Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Instrumental Music in Church

by Benedictine Monks of Buckfast Abbey


This article deals with the use of instrumental music during the liturgy by examining the its original use in the sacred ceremonies of Judaism, and how it became part of Catholic worship.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review



Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, June 1927

Vision Book Cover Prints

The Organ

Of all instruments of music, the human voice is the most perfect, because it is most admirably adapted to give expression to the most varied emotions which in turn. sway the heart of man. One of the oldest and most persistent instincts of mankind is to imitate, reproduce, or amplify the human voice. Musical instruments of every description, from the primitive reed pierced by a few holes and emitting a few monotonous sounds to the Strad or the modern grand organ, all serve but that one purpose. Musical instruments are as old as the world; in their use man has sought comfort in grief and increase of his happiness; their harmony has enhanced the beauty and solemnity of both public and private functions among civilized peoples, and there probably never was a time when not only vocal, but likewise instrumental music, formed part of the public observances of religion.

This is not the place to study the history and evolution of instrumental music; however, it will be useful briefly to examine the place of this kind of music in the sacred ceremonies of the Old Law, and the manner in which it came to form an almost integral part of Catholic worship.

The Bible ascribes the fabrication of the first musical instrument to Jubal, the son of Lamech: we are told that, "he was the father of them that play upon the harp and the organs" (Gen., iv. 21). Obviously, there is no question here of organs in the modern sense of the word: Jubal's "organs" are only a generic name for wind instruments of every description, for it is hardly probable that those primitive musical instruments were very much more than rustic reeds or flutes and similar instruments. However, the rapid progress of all the arts and crafts led to a wonderful improvement of musical instruments. Trumpets appear to have been the only instruments used by the Israelites for religious purposes. Some of these were made of brass, others were only the horns of rams — these last were ceremonially blown to mark the beginning of the New Year. Two silver trumpets, made by the command of the Lord, were used not only for the purpose of giving various signals, but for exclusively religious objects: "If at any time you shall have a banquet, and on your festival days, and on the first days of your months, you shall sound the trumpets over the holocausts, and the sacrifices of peace offerings..." (Num. x. 10). Sacred History tells us what role the trumpets of the priests played at the taking of Jericho. When the temple came to be built, and already in the reign of David, there was a vast number of musicians, playing on divers instruments, who accompanied the singing, thus adding luster to the liturgical functions of the tabernacle and the temple.

Nor was the use of musical instruments confined to the Jews. We gather from the Book of Daniel that music was an integral part of the religious ceremonies of the Assyrians. The Liturgy of Holy Saturday has familiarized us long ago with the names of the manifold instruments composing the orchestra which played at the dedication of the golden statue set up by Nabuchodonosor the king.

The early Christians rigidly banned musical instruments from their religious assemblies. At any rate, there is no mention of their use, and several texts positively show that, at least in the period preceding the Peace of the Church, the singing of the clergy and people was unsupported by any instrument whatever. There are writers who think that the hymns and psalms were accompanied on the harp or lyre. This may have been the case in private singing, but there is no document to prove the use of these instruments in the public services of the Church. A text of Clement of Alexandria can hardly be said to prove more than the above-made statement: "Though we no longer worship God with the clamor of military instruments, such as the trumpet, drum and fife, but with peaceful words, this is our most delightful festivity; and if you are able to accompany your voices with the lyre or kithara, you shall incur no censure" (cfr. Burney, "Hist. of Music," II, 26). It seems to be a matter beyond doubt that, when writers of the first three or four centuries speak of the lyre or harp as accompanying the sacred chant, there is never question of ecclesiastical or liturgical chant. We know how strictly the Eastern Churches have clung to the primitive observance: no other sound is heard at their liturgical services, save that of the human voice. A like exclusiveness is observed in the Papal Chapels at Rome, where the sound of the organ is never heard, but only the human voice. But all the world knows the wonderful music composed for the Papal choir and the brilliant maestria with which it is executed. The severity of the primitive Church will be readily understood when we bear in mind the uses which instrumental music was then put to. The organ is a familiar, and all but indispensable article in the furniture and decoration of a modern church, and church and organ are so closely linked together in our minds that we look upon the organ as a purely ecclesiastical object, or as serving a religious purpose, even when we find it placed in some of our public halls. This association is, of course, mainly due to the fact that the improvements, which the primitive organ received in the course of the centuries especially in the eighteenth is almost exclusively owing to its concurrence in the solemn services of the Catholic Church.

