Jun 15, 2004

What you really must know about Gregorian Chant

Online Edition – June 2004

Vol. X No. 4

What you really must know about Gregorian Chant

"The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman Liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services". – Second Vatican Council, Sacrosanctum Concilium §116 (1963)

Forty years after these words were written, few Catholics had ever heard a Gregorian chant at Mass in their parish Church, and even fewer had participated in chanting the Mass. Yet the active participation of the people in this form of worship was, obviously, the vision of the fathers of the Second Vatican Council. Alas, all things were not equal, in the turbulent years of change and innovation following the Council. Not only was Gregorian chant not accorded "pride of place"; like a rainforest, it was nearly destroyed by decades of reckless liturgical bulldozing.

But Catholics alive today may yet see the Council’s intended revival of what Pope Saint Pius X called "the chant proper to the Roman Church, the only chant she has inherited from ancient fathers, which she has jealously guarded for centuries in her liturgical codices, which she directly proposes to the faithful as her own…" (Tra le sollecitudini §3)

One sign that the chant renaissance is, indeed, a reality, is a new book, The Beginner’s Book of Chant, published by Saint Michael’s Abbey, Farnborough, England. The book is one more signal that chant has survived all attempts to euthanize it. Not dead yet, it is a living art form that has been receiving real nourishment during the last few years, and is gaining strength.

The book is aimed at parishes or schools "who wish to dive head first into singing", the author, "A Benedictine Monk", says. "The method offered for singing the chant is essentially practical…. It is simple to understand and teach, and can be easily used and adapted by musicians working in a parish".

In addition to its ten succinct chapters covering basic topics like notation and Latin pronunciation, as well as tutorials and vernacular adaptations, the book’s 90 pages contain several useful appendices, including a glossary and a reading list.

To encourage such efforts to revivify our Catholic heritage, we asked to reprint the opening chapter of the book, and are pleased present it herewith, with the kind permission of Saint Michael’s Abbey.

(To order the book, or for information about the Abbey, visit http://www.farnboroughabbey.org, or write to Saint Michael’s Abbey, Farnborough, Hampshire, GU14 7NQ, England.) — Editor

Chapter One: Historical Overview

A lot of questions about the singing of chant can be answered by looking at its history. One article, in a noted magazine, stated that we can say virtually nothing about Gregorian chant before the ninth century. Catholic tradition maintains a degree of Divine intervention: the picture of a dove whispering in the ear of Pope Saint Gregory the Great (c. 540-604) may be closer to the truth than many skeptics would allow. The origins are admittedly mysterious. A few clues however give us a glimpse of from where the chant may have come:

(i) There are striking similarities between some of the psalm tones (for example Tonus Peregrinus) and melodic material found in ancient sources, particularly traditional Jewish music.

(ii) The system of eight modes traditionally applied to link Gregorian chant with Classical Antiquity does not always fit the music.

(iii) Chant is very natural to the human voice (this seems to transcend the East-West division in Christianity). Its intervals and patterns are easy to imitate — after a few tries — and the larger part of the repertoire is made up from stock phrases or "units" rearranged in different patterns. It seems likely that the origins of chant are closely associated with improvised music.

The chant that was noted down in Pope Saint Gregory’s day can be likened to pebbles in a stream. Different colored pebbles have come from different lines of stone further up the hill and as they are washed downstream they are smoothed and take on a fairly similar appearance. The water rushing over them further smoothes them and they begin to appear to lock into each other. Similarly because not one system can explain the origins of the chant it is thankfully exonerated from accusations of being an invented music system. Like all "natural" music it has a history of evolution and organic development — indeed with new vernacular adaptations and compositions based on chant styles it may be thought to be still evolving.

Sacred Scripture gives us some hint at the diversity of early Christian song. As part of the sacrifice of common worship, the early Christians brought with them psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to perform at the early worship services. Given the diversity of backgrounds within the Corinthian Church one may presume a wide variety of music styles were present at these services — perhaps memories of how the psalms used to be sung in the Temple or the way choruses were sung in classical plays, a snatch of a tune thought up at work, a folk song remembered from childhood. To this extraordinary melting pot probably needs to be added an element of ecstatic song made up on the spot. Of this we know very little and we only get glimpses of it in the long jubilus found at the end of many Alleluia verses;

[see Alleluia ‘Specie tua‘, GR p. 416]

The stepwise and upward movement of these phrases, together with some of the most common intervals, suggest that these are stylized forms of music, expressions of joy originally improvised but gradually repeated until they were committed to memory and then ultimately written down. There is a remarkable coincidence with Christian communities practicing ecstatic song today ("singing in the spirit") where much of this music reflects the cadences and shape of chant, indeed also its modality can be heard. This is of course not conclusive proof for the origins of chant but rather another piece of the jigsaw.

Collection and Codification

From around the beginning of the eighth century, in response to the need for local communities to have books to match the "mother" church, the decline of improvisatory skills and the need for liturgical resources for church musicians, the collection and codification of Church chant commenced. Whilst the origin of the chants in Pope Saint Gregory’s collection may have been largely within his Roman circle we may presume that some gathering from further afield went on with material being gained from visiting cantors. Whilst the collecting of liturgical texts and their origins can be traced, the transmission of the music that went with these texts is a bit of a mystery. We know that the famous cantors of Rome were dispatched to teach their art at the ends of the Empire and that presumably they picked up material during their visits and brought it back to Rome. Memory work seems to have been essential and, whilst this seems a gargantuan task, if one remembers that sixty-four of the Alleluias in common use today can be traced to one of the eight basic melodies, which were then elaborated to fit the texts, the hypothesis seems more plausible.

