The Old Testament is a chronicle of the growth, movements, physical
and mental habits, and religious status of the great Jewish race.
Its religion with one Godhead, whose immediate presence was often
felt, its music addressed to this presence, and its family, tribal,
and racial organizations were all Jewish. The great moving lever of
Jewish existence was a religion whose creed prohibited the making of
“graven images,” so painting and sculpture were not cultivated; it
recognized the direct agency of supreme will in moulding daily events,
and prescribed oft-repeated praise and prayer, and thus created the
atmosphere of exalted devotional feeling which we find recorded in
many of the books of the Bible, and which climaxed in David’s Psalms.
The ancient Hebrews were in no measure a scientific people. Their one
intellectual aspiration found vent in beautifying the worship of God.
They were religious teachers, who have directly or indirectly shaped
the creeds of the civilized world.
According to the conditions upon which I have thus far based my
theories of musical evolution, early Jewish songs could not have been
equal, in artistic merit, to the texts with which they were associated,
for there was an utter lack, in this race, of such general culture and
art sense as we found prevailing in ancient Egypt; but the Hebrews were
a race apart, and their unique instincts may have made their music an
exception to all rules.
Their song-impulse was confined to one line, but it was so strong
that it projected itself from conception, in religious enthusiasm, to
a high grade of fulfilment without touching the low plane of their
general culture; nevertheless, the above-mentioned short-comings and
the subsequent decadence of race nationality relegate Hebrew music to a
low place as an influence upon the world’s song.
They had men who devoted themselves to the playing of instruments
as an accompaniment to song, and the Bible mentions more varieties
of instruments than can be found in profane history of those times.
Worship was such an important feature of Jewish life, and praise
was so essential an element in their worship, that the masses must
have learned and sung those great lyrics which to-day represent the
culmination of human awe, reverence, prayer, and thanksgiving. It is
impossible to imagine David singing his psalms to crude or inadequate
Here we have a situation apparently full of vital contradictions.
Most of the influences which have proven themselves necessary to the
development of music were wanting, and still there is evidence that it
had grown to be an expressive means. The Jews were actuated by profound
religious feeling and by an exquisite sense of nature’s forms. No poet
has yet equalled David’s simple but beautiful appreciation of the
universe, and of its influence upon mankind.
The Jews of Poland, Spain, and Germany have diverse musical settings of
the Psalms, so there is no traceable line of inheritance from David.
This line has been obliterated by the changes incident to generations
of unassisted memory. That there may be rare exceptions to this rule
of change in form during extended oral transmission was abundantly
proven recently by a German Hebrew musician and scholar. He played me
an unwritten Passover hymn which his father had always sung at that
festival time, and told me that he had not long before been entertained
by a Spanish Hebrew, who sang the same melody tone for tone. This
gentleman’s hearing and memory are so absolute that there is no
question to be raised as to this case; but as far as my investigations
have gone, it stands alone.
The composer of the nineteenth century can nowhere else find such
earnest and suggestive texts as in the Old Testament. They voice the
hopes, sorrows, despair, reverence, and joys of our hearts just as
aptly as they did those of the Hebrew bards who wrote them thousands of
years ago. Their natural and direct method of expressing the emotions,
and their incomparable elevation of spirit, make them appeal especially
strongly to the musician, whose flights of imagination start from these
We are denied the privilege of scanning the forms and substance of
Biblical melodies or chants, and must content ourselves with tracing
the more prominent features of the _rôle_ which was assigned to music
during that older era, and the mechanical devices which were employed
to enhance rhythmic precision and sonority.
Some writers have endeavored to solve the problem presented by Hebrew
music in the midst of incongruous conditions by attributing its
development to the influence of presumable intercourse with prehistoric
Egyptian civilization. This does not appear logical, for Hebrew music
seems to have been little, if at all, affected by the continued direct
contact during the long sojourn of the Israelites in Egypt.
The Jewish and Egyptian characters were so diametrically opposed (as
was evinced in their beliefs, habits, and aspirations) that their
emotional forms of expression could not possibly have followed common
Intercourse with Egyptians did not impart even a scientific impulse to
the Hebrew mind. It is therefore safe to conclude that my previously
mentioned hypothesis–that the force of their impulses carried Jewish
music and poetry to unique positions, as compared with those of their
other arts and branches of learning–is worthy of credence.
