It’s been 20 years since the release of the wildly popular CD “Chant” by the Benedictine monks of Santo Domingo de Silos of Burgos, Spain. The worldwide recording sensation sold 2 million copies in the United States alone.
That CD reintroduced the world to Gregorian chant, a staple of the Roman Catholic Church for 13 centuries. Often credited to Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) — whose feast day is Sept. 3 — this form of liturgical music developed before Gregory’s time. Gregory, however, did collect many of the chants of his day into two volumes and also founded the “Schola Cantorum” that helped develop and teach this form of chant to the church world.
Chant in the western world has roots that probably go back to our Jewish ancestors and the Psalms — which were first meant to be sung. Remember King David, who is credited as the author of the psalms, played the lyre, sand and even dance? What, and if, the earliest Christians sang is not completely known, but remember that Jesus and his disciples sang psalms after the Last Supper (Mk 14:26). It was not really until the fourth century — when the Roman emperor Constantine legalized Christianity — that Christian worship became more public and liturgical music developed.
After the fall of Rome in the fifth century, much of the liturgical forms of worship of the church in Rome were lost. We can credit the Frankish church, under the guidance of Pepin the Short and Charlemagne in the eighth century, with the development of the chant style we would recognize as Gregorian chant today.
This style of chant is also called “plainsong” and is sung without musical accompaniment or soloists. It was also an aural form of music, which meant that it was learned by ear and memorized — not written down. Aural music should remind you of minstrels and the wandering troubadours of the early Middle Ages or the story-telling bards of the ancient Greeks.
There were other forms of chant in the church prior to or contemporary with Gregorian chant, such as Beneventan, Milanese or Ambrosian (all in Italy), Gallican (from Gaul), and Mozarabic (from Arab-influenced Spain). However, since Gregorian enjoyed the patronage of the Holy Roman Emperor, it took pride of place and, over the centuries, became predominant.
Gregorian chant is technically a hybrid of the old Roman chant (from before the “fall of Rome”) and Gallican chant. We can thank another pope for some of that development.
In 754, Pope Stephen II visited Paris and was hosted by King Pepin, whose aid he needed to defeat the Lombards in Italy. The pope brought his own chapel with him and stayed for several months. Pepin enjoyed the pope’s choir so much that he ordered “Roman chant” to be the only music sung in local churches. His successor, Charlemagne (the first Holy Roman Emperor), felt the same about the music and Frankish cantors were sent to Rome to learn the chants. A hybrid version — not quite Roman and not quite Frankish in style — resulted and became Gregorian chant.
With such powerful support, the other forms of chant were eclipsed, Gregorian chant flourished until the rise of the Renaissance (roughly the 15-17th centuries), when chant became more performance-oriented and elaborate styles — including polyphony and solo cantors developed. Plain chant continued, but the original style declined. In the 19th century, French Benedictine monks at St. Peter’s Abbey in Solesmes, undertook the task of recovering the early forms of Gregorian chant and learning to translate early manuscripts’ musical style. (Early music books did not exactly copy melodies, but only indicated the variations of range and speed of the music — not at all like musical notation of today.)
After Vatican II, plain chant — with its similarity to Gregorian chant — continued to decline in the Western church, eclipsed by music in the vernacular and accompanied by musical instruments, and largely disappeared from most Roman Catholic churches.
However, the value of Gregorian chant was emphasized by retired Pope Benedict XVI in a May 13, 2011, letter on the 100th anniversary of the pontifical Institute of Sacred Music. The retired pope noted both “the primacy of Gregorian chant as a supreme model of sacred music” and its universality.
The truth of Benedict’s words can be heard every Advent when we again hear the familiar chanted tones of the 15th century carol: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” (when sung a cappella).
Sources: Vatican website at vatican.va; “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; St. Peter’s Abbey of Solesmes at solesmes.com; gregoriano.org.br; “Western Catholic Liturgics” at liturgica.com.