Timelessness in Sacred Music

This article was originally published in French by Ici Beyrouth on December 10, 2022. The original can be found here.

By Dr. Amine Jules Iskandar Syriac Maronite Union-Tur Levnon

A combination of songs, murmurs, and bellows, in prehistoric caves and in an atmosphere of parietal paintings and the warmth of the braziers. Man appropriated nature to dominate its elements and to feel master of life. He reproduced animal forms, the sounds of storms, the cries of animals, mimetic choreographies, and he left the traces of his hands on the walls of a now sacred place. Prayers, from the remotest times, and in all forms and kinds of religion, each with its own tradition, are accompanied by sounds and songs that carry the invisible and the timeless.

How to express the divine when it is eminently ineffable? For Saint Augustine, singing is a way of jubilation, and thus of going beyond words. This song, called jubilus, frees the mind and allows for unlimited development, transcending the limits of vocabulary, and for making the heart a source of joy. “Hymnus ergo tria ista habet et cantum, et laudem, et Dei”, said Saint Augustine in the fifth century (a hymn is at the same time a song and a praise to God).

Lascaux cave. Photo Vincent Gire/Milan Press.

The five senses

The song takes over the stories of events to perpetuate them and transfer them into memory. A sung text is not forgotten. Rhythm allows you to parse your words, understand them and assimilate them to better retain them. The melody writes this text in the mind and makes it pleasant. It can be tirelessly reproduced and even enriched, improved, adorned, diversified, and embellished with each new interpretation. From shaman to shaman and from generation to generation, the prayer, the story, and the formula develop in the continuity of the heritage.

Everything must be felt. Everything is staged to move and excite the five senses. The view is captivated by the troglodyte space, the light of the flames, the parietal shapes and colors. Hearing is soothed by the song and its musicality, or even excited by the percussion of stones, wood, and drums in caves with particularly acoustic qualities. The touch feels the rock and the heat of the fire. The sense of smell is stimulated by the scents of oils, plants, and smoke. Taste receives its share in edible offerings, ranging from seeds to flesh and blood.

Censer at the troglodyte monasteries of Qadisha. Photo found on the Internet.

The absolute present

The divine is coextensive with time, in that an event is prolonged in an infinite contemporaneity. Stimulating the senses is a way of reliving this absolute present, this eternally renewable moment, without ever losing its intensity. It is a process that makes the presence of the divine or the extrasensory felt through the use of familiar, accessible, and sensual experiences. Singing is at the heart of this whole. It accompanies the offerings and induces dance. It embellishes the painted images, heightened by perfumes and incense. With the image, it represents the divine in proximity and contemporaneity. It tells, praises, adores, and celebrates the history of the sacred.

From the sorcerers of prehistoric caves to the Buddhist, Mesopotamian, and Egyptian priests who accompanied the souls of the deceased in hymns and music, singing has continued to transmit the heritage of the sacred in different civilizations. From the icaros of the Amazon to the symphony orchestras of Europe, passing through African or Mongolian drums, Syriac or Byzantine hymns, and Armenian or Gregorian chant, humanity has carried its thoughts, its aspirations, and its beliefs on rhythm and rhyme. To transmit its values, all cultures put words to music.

Forbidden music

Unlike Christian, Hindu, or Sikh sects, which highly valued music within their traditions, Buddhism and Islam have maintained conflicting relationships with music. But now and then, types of vocalizations have been developed to get around prohibitions. The Buddhist experiences it in the “Om” of Hindu yoga. That is also what the Muslim can experience within the tradition of Sufism, from the most austere form to the whirling dervishes for whom the religious word, that of Allah, can make music lawful. In that respect, is not the call of the muezzins to prayer in itself also a musical form? And let us not forget the cantillations of the Koran.

Moreover, in the Buddhist tradition, let us not forget the chanting of the Sutra, which makes extensive use of music integrated into a theatrical staging, enhanced with light and imagery, and embellished with the colors and scents of floral rain. Let’s also not forget the Ache Lhamo (sister goddess) of the Tibetan Buddhist repertoire, a combination of popular dances and songs.

Through its assimilation with beauty, music, like the image, helps to elevate souls and hearts, which makes it essential. Some Islamic legal schools forbade musical instruments because they were unable to cope with their important role. They even went as far as to order their destruction. They recommend that halal human voices replace instruments that are haram. This contrasts with the patronage of the Abbasid dynasty, and with scholars such as al-Ghazali and Avicenna, composers of musicological treatises.

Cymbals and bells accompanying liturgical hymns. Photo: Antiochian Pentalogy-Maronite Domain.

The Christian tradition

For Christianity, speech is the source of existence. According to the Gospel of Saint John, it is the beginning: “In the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1). It is this redeeming Word that is sung, praised, chanted, glorified, and celebrated. It is put to song and music. “Sing to God with gratitude in your hearts, through psalms, hymns and songs from the Spirit,” reads Saint Paul’s letter to the Colossians (Col 3:16). The Christian liturgy has been built on song and music since the very early Church Fathers.

In the Syriac tradition, Saint Ephrem the Syriac was nicknamed “the Harp of the Holy Spirit”, and Saint Jacob of Sarugh was nicknamed “the Flute of the Holy Spirit”. Both Church Fathers were poets and composers. Their tradition was poetic and strongly musical – as the Syriac Maronite repertoire still shows today. The Byzantine Church would rely on this tradition but add the ancient Greek heritage and the contributions of Hellenistic Judaism.

While the Orthodox churches strove to confine sacred song to a strict liturgical framework, the Renaissance allowed Catholic music to break free and spawn symphony orchestras. The Reformation would do the same for the Protestant Churches. Thus, these Catholic and Protestant cultures have had the greatest musical development, one that accompanied their architecture and their arts. Faced with the architectural austerity imposed by the Reformation, artists found in music the opportunity to release their most passionate expressions. Ashkenazi Judaism, which developed in the European musical milieu, would contribute to this development. For Catholics, the Counter-Reformation brought artistic expression to a climax in unleashed Baroque architecture and music, doing everything that the Church Fathers had hitherto wanted to avoid; ornament, virtuosity, ostentation, and vanity. All this has made its appearance in both music and in adornment.

Originally, however, music was invited into the sacred with the intention of purifying the minds of the faithful. Its goal is always to free people from parasitic thoughts while participating in prayers. It tries to support rather than dominate speech. It is the support of horizontal communion between believers to access vertical communion with the Creator.

Dr. Amine Jules Iskandar is an architect and the former president of the Syriac Maronite Union – Tur LevnonAmine Jules Iskandar has written several articles on the Syriac Maronites, their language, culture, and history. You can follow him @Amineiskandar2

For the article in Spanish see Maronitas.org