Whilst this first codification of the chant seems a harmless enough exercise, and really a by-product of missionary efforts, it did have the unfortunate effect of causing older versions of chants, and even some whole families of chants, to disappear before they had been written down. If we knew more about these chants we could probably make better connections with the music of the ancient world.

With the development of a common group of chants, used widely, and the general expansion of resources, musically and liturgically, came the growth in theorizing about the nature of the chant itself. This culminated in two ways. First, in the appearance of a variety of notations for the chant, and secondly, in a proliferation of writings on the chant. These theories arguably placed a straight jacket on the nature of the chant itself forcing conformity to the favored eight mode system borrowed from Classical music theory. With this development the oral tradition of teaching chant starts to fade.

Rise of polyphony

During the 12th to 16th centuries the original monodic chant became obscured in the rise of polyphony. It became subservient to the new multi-voiced compositions which, whilst using the chant in their underlying structure, removed any clear indication of the rhythmic properties of the chant. The conventions of modality were retained by the rhythmic complexity caused by the additional voices and led to a separation between mode and rhythm. The new rules designed to guide the composition of polyphony became applied to the old chant melodies themselves. By the time of the Council of Trent, when Humanist interests nearly suppressed polyphony all together, the melodic form of the chant had been altered considerably. In the wake of this Council the Medicaean Gradual, possibly edited with the connivance of Palestrina and Anerio, enshrined forms of the chant melodies which had been finally altered to fit contemporary views on word stress. Multiple notes on single syllables were reduced and modally ambiguous pieces were altered to fit the eight mode model — all in the name of "ancient practice".


This essentially remained the position for the next 300 years. The main publications of chant up until 1870 transmitted these forms of the melodies from the Medicaean editions. With the re-founding of Solesmes, in the mid-19th century, the modern study of chant commenced through a sincere attempt to restore the ancient form of the melodies. By collecting and collating chant manuscripts the monks developed a plausible method of decoding the neumatic symbols of the earliest extant manuscripts. This culminated in the publication of a series of facsimilies and "performing" editions of the rediscovered chant melodies. A significant part of the Solesmes editorial work was the addition of rhythmic signs to the melodies indicating the presence or likelihood of rhythmic variation in what otherwise appeared to be a succession of equal length notes. Similar restoration work was undertaken in Germany with surprisingly different results. However, the Solesmes method (as it came to be known), retained dominance through official approval at the highest levels and because of the relatively simple means it gave to interpret the chant. These means were popularized through repeated editions of the Liber Usualis and through a wealth of text books aimed at Catholic school children and congregations.

In America, Mrs. Justine Ward’s Gregorian Chant provided a detailed exposition of the Solesmes method for Catholic high schools. In Britain, the publication, in two volumes, of Plainsong for Schools, with an important preface by the nuns of Stanbrook, popularized the chant. For choirmasters the Solesmes method was popularized through "primers" by Dom Aldhelm Dean and Dom Alphege Shebbeare. Recordings further disseminated the Solesmes style of performance.

We should not presume that the Solesmes method was left unchallenged. Significant voices were raised against the "equal notes" approach both on the Continent and in Britain. Dom Gregory Murray published a series of articles proposing a radically different interpretation of the early manuscripts and within the Solesmes family itself there were voices questioning the simplicity of the Gajard approach, leading to some controversy and bitterness on the eve of the Second Vatican Council.

Current Situation

The Second Vatican Council (1962-1964) called for a reform of the chant books in two directions. The first was the production of a collection of simpler chants adapted for the use of smaller resources and conforming to the revised calendar and lectionary. This was completed with the release of the Graduale Simplex (1967) containing the Kyriale Simplex which had been circulated a few years earlier. In 1975 the revised Graduale Romanum appeared, the work of Solesmes who then commenced a series of editions for monastic use and two volumes for popular use, the Liber Cantualis and the Gregorian Missal. The first steps towards a critical edition of the Graduale Romanum were completed in 1990 with the publication of the Graduale Triplex which superimposed neumes from the most important early sources on the standard text.

The position of the chant since the wider introduction of vernacular liturgy has been ambiguous. Whilst Latin, and its chant, remained normative for the Western Church, in practice, its use in the twenty years following the Second Vatican Council became limited to monasteries, some cathedrals, a handful of parishes and numerous special interest groups. Chant retained a small dedicated following in the academic world keen to study it as a means of understanding the development of Western music. An occasional release from a major record company provided some interest, and some scholars turned their attention to alternative repertoires of chant: the variants found in Sarum, Ambrosian, Beneventan and Mozarabic sources.

The current explosion of interest in the chant was heralded in the late 1980s by the inclusion in several pop songs of material sampled from Chant recordings. This did little for prepare us for the reception that greeted the recording Canto Gregoriano from the monks of Santo Domingo de Silos. The reasons for this renewed interest are partly due to commercial genius but also to the spiritual interest which seems to affect world cultures at the moment.



The Editors