THE SINGING CHURCH - an outline history of the music sung by choir and people. By C. Henry Phillips B.A., D.Mus., A.C.D.C.M. sometime Lecturer and Sub-Warden of the College of St. Nicholas, Chislehurst. First published in Mcmxlv by Faber and Faber Limited 24 Russell Square London W.C.1. - This edition prepared for katapi by Paul Ingram 2004.


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We can infer that of the people who met in a 'house' on the first Day of Pentecost after the resurrection the greater number were Jews who still attended their synagogues on the Sabbath. As Christians they had almost certainly met before and by written or spoken notice had been convened for this occasion. At subsequent meetings someone with an ordered mind and a kink for organising would seek to propose and carry out an agenda. He would, no doubt, model his agenda on the plan of the familiar synagogue service, but one type of meeting would obviously be a repetition of the incidents at the last supper when Jesus had shown them what they must do. They would break bread in the manner some of them had witnessed and say the words their master had used, trying to mean by them what he had meant. The mass as a service had been born. The meeting would probably start and finish with singing - it had ended with 'an hymn' on the night before the previous Good Friday - and before the breaking of the bread one of the apostles or leaders would doubtless say some form of preparation. The prayers would at first be extempore but would soon tend to follow certain lines. No formal prayers are known, however, until about the year 200.



In 150 Justin Martyr tells us that the service consisted of a form of preparation based on the synagogue service and made up of:

(a) The reading of the scriptures, (b) A sermon, (c) Some prayers, the second and essential part of the service proceeding as follows: (d) The oblation or offertory of the bread, wine and water, (e) A long prayer of praise, (f) Some responses, i.e., prayers with Amens, (g) The administration.

It was not, however, until fifty years later that Hippolytus of Rome gives a set form of the prayers for the central part of the service - (e) (f) and (g) above. This he gives thus: (a) Sursum Corda, as today, (b) A thanksgiving for the incarnation, (c) The narrative of the institution at the last supper, (d) The memorial oblation - 'we offer these gifts in memory of the death and passion ...' (e) The invocation of the Holy Spirit, (f) Some intercessions, (g) A doxology.

We see here the clear two-fold form of the service: a first part, meditative and preparatory and the second essential, consisting, so far as the spoken words went, of a long, formal prayer during which the words of institution were said.



This general formula has not been radically changed though many systems flourished in various parts of Europe with minor differences. The so-called Gallican Use (North Italy, Milan, Gaul, Spain in early times, Britain, Ireland) and the later Spanish or Mozarabic use were ultimately supplanted by the Roman Use. The Eastern or Orthodox Use ceased to influence the Western Uses after the Great Schism of 1050 and so the Roman Use was supreme in the west. It has remained virtually the same since the fifth century and Augustine brought this type of service to England. In England the Use of the see of Salisbury, called Sarum, tended to oust other local Uses until it became practically universal; it differed only in detail from the Roman imported Use. We can therefore study the form of the Sarum mass as an example of the sort of service that was sung by musicians in England before the Reformation. top

Salisbury Cathedral - choirTHE SARUM MASS

(Details of the music featured in the Sarum Mass can be viewed HERE.)

The Sarum mass, then, went as follows:

(a) The Preparation, said by the celebrant in the vestry. It consisted of:

  1. Veni Creator. Veni Creator - Coral VĂ©rtice, Lisbon (mp3)
  2. A collect.
  3. Psalm 43.
  4. A litany for purity of intention.
  5. Pater Noster.

This section was the private concern of the celebrant.

(b) The Introit, Windows Media Player (asx) sung by the choir as the celebrant proceeded to the altar. During the singing the celebrant and his deacons said the mutual confession and absolution, still used in many churches today, and performed the preliminary censing of the altar.

(c) Kyrie Eleison, Windows Media Player (asx) sung by the choir antiphonally. (d) Gloria in excelsis,  sung by the choir and people. (e) The Mutual Salutation (V. The Lord be with you. R. And with thy spirit.) and the collect for the day. Today the collect for the reigning sovereign is inserted here. (f) The Epistle. (g) The Gradual Windows Media Player (asx), followed by the Alleluia Windows Media Player (asx) and Sequence, or in penitential seasons by the Tract. The choir sang these. (h) The Gospel. (i)  The Offertory Windows Media Player (asx), sung by the choir during the offertory of bread, wine, water and alms. This is the end of the first section of the service. The next part, often called the Anaphora, proceeded thus: (j)  Sursum Corda and Preface, leading to (k) Sanctus, Windows Media Player (asx) sung by the choir. (l)  The Canon, a long prayer consisting of:

  1. Intercession.
  2. The Consecration, including the words of institution.
  3. The Oblation or offering of the alms, the consecrated elements and of 'ourselves, our souls and bodies.'
  4. Pater Noster, said by all together.