The first mention of music is made in Genesis iv. 21. Jubal, the son
of Lamech and Adah, is described as the “father of all such as handle
the harp and organ.” Jubal was of the seventh generation of Adam’s
descendants, and the world was, according to Biblical records, in its
second century of existence. These “harps and organs” were doubtless
similar to those depicted in pictures painted in the fourth Egyptian
dynasty. The first named were frames upon which one or, at most, a
very limited number of strings were stretched, and the “organs” were
pan-pipes (a series of reeds of graded lengths, bound together, and
played by blowing into them as they were passed back and forth across
the lower lip). The pan-pipes were probably played in unison with
the voice, whereas the primitive harp was used, with the existing
instruments of percussion, to mark rhythms only.
All historians agree in their deductions as to the order in which the
several classes of instruments made their appearance on the musical
stage. As rhythm is the heart pulsation of music, it naturally
took hold of the first singers of in any measure formulated melody,
leading to swaying of the body, clapping of the hands, stamping of
the feet, and quickly suggested the employment of other resonant
means for marking its progress. Our drums were at first only hollow
pieces of wood, our cymbals, triangle, and gong may have had double
duties,–musical and culinary,–and our harp and piano were anticipated
by single strings stretched to yield a sonorous tone regardless of
Next came the wind instruments,–at first single reeds blown to
mark rhythms, then pan-pipes, and much later single pipes provided
with finger-holes like the unimproved flute. Last of all came the
instruments from which the tones are drawn by passing a bow over the
strings. The idea of adapting the vibrating length of strings to a
desired pitch, through pressing them down upon a fingerboard, is
comparatively modern. These general classes took on numerous forms and
were made from various materials.
The existence of Jubal and his musical line of descendants bespeaks a
wide-spread interest in and use of song, but Genesis yields no further
enlightenment, no texts, nor any other allusions to the subject of
Exodus xv. furnishes the next mention. The treacherous quicksands of
the Red Sea having swallowed up the Egyptians, Moses and the children
of Israel join in a song of rejoicing and thanksgiving to God, to
whose direct interposition they ascribe their deliverance. The song
as recorded is too circumstantial to have been spontaneous. Moses,
in writing his account of the occurrence, doubtless embodied the
sentiments which burst forth from the hearts of his people in the
presence of the event in a more orderly and more amplified form. The
sentiments are lofty, and the effect produced by the singing of that
vast chorus of just rescued was, beyond compare, the grandest focus
of human enthusiasm that the world has witnessed; for Moses had six
hundred thousand fighting men alone.
“Miriam the prophetess,” after the song, or during lapses in the
singing, to incite the throng to renewed efforts, “took a timbrel
in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and
dancing. And Miriam answered them, Sing ye to the Lord, for He hath
triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider hath He thrown into the
sea.” The timbrels were drums, probably much like our tambourines in
size and shape.
The trumpet is mentioned three times in the nineteenth and twentieth
chapters of Exodus in connection with the delivery to Moses of
the Commandments. The last occasion is after the consummation of
this universe-shaping ceremony,–viz., “And all the people saw the
thunderings, and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet, and the
The thirty-second and thirty-third chapters of Deuteronomy contain one
of the Bible’s most sombre lyrics. Moses, whose life has been devoted
to the welfare of the Israelites, who has for forty years struggled to
overcome in them the demoralization incident to centuries of bondage,
sings there a parting song to his people, for they are about to enter
into possession of the promised land, which happiness is denied him.
Could a sadder picture be imagined than this good man, so little
confident in the fruits of his past teaching, exhorting the Israelites
for the last time?
