Gregorian Chant

The story of Gregorian chant extends from 754 to the present time. The adjacent pages on Beneventan, Milanese, Gallican and Mozarabic chants grow out of the page on Early Western chant. The page on Roman chant (titled Old Roman chant) also develops out of the Early Western article in the same way and leads into this article.

The belief originating in the ninth century that St. Gregory the Great (pope, 590-604) was directly responsible for chant composition was questioned in 1890 and is no longer seriously considered. The current understanding of the origin of Roman chant will be found on the page just cited.

The seminal event that led to the repertory of Gregorian chant was the visit of Pope Stephen II to Paris in 754. He came to ask for King Pepin's aid against the Lombards in Italy, but he brought his chapel with him and, from January to August of that year, took up residence in the royal abbey of St. Denis, just north of Paris. Pepin III had usurped the Frankish throne in 751 after asking the previous pope to decide whether a king should be one who wears a crown or one who exercises power. He got the expected answer and deposed the last Merovingian king. Pope Stephen anointed Pepin king during his visit.

The celebration of the papal liturgy at St. Denis from Epiphany to Pentecost (including most of the great feasts of the liturgical year) seems to have made a profound impression on Pepin, who must have been present frequently. He ordered Roman chant to be sung in the Frankish kingdom. It took repeated injunctions from Pepin and his successor, Charlemagne, to accomplish this radical change, and repeated efforts were made to bring cantors from Rome to teach chant to the Franks. Frankish cantors were also sent to Rome to learn the chant. Metz became one of the centers of chant in the Frankish kingdom.

By about 800 Frankish scribes had copied complete Graduals, manuscripts of the sung texts of the Mass, from the Roman sources (which have not survived). Two of these early Frankish Graduals still survive, along with four similar but slightly later manuscripts. While they contain no music notation, these texts identify the chants that had been brought from Rome, for they can be compared with later manuscripts (called Old Roman) that witness to the Roman repertory.

The Franks made two major contributions to the body of chant. They fitted the chants into the ancient Greek system of eight modes (the octoechos), which were being used in Byzantine chant. Each mode was characterized by a tonic note and a dominant note, which made their tonality distinctive. In a few cases, a chant had to be modified to fit into this new pattern. The Franks also invented notation, using neumes to show the shape of a remembered melody. But the neumes were useless if the melody they represented was not already known.

Neumes are found in scattered theoretical writings in the middle of the ninth century. By 900 the Franks had added neumes to complete Graduals. The early systems of neumes varied from one part of the kingdom to another. The neumes written in different monasteries were quite different, though they conveyed the same information. In the following century the neumes in new manuscripts were "heightened," conveying a fairly clear idea of the melodies. Later a line, or two lines, were drawn to identify the notes C and F. Finally, in the eleventh century, a new system of notation on a four-line staff became universal. While these manuscripts show the melodies (by this time forgotten) clearly, they have lost the nuances of rhythm that the first neumes had conveyed.

All of these surviving sources are important. The staff notation of the Middle Ages can be compared with the neumes of related early manuscripts, and the text manuscripts of the ninth century can be used to determine the extent of the repertory, for the Franks continually added new chants to the original Roman collection.

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New Types of Chant

In addition to composing chants for new feasts, the Franks also developed new classes of chants. The Ordinary chants of the Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei) were not new, but they had been limited to a very few simple examples, since they were originally sung by the entire congregation of people. The Credo was not sung in Rome at all (Rome, the Eternal City, felt no need to prove its faith!) until, under Frankish influence, it was added to the Roman Mass in the eleventh century. But the Ordinary chants were no longer sung by the people, so many new and more elaborate chants could be composed for the choir.

Hymns were also not new, but there was only a very small repertory used in special processions (such as Palm Sunday) and in the daily Office. The Franks composed a great number of new hymns, including several hymns for each saint's Office.

Sequences were added to most Masses after the alleluia verse. The former notion that a sequence was a set of words set to the jubilus (or melisma) of the alleluia is no longer adequate to explain their origin.

Tropes, or explanatory phrases, were added to every ordinary and proper part of the Mass. Some Kyrie tropes were part of the original composition, not added afterwards.

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Reforms of the Chant

Cistercian Chant

The Cistercians (or Trappists) were monks who sought a more austere practice of monastic life than the Benedictines. They prepared their own manuscripts of chant that display an effort to preserve their notion of austerity. Their versions often show alterations that change the mode of a given piece. The Premonstratensians (or Norbertines) were also founded about the same time. Their chant books seem to have been modeled on the Cistercian chant. Both of these orders have preserved their chant unchanged through all the vicissitudes of later chant history.

