile—and all-too-often-repeated—conventional wisdom that Christian psalmody grew out of synagogue practice, arguing instead that there was more of a parallel development. In his ninth, eleventh, thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth chapters/articles McKinnon examines psalmody, especially the fourth-century psalmodic explosion—a phenomenon that begins with the liturgical use of a psalm declaimed or chanted as a reading, a phenomenon that is informed by the monastic emphasis on praying the psalms, and a phenomenon that ends with the "properization" and "musicalization" of psalm texts, especially in the Gradual of the mass. As a psalm or psalm excerpt became a more elaborate chant, the psalm was regarded less and less a part of the scripture of the day, and more and more a response to the really significant readings, the Epistle and Gospel.

This discussion of psalmody leads, in the tenth chapter (a review of Martimort's Les Lectures liturgiques et leurs livres), to a discussion of the whole "Liturgy of the Word" (McKinnon prefers to use the term "Fore-Mass"). Here he becomes the defender of Martimort's shrine against an attack by Philippe Bernard who shares Baumstark's and Duchesne's position that the ancient practice was a five-part word service (close to post-Vatican II practice). McKinnon agrees with Martimort that there is not enough evidence to support this, and he praises Martimort because "he sets an example of providing evidence in place of repeating pre-conceived ideas and dogmatic formulations" (225). In the twelfth chapter McKinnon focuses on one Fore-Mass element, the "Alleluia." His conclusion is that "the patristic jubilus most certainly had nothing to do with the history of the Mass Alleluia, and that when Gregory spoke of singing 'alleluia' at Mass he was probably referring not to the item of the Mass Proper we know from the later sources, but rather to the adding of 'alleluia' to the psalmody of the Mass" (p. 249).

Upon reaching the final shrine, that of Antoine Chavasse, McKinnon puts himself to the task of reviewing Chavasse's early and late oeuvre, and he does a very respectful job of cleaning up this shrine. During his long scholarly career Chavasse revised his conclusions and insights, most often without specifically disavowing or even citing an earlier conclusion, so McKinnon's comparisons between early and late Chavasse are very helpful. This article provides us with some important caveats when we encounter secondary works (e.g., the English edition of Vogel's Medieval Liturgy) that are based on Chavasse's early work without taking into account revisions in his thought, especially his position concerning the process of dating liturgical books.

There are a few problems with this volume. As part of Ashgate's Variorum Collected Studies Series, this book follows both the pagination (e.g., I: 1-25 followed by II: 203-214) and the typesetting of the original sources, giving it a somewhat uneven look. Its index is far from comprehensive: one finds proper names, the types of liturgical books, important Hebrew terms and sources, some source titles, some unique chant titles (such as "Phos hilarion" or "Cherubikon"), and some conceptual terms, but much is missing. For example, one finds Apel and Quasten, but not Vogel (despite a number of references in text and footnotes); there is an index neither of psalms, nor of feasts, nor of chant genres, nor of chants cited. A final problem might be the price: at $89.95 one would hope for a better index!

Despite these problems, a serious student of either liturgical history or the early chant tradition will find this collection to be very valuable. It would be an especially useful acquisition for university and seminary libraries that do not subscribe to the individual journals in which these articles originally appeared.

2968 Last modified on October 17, 2018