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The Liturgical Music Quiz

By Bill Dodds
Trace the fascinating history of the development of music in the Church.


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Whether or not we like the music at our local parish, there is no question that music plays a central role in the liturgy—no less than in the long history of the Church’s worship. Quiz yourself on the Church’s music, which Vatican II calls “a treasure of immeasurable value, greater even than that of any other art.”

It’s tempting to think we’re the first Catholics to face startling changes in liturgical music, but we aren’t. The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) altered what had become the norm since the Council of Trent (1545-1563), but the Church’s tradition in music stretches back much further than the 16th century. How much do you know about that tradition? It might be more than you realize. Start with no.1, and then just follow the directions.

1. Christian music finds its roots in Judaism. The Old Testament talks of three kinds of ancient instruments. One, the shofar, is still used in synagogues today. What is a shofar made of?

a) Clay. (Go to 27.)

b) A ram’s horn. (Head for 40.)

2. Scripture scholars say “Levites” is a broader term than “priest.” Some Levites were what we would call sacristans, some collected tithes, some sang. Now move to 17.

3. The last century of the Middle Ages—the 15th—is notable for the development of what kind of music at Mass?

a) Organ. (Go to 11.)

b) Orchestral. (Move to 41.)

4. No. Return to 12.

5. In addition to horns and flutes, the Israelites used a third type of instrument. It’s one we often associate with David. What is it?

a) Lyre. (Go to 35.)

b) Harp. (Move to 37.)

6. Over time, after the building of the Temple, smaller houses of worship—synagogues—were established, and particular prayers were said and sung at particular times of the day. Early Christians followed the same practice. Today we Catholics call this set of prayers what?

a) Vespers. (Head for 16.)

b) Liturgy of the Hours. (Go to 26.)

7. A spinet in the Sinai? No. Return to 34.

8. In the latter part of the 14th century, religious musical composition was dominated by an organist from Florence. Francesco Landini might be called a “medieval Ray Charles” because:

a) He was blind. (Head for 15.)

b) He wrote the first jazz Mass. (Go to 33.)

9. During the Middle Ages, the chief form of liturgical music was “monody”—a single, unaccompanied melodic line. It’s more popularly known as what?

a) Gregorian chant. (Head for 14.)

b) Plainsong. (Go to 32.)

10. Yes, the Psalter—the book of Psalms—is a collection of lyrics. It was the basis for a musical liturgy that was performed by large choirs and huge orchestras of harps and lyres. Now head for 31.

11. Yes, and it remained a liturgical favorite for centuries. Now head for 43.

12. It could be argued that, despite the fact there were schools where chant was taught and cathedrals and monasteries were known for their choirs, religious music didn’t really begin to flourish until Guido d’Arezzo (c. 990-c. 1050) devised what?

a) The pipe organ. (Go to 4.)

b) A way to write music. (Move to 21.)

13. Yes. Musical instruments were associated with pagan rites. The Old Testament descriptions of temple worship with instruments were interpreted as allegorical—merely symbolic rather than, for example, actual cymbals! Now head for 24.

14. Both answers are correct. Gregorian chant is named for Pope St. Gregory the Great (c. 540-604) who, it appears, compiled and arranged songs using this style. (Now move to 12.)

15. Yes! Landini amazed people with the speed and delicacy of his playing and received honors normally reserved for poets and emperors. Now move to your final question, 3.

16. No. Vespers, an evening prayer, is part of the Liturgy of the Hours. Return to 6.

17. What was being sung in the Temple?

a) Psalms. (Go to 10.)

b) The Song of Songs. (Move to 39.)

18. Sorry. Return to 24.

19. No, the Pharisees weren’t one of the 12 tribes. They were members of a sect first mentioned about a century before Christ. Return to 30.

20. No. Return to 31.

21. Until then, choir members had to learn every tune by hearing it sung and then memorize it themselves. Guido, a Benedictine monk and choir director, noticed one hymn used during the hours followed a progression of notes that were easy to remember. In Latin the song read, “ut queant laxis/resonare fibris/mira gestorum/famuli tuorum:/solve polluti/labii reatus ...” Most of the first syllables are familiar to us. Do replaced ut but we still use re, mi, fa sol, and la. Later ti was added and a higher do, creating an octave, but Guido’s scale used only six notes. He also figured out how to chart a song on a four-line staff. After Guido, religious music—all music—no longer relied on an oral tradition, it could be written down. Now head for 36.

