Music as Liturgy: Models from Ancient Syriac Christianity
During the era of late antiquity (4th-7th centuries AD), as part of the early Byzantine Empire yet with distinctive articulation, Christians in Syria fashioned a liturgical tradition performed through a brilliant array of sung poetry, crafted by the likes of St. Ephrem the Syrian (d. 373) and St. Jacob of Sarug (d. 521). While the music of these early liturgists does not survive, their poetry continues to inflect our liturgies to the present day. And their poetry remains important, further, for their reflections on liturgy as song.
Each component of liturgical song received the attention of these poets: choirs male and female, congregational responses and refrains, the interweaving of scriptural lections with alleluias and hymns, the sung dialogues between deacons and congregation, the singing of sermons, invocations, prayers, and eucharist all as musical exchange.
Ephrem and Jacob both extol the power of the church at song – not only in the church building, but also in the context of the larger civic community. In their view, sacred song was the medium and method for enacting faith. The liturgical singing of the faithful (of every rank, gender, and class), performed indelible work at every level of life: in the church, in the world, and perhaps most importantly, in one’s own self.
Why was singing the perfect expression of worship? What did it mean to sing, to offer words sounded in melodies? What did the sound (music, song) of liturgy accomplish? How? Ancient Syriac liturgical poetry offers us rich models for our own consideration of why, how, and in what forms music provides the essential medium for worship, throughout Christian history and still, in our own parishes.
Liturgy as Music
In this paper I will analyse the proposition that Liturgy might be Music. This involves discussing exactly what Liturgy and Music might be in themselves, and whether there is any sense in which they overlap.
This is not merely a theoretical question, but an exploration of ways in which we might understand both terms and enrich our experience of both.
Liturgy, Music, and the Cathedra
Exploring the form and function of liturgy and music from the perspective of a hierarch.