What is a Canticle?

Zac HicksHistory of Worship and Church Music, Worship ResourcesLeave a Comment

We evangelicals interested in historic worship practices, traditions, and liturgies have a steep learning curve.  Part of that learning curve is a glossary of vocabulary words that pretty much feel like a foreign language (and there’s actually good reason for that…much old school worship lingo is Latin-based, not English-based).  From matins to Magnificat, from vespers to Nunc dimittis, we cautiously dip our toes in the water.  One of those Liturgese words is “canticle,” and I’ve found it particularly hard to understand what it is.  Upon reading Paul Westermeyer’s concise yet thorough definition below, I now understand why.  Different Christian traditions nuance the term.  I thought I’d pass on the explanation for those who need clarity: 

In response to Christ’s coming, the church sang canticles. The term “canticles” refers to those texts in the Bible that were sung. In its broadest sense it includes Old Testament as well as New Testament texts. In the strictest sense it refers to texts that are not the Psalms, though sometimes, especially in the Anglican tradition, it is used for some Psalm texts as well, like the Jubilate (Psalm 100), Cantate (Psalm 98), and Deus miseratur (Psalm 67). Sometimes major and lesser canticles are distinguished, the former from the New Testament and the latter from the Old Testament.  Often the term is taken, as it is here, to refer to major texts from the New Testament that were sung.

Paul Westermeyer, Te Deum: The Church and Music (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998), 45.

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