However, the organ is not a Christian discovery, but was already known in the third century before our era. Its inventor was a barber of Alexandria, one Ctesibius, who had likewise a taste for mechanics. He observed that the counterweight of a movable mirror, used for the purpose of his trade, produced a musical sound by the force with which it drove the air out of the tube in which it moved. Basing his experiments on this principle he succeeded in constructing a machine consisting of a hollow vessel inverted, with an opening on the top, to which was attached a trumpet. On water being pumped into the vessel, the air was forcibly driven into the trumpet, thus producing a very powerful sound. This was the first step on a road, which has led to the building of our modern organ. The idea of Ctesibius was developed by another engineer, a certain Hero. He constructed a musical instrument in which the air was conveyed from the vessel not only to one, but to several pipes, placed in a row and arranged in the order of a musical scale, any one of which could be made to sound at will. Water being the chief motive power, the instrument was called hydraulus. Vitruvius gives an elaborate description of an hydraulus, which shows that by the first century there was already a great advance upon the invention of Ctesibius and Hero. The hydraulus — or organ, as we may now call it — obtained an immediate and immense popularity, even emperors becoming not only patrons of the new instrument, but performers as well. Suetonius relates that, when Nero was reduced to flee from the pursuit of those who sought his death, he vowed that, if he escaped with his life, he would enter the public contests as a performer on the organ and other instruments. Claudian, a pagan poet of the fourth century, writes with enthusiasm of the organist who, with a light touch, sends forth powerful, rolling sounds, and by his wandering fingers causes the innumerable voices which spring from the multitude of bronze pipes to sound, and who, with a beam-like lever, can rouse the struggling waters to song. We have here a description of an instrument of considerable size and perfection, for the poet was much struck by the number of pipes and the powerful bellows, which were worked with handles of such size as to suggest beams. In point of fact, the pictures and engravings that have come down to us from early and medieval times, and which enable us to follow up the origin and evolution of the organ, make it quite plain that not only was the blower's task a laborious one, but even the performer on the instrument must have worked at the sweat of his brow. The keys had a breadth of several inches and the mechanism was so cumbersome that to strike a note on the keyboard had nothing metaphorical about it, but meant a blow with the clenched fist, or even with the elbow. There is a remarkable relief on an obelisk at Constantinople, dating from the time of Theodosius, which shows a stage, at the two ends of which there is an organ, the bellows being worked by two men. On the stage are seen flute players and dancers. This scene helps us to understand the reluctance of ecclesiastical authorities to sanction the use of the instrument in church. It had hitherto been so exclusively associated with the noisy, and too frequently lascivious entertainments of the theatre. No wonder St. Jerome (Ep. cvii ad Laet.) wishes the Christian maiden to be deaf when the alluring melodies of the organ were to be heard (surda sit ad organa).

From what has been said it follows that, even if the word organ be frequently used in a general manner to designate any kind of concerted instrumental music, the word has yet a very clear and definite meaning. There has been in existence for more than two thousand years an instrument, which was not essentially different from our modern organ, so much so that at least one historian of the instrument has not hesitated to say that there has been no substantial improvement upon the organ as described by Vitruvius, and the instruments built in the eighteenth century.

St. Augustine makes repeated allusions to the organ. Commenting upon the words of Psalm cl, "Praise him on the strings and organs," he says:

"Both psaltery and harp, which have been mentioned above, have strings. But organ is a general name for all instruments of music, although usage has now obtained that those are specially called organ which are inflated with bellows ... he added the organ, to signify that they (the Saints) sound not each separately, but sound together in most harmonious diversity, just as they are arranged in a musical instrument (ideo addidit organum, non ut singulae sonent, sed ut diversitate concordissima consonent, sicut ordinantur in organo). For even then the Saints of God will have their differences, accordant, not discordant, that is, agreeing, not disagreeing, just as sweetest harmony arises from sounds differing indeed, but not opposed to one another."

At what period was the organ admitted into our churches? It is impossible to answer the question with absolute certainty, but it would appear that Pope Vitalian first gave it right of citizenship in the Christian assembly. This would be prior to Charlemagne. There are writers who suggest that the Pope merely sanctioned a custom already established. After the Byzantine emperors had presented both Pepin and Charlemagne with organs of considerable size and excellent workmanship, a real industry of organ building sprang into existence in the West. Gaul and Germany appear to have possessed the most highly skilled organ builders and players, for in 873 Pope John VIII asked Bishop Anno of Freising (cfr. Mansi, xvii, 245) to send him not only the very best instrument that could be procured, but likewise an organ builder who would be able to explain to the Romans the working of the organ and teach them how to perform upon it" (ut optimum organum cum artifice, qui hoc moderari et facere ad omnem modulationis efficaciam possit, ad instructionem musicae disciplinae nobis deferas aut mittas).

