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Gregorian Chant

By Stephen J. Nereffid. Posted in A History of Classical Music, Classical | No Comments »

A History of Classical Music through Recordings: Part 1.

Chant. Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos. EMI

In May 1994, something extraordinary happened: a compilation of recordings made a decade or two earlier by a group of monks in a monastery in northern Spain reached #3 on the Billboard album charts, having already been a big hit in other countries. The Gregorian chant sung by these monks and their brethren for well over a millennium is the oldest music in the classical tradition, and it remains alive in Catholic rituals today. Listeners to the Chant album were drawn by the music’s promise to, as the sleeve notes put it, “bathe the weary, worldly, unsuspecting soul in its blessing”. Certainly there’s no denying the soothing effect of those long, rhythm-free melodic lines, but this somewhat misses the point that chant’s original intended audience was as much God Himself as exhausted yuppies or their medieval equivalent. Although Gregorian chant gets its name from Pope Gregory I, who reigned from 590 to 604 C.E., the music had its origins in earlier centuries. Psalmody was a key feature of Jewish worship, but not of early Christianity, and it wasn’t until the development of monastic life in the fourth century that Christian psalmody appeared, in the monks’ and nuns’ night vigils. Later, psalmodic chanting was reorganized to be spread across the entire day, in a series of seven “offices”, as well as in the daily mass. Chant has a rather arbitrary track listing, so to get a better picture of chant being sung in its proper devotional context we must look elsewhere.

Chant: Music for Paradise. Cistercian Monks of Stift Heiligenkreuz Abbey. Decca (link)

Here’s another, more recent best-seller, this one the result of a determined effort by Universal to create a successful chant recording: the label conducted a talent search and chose these monks based in Austria. The album presents the full Mass for the Dead and then the Office of Compline, so that what you hear is pretty much what a visitor to the abbey would hear. Compline is the last of the seven daily offices and is performed at about 9 PM; like the other offices, it comprises a set of fixed chants as well as some chants that vary depending on the day of the week or the time of the church year. So, because this album includes psalms 4, 90, and 133, we know that we’re hearing Compline for Sunday, and because “Salve Regina” is sung, we can say that this is Compline as it’s performed between Trinity Sunday (in May or June) and the First Sunday of Advent (late November to early December). It all seems highly complicated and bureaucratic, and you may very well imagine that the church authorities who came up with this organization – educated, lifelong bachelors who had plenty of time to construct complex rules on esoteric subjects – were not so much holy mystics as a bunch of nerds.

Adorate Deum. Nova Schola Gregoriana/Alberto Turco. Naxos (link)

So the chant repertoire comprises many hundreds of pieces, some of them performed at certain times of the day, others on specific days of the week, and others on particular days of the year. This album, performed not by monks but by a dedicated choral group under the direction of a chant scholar, sheds some more light on the nature of the chant itself. Here we have multiple examples of each of the “propers” of the mass – those parts whose texts change each day, unlike the “ordinary”, which comprises the more familiar Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. Listen to, for example, the successive Introits – the chant for when the priest approaches the altar at the start of mass – and you hear that they all have the same structure, beginning with the “antiphon” sung by the choir, followed by a psalm verse sung by a soloist, then the same antiphon again, another psalm verse, and back to the antiphon. You’ll notice, too, that the text doesn’t dictate how the music sounds: an antiphon that asks for peace occupies the same landscape of expression as one that calls for rejoicing. This sameness is of course central to the appeal of chant to the layperson, but it also means that for the general listener any set of chants is pretty much interchangeable with any other. Presumably St Augustine of Hippo (354-430) would disapprove of the popular success of chant albums: he believed that it was sinful to be moved more by the music than by the words.

Chants de la cathédrale de Benevento. Ensemble Organum/Marcel Pérès. Harmonia Mundi (link)

Although Gregorian chant has been the official music of the Catholic church for some twelve centuries, other forms of chant were used throughout the Christian world, such as the Byzantine chant still used in the Greek Orthodox liturgy, Ambrosian chant associated with Milan, Mozarabic chant in Spain, and Gallican chant in Gaul. The album I’ve chosen here presents Beneventan chant, which was related to Ambrosian chant and was performed in southern Italy until Gregorian chant replaced it in the 11th century. Just a superficial listen to this recording will reveal a very different sound. Beneventan chant sounds much more fluid than Gregorian, with long, florid vocalizing passages (melismas), and there’s also considerable use of repeated phrases and cadences. On top of that, Marcel Pérès has chosen to add Byzantine-like drones to the chants, with the aid of Greek cantor Lycourgos Angelopoulos; this is a controversial choice among experts, as there’s apparently no evidence of drones being used in Beneventan chant. For the purposes of our survey, though, this album can usefully cover two bases at once: the non-Gregorian chant sung in Western Christianity, and the chant used in the East.

Music and Poetry in St. Gallen. Ensemble Gilles Binchois/Dominique Vellard. Glossa (link)

How did Gregorian chant become the dominant musical form of the Western church? In the mid-8th century, Rome was under threat from the Lombards, a Germanic tribe, and Pope Stephen II sought military assistance from the Franks. King Pepin the Short defeated the Lombards, and the ensuing alliance proved mutually beneficial. Pepin’s son Charles – Charlemagne – performed similar favours and eventually was crowned emperor in 800 CE. The alliance of the church with the Carolingians led to a period of stability during which the empire centralized and standardized many practices, among which was the Christian liturgy. Thus, a uniform chant was spread throughout the empire, replacing the various local rites with that of Rome. There was resistance to such change, however, which is how Pope Gregory I got his name attached to the chant: what better way to demonstrate the superiority of Roman chant over all others by perpetuating the story that it was composed by a great pope, with God whispering in his ear? Key religious figures in the Carolingian court venerated Gregory I already, which appears to be why he specifically was chosen over, for example, Gregory II, who had a greater role in developing the Roman liturgy. Chant continued to evolve, as exemplified by this album of music composed at the Swiss monastery of St. Gallen in the 9th and 10th centuries. Here we have tropes, which were new texts and music added to existing chants, and sequences, which were texts that originally were added to the melismas found in some chants, in order to help the singers memorize the music, but which later took on a life of their own. A key factor in the spread of Gregorian chant was the development around this time (nobody knows when exactly) of a means of notating the chant: neumes (the word derived ultimately from the Greek for ‘breath’) were marks placed on the text to indicate the rise and fall of the melody. It thus became easier to transmit chants from place to place, although in the absence of staff notation to demonstrate the precise relations between notes (not developed until the 11th century) one still needed to hear the chant sung in order to know exactly how it went.

A note on sources. The structure of the early parts of this history, at least, was devised with the aid of several books, notably two mentioned in the introductory post: Richard Taruskin’s Oxford History of Western Music and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s 1958 publication Music and Western Man (ed. Peter Garvie). The Medieval Music & Arts Foundation’s website has been invaluable for selecting recordings, and I’ve also been greatly aided by the reviews of chant and early-music expert Jerome F Weber in Fanfare.

Stephen J. Nereffid lives near Dublin, Ireland, and spends far too much time listening to classical music.
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