“A New Song”: Music and Theology in the Ambrosian Hymns
Dr. Huw Lewis; Dr. Jared Ortiz
For younger and newer generations of Christians, the Church hymn might be considered an outdated or obscure form of worship. However, I believe that hymns represent an enduring model of Christian music that is still pertinent in contemporary churches. To understand its significance, we must look into the early days of the Church, specifically the fourth century. During this time, the first Latin hymns appeared in the Western Church, composed first by St. Hilary of Poiters and St. Ambrose of Milan. Ambrose’s hymns enjoyed much greater popularity than Hilary’s for their simple and beautiful language, earning him the name, “The Father of Hymnody.” According to scholars of the field, Ambrose wrote as many as fourteen hymns, each organized in eight, four-line, antiphonal stanzas, and many more were dedicated to his example, constituting the Ambrosian rite. Of that extensive repertory, four have remained textually preserved and validated as truly “Ambrosian” songs by hymnody experts: Deus creator omnium, Aeterne rerum conditor, Jam surgit hora tertia, and Jam Christus astra ascendante. The lack of musical notation from this era leaves the melodies a mystery. I propose that the Ambrosian hymns are still valuable to the modern Church because studying them may inform us of the cultural importance of foundational Christian music, that is, the role and perception of music in early Christian worship. By analyzing the literary structure of these hymns, as well as Ambrose’s own writings on music, I explore how and why Ambrose wrote these hymns as well as the principles of Christian worship which guided him. Ultimately, from this picture of worship in the early Church, I hope to form a clearer understanding of the relationship between music and theology, a subject which continues to be a crucial issue in the Church today.
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