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Medicean Edition

It is often stated that the debased chant that was used in the Latin rite until 1903 originated with the gradual printed by the Medici Press in 1614-15. This edition was unlike medieval chant in the removal of all melismas (lengthy jubilations on one syllable) and the shifting of text to make the word accent coincide with the musical accent, which destroyed the lightness of the medieval chant. In fact, this debasement had been going on already during the 15th and 16th centuries, as printed Graduals of the time demonstrate. The Medicean edition was the result of the reforms of the Council of Trent, but other, similar Graduals continued to be printed until the late nineteenth century. The German firm of Pustet obtained a monopoly on the publication of chant books that was in effect from 1871 to 1901, but other books were still in use. The lapse of this privilege was the occasion for Pope Pius X to approve the Solesmes reforms in 1903, his first act as pope.

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Neo-Gallican Chant

About 1640 the French became disenchanted with their ties to Rome and set out to recover their Gallican heritage. This was a romantic notion that had no chance of success, but it resulted in the composition of original Offices, Masses and chants that are known as Neo-Gallican. Such composers as Henry Du Mont, Guillaume-Gabriel Nivers, Michel-Richard De Lalande and André Campra contributed chant compositions. Well over half of the French dioceses had their own liturgical rite until public worship was abolished after the revolution of 1789. The Concordat of 1802 restored freedom of worship, but it provoked the question of what to restore: the Neo-Gallican rite or the Roman rite. As early as 1811 it was suggested that the chants known from medieval manuscripts be used for sung liturgy, rather than the debased editions that had formed the Roman use since the fifteenth century. One by one, the French dioceses returned to the Roman rite, the last (Orléans) in 1875, but by then the reform of Solesmes was well underway.

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The Solesmes Restoration

One of the leading lights of the nineteenth-century effort to restore medieval chant was Dom Prosper Guèranger (1805-1875). He reopened a vacant monastery in his hometown of Solesmes in 1833. By the 1850s his monks were copying chant manuscripts all over Europe. By the 1880s they were printing editions of Mass and Office based on the old sources. For the next twenty years controversy raged, with influential partisans of both sides engaged in debate. In 1903 Pope Pius X authorized the monks of Solesmes to prepare chant editions for the entire church. During the next sixty years, chant was taught widely throughout the church. In preparing editions simple enough to be taught successfully to children, the monks brought down scorn from scholars on their "Solesmes method" developed by Dom André Moxquereau. But the ictus, episema, dot and incise (marks added to the chants that were not found in the manuscripts) did, in fact, reflect the rhythmic nuances of the earliest neumes, and were not merely arbitrary interpretations.

In the first half of the twentieth century, rhythm was the predominant question of chant interpretation. Scholars universally rejected the Solesmes method of teaching rhythm, but in advocating at least eight different approaches to rhythm (all based on the same medieval theorists but impossible to reconcile with each other) they could not agree on an alternative theory. The impasse was broken with a new understanding of rhythmic nuances taught by Dom Eugëne Cardine (a monk of Solesmes) in his classes in Rome. He used the term "semiology" to describe his interpretation of the signs (neumes) of the earliest manuscripts. In some ways this was a return to the earliest Solesmes theory described by Dom Joseph Pothier, which had been superseded by that of Mocquereau.

Bibliography

Richard L. Crocker, An Introduction to Gregorian Chant (Yale, 2000). A superb introduction to the broad subject of liturgical Western chant by an important scholar. It is aimed at an educated reader who may know nothing about music or the humanities. The broad sweep of his overview is its greatest strength, along with its presentation of the latest understanding of the subject.

David Hiley, Western Plainchant: a Handbook (Oxford, 1993; also paperback). This is the textbook for the entire subject, enormously detailed in its approach but also readable in parts as well. Each section of text summarizes the question and lists relevant articles from the scholarly literature.

James McKinnon, The Advent Project: the later seventh-century creation of the Roman Mass proper (California, 2000). The latest explanation of how the Roman chant propers of the Mass were put together is the result of a decade of research by an outstanding scholar. It is a very convincing analysis of the events that preceded the transmission of Roman chant to the Frankish kingdom.

Willi Apel, Gregorian Chant (Indiana, 1958; also paperback). This was the standard textbook before Hiley. While it contains useful and detailed analyses of types of chants, much of the content is badly dated and must be read with an eye to current studies.

Richard Crocker and David Hiley (eds.), The Early Middle Ages to 1300 (The New Oxford History of Music, Vol. II, Revised; Oxford, 1990). This volume, which replaces the first edition of 1954 (titled Early Medieval Music up to 1300), covers a broad period of early music. The chapters most relevant to chant were written by Hiley or Crocker.

James McKinnon (ed.), Antiquity and the Middle Ages: From Ancient Greece to the 15th Century (Prentice-Hall, 1990). A textbook of broader scope than chant alone, the chapters on Christian antiquity, the Carolingian era, and Planchant transfigured (the first two by McKinnon, the other by Hiley) are a useful, brief and clear treatment of the subject. McKinnon's book (above) offers the latest insights into research that he had only begun when this book was published.

Credits

Fr. Jerome F. Weber

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