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Cantor in Christian Liturgy


With its roots in Hebrew liturgical worship (see cantor in jewish liturgy), the role of the cantor, or leading singer of prayer, in the liturgy of the Christian church, grew from a volunteer activity to a complex ritual involvement in only a few hundred years. Later historical movements within the church saw a decline of the cantor until the time of the Second Vatican Council, which brought about its renaissance.

Early Christian Tradition. Early Christian ritual assumes an ambiguity in the development of music as an independent element, as "Hebrew and Greek have no separate word for music. The frontier between singing and speaking was far less precise" (J. Gelineau). Ritual utterances, a form of cantillation, were closer to speech and thus less technically demanding. This practice allowed a volunteer prayer leader to fill the role. Volunteer leadership in worship was also encouraged by a basic theological belief, coming from the prophets, that God dealt directly with Israel, and that every person had an equal right to approach God directly (A. Z. Idelsohn). Historical evidence suggests that readers and singers did much the same work at liturgy, sharing the different types of scripture so the action of reading or chanting was foremost. No specific rank or title of cantor emerged until the end of the third and beginning of the fourth century.

Fourth Century and After. The cantor, as a title, appears in canon 15 of the Council of Laodicea (c.

344360) that states, "No other shall sing in the assembly except the cantor who has been canonically chosen to ascend the ambo and chant from the parchment." Further, canon 23 addresses singers in the generic: "The readers and singers have no right to wear the orarium or to read or sing thus vested." Canon 24 continues: "No one of the clergy, from presbyters to deacons, and so on in ecclesiastical rank from subdeacons, readers, singers, exorcists, doorkeepers, or any of the order of ascetics, ought to enter a tavern" (J. D. Mansi, Sacrorum Conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio [Florence-Venice 175798] 2:567). St. John Chrysostom (347407) observes that in church the lector speaks alone and even the seated bishop listens in silence; in the same way the cantor chants alone, and when all reply, they sound as a single voice (Hom. In 1 Cor 36.6).

This development reflected the spread of Christianity. As E. Foley explains, "As this was a time of ecclesiastical expansion, so was it one of ritual complexification. The eucharistic perspective of Apostolic Tradition (chapter 4), with its servant Christology and pneumatic ecclesiology in which the community was identified with the servant-son, gave way to a developing Roman prayer which emphasized the presence of Christ as priest and victim, downplayed the role of the community, and presented an almost monophysitic Christology in court rhetoric. This change in liturgical perspective and evolution in liturgical language in the west is mirrored by euchological language in the east which increasingly emphasizes fear and awe."

The arrival of the office of cantor brought an expansion of musical artistry and craft. Soloists, alternating with one another or with the choir, offered new opportunities for sophistication in technique and performance. This opened the door to the growth of the schola cantorum. By this time, more musicians were needed to provide music for the daily schedule of services in Rome. The music of this group of cantors altered the style of the previous chant to reflect the increasing splendor of papal celebrations and gave birth to the Gregorian chant repertoire (L. Johnson).

Separation of Title and Function. The leader of the schola, called the precentor, was a minor cleric who supervised the details of the readings and chants for the Mass, helped the pope vest, and gave the intonations for the chants. It was one of the precentor's assistants, the archcantor, who was music teacher and director of formation for the schola cantorum. He was also a traveling teacher who spread the Roman method of the chant. Bede, in the early part of the eighth century, related that John, the Archcantor, was brought to England in 678 specifically to teach Roman chant. (L. Johnson)

As part-singing became more prominent in the liturgy, the role of the cantor as a solo singer diminished in importance, and over time the cantor was replaced by the schola cantorum. What had been the music book of the cantor, the cantatorium, was eventually subsumed into the antiphonary of the schola. Within the course of historical events, the use of polyphonic music, with its intricacies and dramatic effects, eclipsed the less compelling sound of the single voice. As a part of this evolution, the office of cantor or precentor became an honorary position with duties limited to supervisory or nominal functions.

The Reformation Period. Following the Reformation, the title of cantor was given to the director of music in the Lutheran Church, who was also a leader of sung prayer. For example, J. S. bach was cantor to St. Thomas Church and to Leipzig. In this capacity, Bach was responsible for all the music of church and town: for weddings and funerals, feasts and festivals, and each week, the four hour Sunday service. He composed, performed, taught, stage-managed, and directed the Kantorei, always around the centrifugal force of the people's song. In the Roman Catholic Church, the role of the cantor continued its descent into disuse. Charged with merely intoning psalms, responsories, and antiphons, and with singing litanies, they were further reduced to lighting the lamps in choir, distributing music, sweeping, and cleaning up after others (Decrees of Pius VI, 1781 and 1783, see R. F. Hayburn).

Twentieth Century Revival. Vatican II's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium (Dec. 4, 1963) asserted, among other things, music's integral ministerial function in worship and issued fundamental principles for the revision and renewal of the Church's liturgy. The 1967 Instruction on Music in the Liturgy, Musicam Sacram (March 5, 1967, n.33) underlined the importance of the responsorial psalm and initiated a revival of the role of cantor. As early as March 1968, a plenary session of the National Catholic Music Educators Association, meeting in Houston, Texas, celebrated Mass with a cantor.

The promulgation of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (1969) initiated a flurry of documents which, in turn, contributed to the revival of the cantor as a leader of sung prayer in the Mass. These writings included the U.S. Appendix to the General Instruction, the documents Music in Catholic Worship (1972), and Liturgical Music Today (1982). The 2000 revision of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal continues to support the leadership role of the cantor in sung prayer.

Bibliography: s. corbin, L'Eglise a la conquete de sa musique (Paris 1960). l. deiss, Spirit and Song in the New Liturgy, Revised (Cincinnati, OH 1976). e. foley, Ritual Music: Studies in Liturgical Musicology (Portland, OR 1995). Foundations of Christian

Music: The Music of Pre-Constantinian Christianity (Collegeville, MN 1996). "The Cantor in Historical Perspective," Worship 56 (1982) 194213. j. gelineau, "The Animator" Pastoral Music 4 no. 1 (OctoberNovember 1979) 1922. Learning To Celebrate: The Mass and Its Music (Washington, DC 1985). j. hansen, Cantor Basics (Washington, DC 1991). r. f. hayburn, Papal Legislation on Sacred Music (Collegeville, MN 1979). l. j. johnson, The Mystery of Faith: The Ministers of Music (Washington, DC 1983). d. kodner, Handbook for Cantors, Revised Edition (Chicago 1997). j. quasten, Music and Worship in Pagan & Christian Antiquity (Washington, DC 1983).

[j. hansen]

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