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Stapert, Calvin R.
A New Song for an Old World. Musical Thought in the Early Church.
Grand Rapids-Cambridge: Eerdmans 2007. XIV, 232 S. gr.8° = Calvin Institute of Christian Wor-ship Liturgical Studies Series. Kart. US$ 18,00. ISBN 978-0-8028-3219-1.
Miguel Herrero de Jáuregui
In works dealing with Early Christianity honesty is an especially gratifying virtue. There are two legitimate approaches to the subject. One may deal with the ancient sources with a purely historical or philological interest which aims to give as true as possible a portrait of the reality they depict; one may also approach them from a Christian point of view which tries to take inspiration from them for contemporary religious questions. These approaches are not incompatible, and in fact the latter should always take the former as solid ground upon which arguments can be built. But the author has to make it clear to the reader which task he is undertaking at any given moment, so that apologetics is not disguised as historical science. The series on Liturgical Studies patronized by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship does not in any way hide its purpose »to promote reflection on the history, theology, and practice of Christian worship and to stimulate worship renewal in Christian congregations«. With that program in mind, C. R. Stapert endeav-ours to study the ideas that the most prominent Christian authors of the first four centuries held on music. He does so with clarity and presents an excellent portrait of their opinions. The New Testament, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Ambrose, John Chrysos-tom and Augustine are a representative sample of the variety and evolution of Christian attitudes to Greek culture in general and to music in particular. From their judgements he draws legitimate and solidly grounded conclusions, which will be shared by many and should be respected by all, on how the modern Church should stand before musical trends of our days.
S.’s explanation of the musical ideas of early Christianity is not only clear and balanced, but also carries some brilliant insights. The application (52 ff.) of Boethius’ threefold division of musica munda-na, humana and instrumentalis to Clement’s musical thought is a most enlightening key to understand the beginning of his Protrepticus. His explanation (56 ff.) of why modes were considered from Plato onwards as character-shaping, is extremely convincing and shows a subtle handling of musical concepts and their different contexts. The general conclusions drawn in chapters 9 and 10 spring naturally from the studied authors: some types of music are rejected by Christians and others – psalms and hymns – are accept-ed. And chapter 11 on Augustine’s additions to the musical ideas of his predecessors works perfectly as synthesis and culmination of the previous chapters.
The results of S.’s work are necessarily limited by the use of the sources in translation. Yet a somewhat deeper study of the philo-logical research of these texts would probably have proved useful. For instance, the story of Eunomos at the beginning of the Protrepticus is discussed in p. 51, but its main point is missed: the etymology of the name which allows to call the Logos »my Eunomos« (1.3). Cf. T. Halton, »Clement’s Lyre: a broken String, a New Song«, Second Century 3 (1983), 177–199, who also has some good remarks also on Clement’s musical cosmology. The major bibliographical omission is the work of R. A. Skeris, CRWMA QEOU: On the origin and theological interpretation of the musical imagery used by the ecclesiastical writers of the first three centuries, with special reference to the image of Orpheus, Altötting, 1976, which thoroughly analyses many of the fundamental texts – and arrives to conclusions which are not far from those of S.
Though he also selects some Greek and Roman material, like Plutarch or Petronius, S. mainly assumes that the opinions of Christian authors give a faithful portrait of music in Graeco-Roman world, and this excessive confidence in the face value of the Church Fathers as unbiased sources for the knowledge of Antiquity constitutes the main flaw of his book. As he says in chapter 10, Christians rejected the music of the pagan world. This may be a reason for rejecting some trends of modern music, but not blindly to believe that pagan music was as morally and esthetically degraded as the Apologists paint it. That »musical nuisance and degeneracy were probably dominant«, while »the nobler musical art was peripheral and on the wane« (144) is of course the conclusion one inevitably reaches if one takes the Christian descriptions as main sources. However, reading the lofty neo-Pythagorean and neo-Platonic musical speculations, or looking at civilized sung prayers like the Orphic Hymns, which are obviously ignored by Christians, one has the impression that in Imperial age Greek and Roman music was not only alive but experiencing a renaissance of its finest hours. But S. says that Greek music was corrupt. And S.’s is a honourable book.