It would make my sketch tiresome to burden it with the less important
musical events chronicled in sacred history, like the songs of
Deborah, Hannah, etc., so I shall skip four centuries, the musical
exercises of which seem to have been marked by no extraordinary
occurrences, unless we accept the fall of Jericho as a musical
At the end of this period we come upon David, who might appropriately
be called the Isaiah of our art, for his songs voice the conception of
a full, free, resourceful musical fruition, unmeasured as yet by even
the greatest composers who have given them settings. I. Samuel xvi.
makes the first mention of David’s musical capacity,–viz., “And Saul
said unto his servants, Provide me now a man that can play well, and
bring him to me…. And it came to pass, when the evil spirit from God
was upon Saul, that David took a harp, and played with his hand: so
Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from
him.” David’s first recorded “psalm of thanksgiving” is in II. Samuel
xxii. Its power, vivid imagery, and conception of omnipotence have
never been surpassed by the mind of man. It is musically suggestive and
inspiring, but a composer capable of grasping its import might be awed
into silence, for our art is still feeble to attempt such flights. A
careful reading of verses five to eighteen, inclusive, will yield an
understanding of my feelings in regard to this song.
There is in much earnest music a substratum of “ecclesiastical tone,”
for the deeper strings of cultivated human responsiveness are attuned
to worship. Our relation as creatures to God, the Creator, is the prime
factor in inducing this condition, but next to it Biblical song most
influences the trend of high musical aspiration. These influences are
insidious, and their fruits do not necessarily betoken design on the
part of the composer, who may be not at all devout; but he, having
imbibed, in common with civilized mankind, the spirit of religion, it
permeates, and to some extent characterizes, his highest efforts.
As long as man continues to write music David will not cease to be one
of the moving levers in shaping his conceptions. This ecclesiastical
tone, when present, does not usually manifest itself in themes, nor
in their contrapuntal development, but in the harmonic outlines upon
which these elements rest. David is supposed to have written the larger
number of the one hundred and fifty Psalms that have come down to us,
and it may be interesting to trace some of the musical colors suggested
by his more clearly manifested moods. They mirror the deepest recesses
of his God-fearing and paternal heart.
The thirteenth Psalm is a wail of sorrow, which is saved from sinking
to despair by David’s memory of past mercies. This latter element is
analogous in this case to the major harmonies in our modern minor
keys, which lend suggestions of coming brightness to our darkest tone
In the nineteenth Psalm, which begins, “The heavens declare the glory
of God, and the firmament sheweth his handiwork,” we find a spirit
of contented contemplation, for which these quoted lines strike the
key-note, and announce the _theme_ with no uncertain sound.
The twenty-third consists of pastoral similes, which follow each
other with quiet but ever-increasing intensity. It is as full of
restful confidence and self-contained energy as the slow movement of
Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. It is too sustained in its sequential
progress to afford the contrasts so essential to composers of mediocre
ability, which may account for the desecrations of which it has been
the subject. Nothing so tests the calibre of a musician as logically
growing continuity. This Psalm would have found an ideal setting in
Bach’s lofty serenity.
The spirit of exultation in the praise of the Almighty, which is
present in even the sadder moments of David’s song, flashing light
through its doubts and sorrows, breaks into effulgent glory in the
ninety-eighth Psalm, which has probably received more attention from
composers than any other Biblical text. It has inspired much wonderful
music, but a misconception of the spirit which prompted the last verse
has become traditional.
The psalmist did not invoke the floods to clap their hands, and the
hills to be joyful together before the Lord, in order to propitiate
God, but to express the joy he felt in anticipating the advent of
Him who should “judge the people with equity.” To be consistent,
the composer should set this sentiment in broad grandeur, as the
culmination of his musical scheme.
These examples will suffice to illustrate, in a superficial way, the
suggestive richness of David’s Psalms.
Isaiah, in chapter v. 12, says, “And the harp and the viol, the tabret
and pipe, and wine, are in their feasts;” indeed, the prophet makes
repeated references to music, but not in such manner as to endow his
chronicle with special import to us.
I will close this chapter with two instances from the New Testament.
The first occurred in connection with the Lord’s Supper,–viz., after
the administration of the sacrament, and when they had sung a hymn they
went out into the Mount of Olives. This quiet hymn will not cease to
echo through the universe until we are enabled to realize St. John’s
vision of heavenly music, which as described in Revelation (fifth
chapter) would form a fitting climax to earthly musical effort.