(m)  Agnus Dei, Windows Media Player (asx) sung by the choir. (n) The Commixture and the giving of the Pax. (o) Prayers at the Reception. (p) The Communio Anthem, sung by the choir. (q) The Post-Communio. (r) The Dismissal (V. Ite missa est. R. Benedicamus Domino.) Windows Media Player (asx) (s) Closing Prayers and the Last Gospel said on the way back to the vestry.

The musical requirements of this scheme will be noticed later; in passing we may notice the differences between the outline given and the form of service in our modern prayer book. They consist chiefly of: (a) The excision of certain parts, as, for example, the Introit, Gradual, Communio, etc. (b) The transplanting of Gloria in excelsis from the first, preparatory part of the service to the end of the second part: this was not done until the issue of the 1552 Prayer Book. (c) The splitting up and redistribution of the Canon, which was one long formal prayer, so that:

  1. The Intercession becomes tacked on to the Offertory as the Prayer for the Church Militant, a sort of litany without responses.
  2. The Oblation is placed partly ('Who made there by his one oblation . . .') before the words of institution, and partly ('Here we present ourselves, our souls and bodies . . .') in a collect said after the communion.
  3. The Pater Noster is also placed after the communion. By this redistribution of the Canon the modern prayer book seeks to emphasise the communion aspect of the service rather than the consecration of the elements, which is looked upon almost as incidental to the essential function of the service - that of a common meal.



During the fourth century, a new fashion spread through Christendom, that of the monastic ideal of life. It is evident that in such a way of life frequent prayer and meditation were the objects for which it was undertaken. The monastic system thus sought to bring the monks or nuns together at certain times each day for prayer and arranged for the orderly reading of the bible and psalter. Vigils or night watches had already been kept, first as a piece of symbolism on the night before Easter, later on Saturday evenings and ultimately every day. Meanwhile this night watch was shortened into three 'hours' - or periods - of prayer, Vespers at the lighting of the lamps, Nocturns at cock-crow, followed at day-break by Lauds. Unlike the other services, Nocturns, known later as Mattins, ended with a simple versicle without a collect; it was in practice followed immediately by Lauds so that the two were fused into one service. Vespers and Nocturns with Lauds were known as the Cursus Nocturnus and were balanced by the Cursus Diurnus, three day 'hours'; they were Terce at the third hour after sunrise, Sext and Nones at the sixth and ninth. To meet the requirements of the monastic programme two further 'hours' arose, Prime, a preliminary to the morning chapter meeting, and Compline, held immediately before retiring.



Sarum Antiphoner.

Sarum Antiphoner. Church of St Helen, Ranworth, Norfolk.


At Nocturns alone three lessons (readings) from the bible formed the major portion of the service. Only a Capitulum or Little Chapter (a very short reading, perhaps only a sentence or two) was read at the day hours. At Nocturns psalms 1 to 110 were sung through 'in course', about five psalms at each sitting, and at Vespers the remaining psalms were similarly sung. Fixed psalms, as, for example, three portions of psalm 119 at the three day hours, were sung at all the other services. As an example of an hour, here is the scheme for Compline of the Sarum Use: (a) Private Prayers and Introduction. (b) Four fixed psalms with variable antiphons, according to the season. (c) The Capitulum, fixed. (d) A Respond, fixed except during Lent. (e) A hymn, variable, with a fixed versicle. (f) Nunc dimittis with variable antiphon. (g) Suffrages and a fixed collect.



These hours from which we derive our modern matins and evensong have no central act like the mass. There are no ceremonies except sitting, kneeling and standing, no sense of drama, something being 'done'. Instead, behind them was the monastic idea of turning the mind at fixed intervals to spiritual matters by means of reading the bible and psalter and reciting set prayers. They are, in fact, purely meditative services.