Happy Are the People Who Know the Festal Shout

This story from the Chicago Sun-Times mentions “Nigerian warrior cries” as part of the procession of an Anglican church to its new worship space after formalizing‚ quite peaceably, the article suggests‚ a split with the Episcopal Church in the USA and alignment with the Anglican Church of Uganda. Douglas LeBlanc of GetReligion followed up on this strange detail, and learned the truth: what the reporter heard was not war cries but ululation, a form of vocalizing common in African worship and, it seems, in the American congregation described in the article.

The notice reminded me of the ancient Christian practice of “jubilation.” Eddie Ensley studied this phenomenon and wrote it up in Sounds of Wonder (Paulist, 1977). More recently, Janice and Richard Leonard rearranged Ensley’s material for publication as an entry in the fourth volume of Robert Webber’s The Complete Library of Christian Worship (StarSong, 1994): “A Brief History of Jubilation” (280-308).

Jubilation is a spontaneous form of wordless vocalizing. The Fathers considered jubilation a natural response to supernatural grace‚ a form of prayer that even children could learn. John Chrysostom encouraged his people to jubilate: “It is permitted to sing psalms without words, so long as the mind resounds within” (On the Psalms). Augustine described jubilation as God praying through the believer when one does not know how to pray properly (cf. Rom 8:26):

Lo and behold, he sets the tune for you himself, so to say; do not look for words, as if you could put into words the things that please God. Sing in jubilation: singing well to God means, in fact, just this: singing in jubilation. (Commentary on Psalm 32 [33 in Hebrew numbering]).

Jubilation was thus not considered the same thing as speaking in tongues. It was understood to be a learned behavior, even a spiritual discipline. It was common to find reference to the practice in Psalm 89:15: “Happy are the people who know the festal shout, who walk, O LORD, in the light of your countenance.”

Wordless singing exists in several secular forms, such as yodeling, “scat” singing, and “yo-he-ho”-type work songs. The ululating mentioned in the post linked above probably fits the category as well. Apart from the African practice of ululating, the closest religious parallel is probably what the African-American churches sometimes call “moaning,” an antecedent to spirituals. According to Bradford Keeney:

Moans are melodically dressed with melismas, having a unison and heterophonic tone, and are typically expressed in a slow and sustained manner. Surge singing is where the lead voice and congregation melodically and rhythmically decorate hymns with moans and vocal embellishments.

The phenomenon is also described as “a kind of blissful rendition of a song, often mixed with humming and spontaneous melodic variation.” It is a form of spontaneous, joyous praise that builds on other musical expressions.

From the fourth to the ninth centuries a particular form of liturgical jubilation would begin with an improvised flourish on the final syllable of “alleluia” and might continue for up to five minutes of wordless singing. Other ancient and medieval sources describe jubilation as including such phenomena as hand clapping, cooing, dancing, and even what modern Pentecostals might call “holy laughter.” Although this custom is not explicitly attested before the fourth century, it may correspond to New Testament references to “spiritual songs” (Col 3:16) or “singing in the spirit” (1 Cor 14:15). Some even suggest the origins of jubilation go back to synagogue practice (Donald P. Hustad, “Music in the Worship of the New Testament,” The Complete Library of Christian Worship, vol. 4 (StarSong, 1994) 192).

Most church music of the patristic era was of an improvisational nature. This applies not just to jubilation or other forms of “spiritual song,” but to improvised psalm-singing and hymnody as well. Ensley (283) quotes L’encyclopédie de musique to this effect:

The first Christian authors … describe the rich, exuberant coloraturas sung without a text and the alleluia songs as overwhelming melody of joy and gratitude sung upon the inspiration of the moment. A large number of the melodies that have come down to us still have traces of improvisation.

The spontaneous, improvised form of early church music is underscored by a passing reference in Tertullian to the practice singing at an agape meal: “After manual ablution, and the bringing in of lights, each is asked to stand forth and sing, as he can, a hymn to God, either one from the holy Scriptures or one of his own composing ….” (Apology 39, emphasis added).

In this light, John Chrysostom described singing in worship as a charismatic experience, with the church cantor as a “prophet” and music a form of “prophecy”: “The prophet speaks and we all respond to him. All of us make echo to him. Together we form one choir. In this, earth imitates heaven. This is the nobility of the church.” (Ensley, 283).

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