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Celebrating Liturgica Music

Old Roman Chant

The liturgy and chant discussed here will be called Roman chant, referring to the body of chants that was gradually composed for the liturgy of Rome between the fourth and eighth centuries. The term "Old Roman" will be reserved for the five manuscripts that were written in Rome in the Middle Ages.

These five Old Roman sources include three graduals (Mass chants) and two antiphoners (Office chants). The Gradual of Santa Caecilia in Trastevere (Bodmer 74, available in facsimile) is dated 1071 on the last page. The Gradual of the Lateran Basilica (Vat. lat. 5319, edited by Melnicki) is no later than the twelfth century. The Gradual of St. Peter's (S. Pietro F.22) is from the thirteenth century. An antiphoner perhaps from the Lateran Basilica or St. Peter's (London, B.L. Add.29988) is from the mid-twelfth century. The Antiphoner of St. Peter's (S. Pietro B.79, available in facsimile) is from the late twelfth century.

We may examine Roman chant from three points of view. One, the Roman chant that was completed by about 750 is inaccessible to us in its original form. Two, the Roman chant was transmitted to the Frankish kingdom after 754, modified in significant ways by the Franks (giving us what we know as Gregorian chant), and returned to Rome by the thirteenth century (some of these chants had already crept back into the five Old Roman sources). Three, the Roman chant, modified by oral transmission for several centuries, was written down in the five Old Roman manuscripts. By comparing Gregorian and Old Roman chant manuscripts, we may learn something about Roman chant of the eighth century. Most evident is the identity of the texts, despite the differences in the melodies. The large number of identical texts assigned to specific feasts in both Old Roman and Gregorian manuscripts is a clear indication that these chants are found in the Roman repertoire of the eighth century.

These five Old Roman manuscripts were first singled out as different from typical Gregorian chant manuscripts in 1891 and were discussed in 1912, but only in 1950 did the subject become a source of controversy. For several decades scholars offered conflicting views about the relation between Old Roman chant and Gregorian chant, but a consensus has lately arisen. By general agreement, the Old Roman and Gregorian sources each represent a development or modification of the same original, the Roman chant of around 750.

The sung parts of the Mass are mentioned in sacramentaries, Mass books of the seventh and eighth centuries, but it is more difficult to determine when they were introduced. By the fourth century psalm verses were sung several times during Mass, but the selection of texts was fluid, not fixed to a part of the Mass or a particular feast day.

During the fourth century, the communion antiphon was sung during communion. This was originally taken from Psalm 33. The antiphon, "Taste and see the goodness of the Lord," alternated with the verses of the psalm. Later in that century, psalmody was sung after the Epistle. As this gradual chant grew more elaborate, only one verse was added to the chant response. Unlike some other rites, the Roman Mass used two, not three readings.

Not much later the entrance rite, consisting of introit, Kyrie and Gloria in excelsis Deo, was added to the Mass before the readings. The introit also consisted of an antiphon alternating with verses of a psalm. The offertory was sung during the preparation of the bread and wine at the altar. Last of all, the alleluia, originally sung before the gospel only in Eastertime, was gradually extended to the rest of the year except Lent. It displaced the tract, which was then sung after the gradual only during Lent and certain other days.

At some point during the seventh century, it appears that the Roman Schola, the singers of papal Masses, undertook to compose distinct chants for each part of the Mass throughout the year. According to recent studies of James McKinnon, published as The Advent Project (U. of California, 2000), this began with the Sundays of Advent about 680. While many new chants were composed, the project also involved regularizing the chants already in place (for such feasts as Easter) and selecting from the optional chants already in use. This project ended about 701, with some later additions up to the time that Roman chant was sent to Frankish lands at the request of Pepin and then Charlemagne. The liturgical year had not been completed, for the Sundays after Pentecost were filled in later with chants borrowed from the weekdays of Lent.

An example of the Schola's systematic approach is the First Sunday of Lent. All five parts of this Mass use verses from Psalm 90, which clearly provides texts appropriate for the beginning of the penitential season.

One of the most frequently recounted aspects of this project has been the addition of Masses for the Thursdays of Lent, which had no celebration of Mass until Pope Gregory II (716-31). It is clear that 26 weekdays of Lent had already been provided with Mass propers because the communions for these Masses used the psalms in numerical order from 1 to 26. Since the Thursdays of Lent were omitted from this sequence, the series must have been completed before the time of Gregory II. An even later change occurred when five of the original 26 communions were replaced by texts drawn from the gospels on days assigned for the scrutiny of catechumens (those preparing for baptism at Easter). These may have been borrowed from office antiphons of simple style, later to be replaced in some places by chants of more elaborate melody. The transmission of these five communions was very irregular, indicating that they are later additions.

While the Frankish cantors were modifying the chants, Roman chant continued in use in Rome, still handed down by oral tradition as it had been. It seems reasonably clear that by the eleventh century, when the Old Roman Graduals began to be notated, the Roman chant had undergone further change. By the time the five Graduals mentioned earlier had been completed, Gregorian chant had replaced it in Rome.


Fr. Jerome F. Weber

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