A History of Classical Music through Recordings: Part 1.
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.