22. Yes, religious leaders sometimes used a small band—harp, drum, tambourine, flute, and lyre—as part of their ceremonies. 1 Samuel 10:5-6 suggests music helped them enter a “prophetic state.” Now go to 30.

23. That’s correct. A verse can be divided in two, with each half showing a version of one poetic image. (“The heavens declare the glory of God/and the firmament proclaims his handi-work” [Psalm 19:2].)  The melodic formula calls for the first half verse to be sung by part of a choir (or congregation) using a single tone with some flourishes, and then it is answered in the same way by the other half of the choir singing the second half of the verse. Now go to 6.

24. The leaders in the Church in those early centuries were also concerned about what when it came to singing?

a) A congregation’s inability to carry a tune. (Move to 18.)

b) The danger of pride and showmanship. (Head for 29.)

25. Oh, no. He didn’t like the beat and said people couldn’t pray to it. Return to 36.

26. Yes, the Liturgy of the Hours (or Divine Office or breviary, as it used to be known) goes back to the Jewish custom of stopping throughout the day to pray. Today, Catholic congregations use the same melodic formula to sing the Psalms in a two-part, responsorial way. Now move on to 38.

27. No, some wind instruments—like flutes or pipes—were made of cane, bone, or clay. Return to 1.

28. Any time there are changes, some people like them, and some don’t. Pope John said Catholics should stick with ancient music. Now go to 8.

29. That’s right. There was concern that a talented soloist—a cantor or deacon—might come to enjoy being the “star” of a liturgical celebration, taking center stage and overshadowing what was truly important. Now go to 9.

30. After the Temple was completed, worship services became more unified, and there was a professional school for Temple musicians. They were members of the tribe often associated with the Temple priesthood. Who were they?

a) Levites. (Head for 2.)

b) Pharisees. (Go to 19.)

31. The structure of the Psalms lends itself to what form of singing?

a) Harmony. (Move to 20.)

b) Chant. (Head for 23.)

32. Both answers are correct. Gregorian chant is named for Pope St. Gregory the Great (c. 540-604) who, it appears, compiled and arranged songs using this style. (Now move to 12.)

33. Jazz is a 20th century development with African-American roots. (If you want to hear a jazz Mass, check out the one written by Mary Lou Williams.) Return to 8.

34. Even before the building of the Temple of Solomon (10 centuries before Christ), local prophets made use of:

a) Small pianos. (Move to 7.)

b) Bands. (Head for 22.)

35. Let’s count either answer as correct. The lyre and the harp are “cousins,” both stringed instruments. They’re frequently mentioned in the Old Testament, often played by Temple musicians. Now head for 34.

36. In the mid-13th century, Franco of Cologne assigned a definite time value to notes and Petrus de Cruce introduced more innovations that made it easier to see the differences among smaller notes. In 1322 Pope John XXII issued “Docta sanctorum” which:

a) Condemned many of the recent innovations in music. (Move to 25.)

b) Praised the changes that were being made. (Head for 28.)

37. Let’s count either answer as correct. The lyre and the harp are “cousins,” both stringed instruments. They’re frequently mentioned in the Old Testament, often played by Temple musicians. Now head for 34.

38. The early Christian community continued the musical practices of the Jewish synagogues but the Church Fathers called a halt to what?

a) Musical instruments. (Go to 13.)

b) Any songs not in Latin. (Move to 42.)

39. No. This Old Testament book is a poem written some time after the Babylonian Exile (538 B.C.). The theme is the mutual love between God and his people. Return to 17.

40. That’s right. The curved horn of a ram, symbolic of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22:13), was used as a bugle. The Hebrews blew shofars as Jericho’s walls came tumbling down (Joshua 6:4, 5, 20). Now move on to 5.

41. No, that would come later, and, just as the Fathers of the Church had feared, some of the extravagant music seemed to make the priest and the celebration of the Eucharist … second fiddle. Return to 3.

42. No. Return to 38.

43. The bishops at the Council of Trent were concerned about new music and new styles. A rule banned any melody considered seductive or impure, any text thought to be vain or worldly, and all “outcries” and “uproars.” It demanded that lyrics had to be clearly understandable.

Who could argue with that?

In our own century, the bishops at Vatican II were more open to encouraging various musical forms and styles but, they reminded us, “the musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of immeasurable value, greater even than that of any other art.”

Ancient or modern, plain or symphonic, its purpose has remained the same. Liturgical music exists to help us pray.

Copyright © 2000 Bill Dodds




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