The organ became a source of endless joy to the simpler people of those days, so that a monastic writer of the Merovingian period, when enumerating the joys of heaven, asserts that one of them is that the Blessed shall hear everlasting organ music (Reg. incert. auct. in "Patrol. Lat," LXXXVIII, vol. 958).

One of the most famous organs of the Middle Ages was that which was erected by St. EIphege at Winchester about 950. From the poetic description of the Monk Wolstan, we gather that this huge organ had four hundred pipes and twenty-six bellows, of which twelve were above and twelve below, blown by seventy strong men (folles agitant validi septuaginta viri). Such an instrument, however, could scarcely be used to accompany the singing, for, stops not having been invented yet, the "full organ" had to be employed. Hence, "like thunder the iron tones batter the ear, so that it may receive no sound but that alone. To such an amount does it reverberate, that everyone stops with his hand his gaping ears, being in nowise able to draw near and hear the sound, which so many combinations produce. The music is heard throughout the town, and the fame thereof is gone over the whole country" (Cf. Abdy Williams, "The Story of the Organ," p. 30).

That in some quarters, especially monastic ones, there was persistent opposition to the use of the organ in churches seems evident from a letter of Archbishop Baldric of Dole (Ep. ad Fiscannenses in "Patrol Lat," CLXVI, col. 1177). After describing the organ, which he saw at Fecamp, he says that there are many who having no organs in their own churches criticize those who possess them. He calls those men detractors who refuse to take to heart the lesson taught by the organ (quod organa nobis innuant, nesciunt exponere). The prelate concludes by saying that, if we possess organs, we allow their use (eis uti ecclesiastica consuetudine permittimus); but, if a church have no organ, this lack is no sacrilege (sine sacrilegio eis carere possumus). And this is the lesson we should take to heart as we listen to the harmonies of the organ: audientes organa, interiori uniamur harmonia, et bituminemur dilectione bifaria.

Besides the large, or grand organ, a smaller instrument came into use towards the end of the Middle Ages. It was called ninfale in Italian, and portative in English. It was frequently hung round the performer's neck, who worked the bellows with one hand and played with the other. These small organs appear frequently on pictures and statues, but no sample has come down to us. They were much used in processions and in small churches or chapels. The following item of the will of Richard Fitz-James, Bishop of London, who died in 1522, is of interest:

"I will that my payre of Portatives being in my chapel in the Palace of London, mine organs, also being and standing in my chapels within my three manors of Fulham, Hadham and Wykeham, shall there stand still and remain to my successor, next bishop of London, that they may be used there to the honour and glory of God."

If there was strong and persistent opposition to the use of the organ down to the twelfth century, the motive may have been, at least in some quarters, a certain amount of puritanism. But in all probability the chief reason in the mind of the objectors was the imperfection and consequent unsuitableness of the instrument, for, at least to the cultured ear, the loud and crude sounds of a clumsy machine may well have seemed to be unbecoming in a place of worship. However, notwithstanding all opposition, the organ gradually became the supreme musical instrument in the Western Church. According to the present legislation of the Church, the organ may be played on all joyful and festive occasions, both to accompany the singing and likewise by way of voluntaries and so forth. The organ should be silent at Requiem Masses, and during Lent and Advent (except on the Sundays Gaudete and Laectare). Moreover, if a choir needs the support of the organ, it is permissible to play it even in Lent and Advent, but only whilst the choir is actually singing. But this indulgence does not extend to the last three days of Holy Week (S. R. C., March 20, 1903, n. 4009).

The organ receives a special blessing from the Church. The organist should, therefore, ever be mindful that he handles an instrument, which has been dedicated and set apart for the service of God. This thought will prevent him from playing upon a consecrated instrument airs, which may be permissible in the concert hall and similar places, but are a profanation of the sanctuary. At the blessing of an organ Psalm cl is first sung, after which follow two responses and a prayer, which admirably describes the fruit we should derive from the use of the organ:

"O God, who didst command Thy servant Moses to make trumpets, to sound over the sacrifices which were to be offered to Thy name, and who didst will that the sons of Israel should sing the praises of Thy name to the sound of trumpets and cymbals, bless this organ which we dedicate to Thy service, and grant that Thy faithful children, rejoicing in spiritual canticles upon earth, may attain unto everlasting joy in heaven. Amen."

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