One of the richest contributions to church music in America has undoubtedly come from the heritage of the African-Americans who came to America as slaves. Their hymns and spirituals, which are sung today across the world, give evidence of both the extreme hardships and the fervent faith that was a part of their experience in America.
The preceding article traced the outlines of the revivalist music tradition in both Europe and America. The following article looks more closely at the church music in the period of American colonization and revolution. Church music during this period was based on European models, especially the Psalm singing of the Calvinists. Later, the rise of singing schools and the presence of groups such as the Moravians and Shakers produced church music that was distinctively American.
Music in early Christian worship consisted of melody only. Toward the end of the Middle Ages, more complex music, featuring the simultaneous singing of more than one melodic line, was composed for use in worship. For several centuries, this complex—or polyphonic—music was composed by many of Europe’s most famous and skilled composers.
Missionaries from Europe and North America brought to Africa many Western forms of music and worship. In the last several years, especially after Vatican II, Africans have developed more indigenous approaches to music in worship. The fascinating diversity of current musical practices is documented in this survey of independent African churches.
Millions of Christians who live in Egypt and Ethiopia have inherited a rich tradition of worship practices. Each of these churches maintains a variety of ancient worship customs, including the use of music. In Egypt, the congregation participates in the music of worship. The most striking feature of Ethiopian worship is the contribution of the priests, who spend up to several decades mastering the music, poetry, and dance that are used in worship.
While small segments of the Russian Orthodox Church have continued to use only traditional Byzantine chants in their worship, the larger portions of the church have allowed music that is a hybrid between traditional liturgical chants and the popular art music of a given historical period. This music has remained distinctively liturgical and Russian but has led many to lament the loss of traditional forms.
Almost the entire Orthodox liturgy is sung, most often to centuries-old melodic formulas. In addition to chanted liturgical texts, hymns play an important role in Greek Orthodox worship. Over 60,000 hymns, following one of a variety of prescribed patterns, have been written for use in these churches. Though local customs may influence the way in which this music is chanted, most singing follows traditional practice.
Christians in North America are often unaware of one of the largest and most devoted segments of the Christian church, the Orthodox churches. During the first few centuries A.D., the church remained largely unified. But eventually, a variety of doctrinal and political disputes led to the separation of the church into roughly two main divisions, East and West.