What is Gregorian chant?
Gregorian chant is a form of sacred chant in Latin (and sometimes Greek) that has been used within the Roman Catholic Church for centuries. From the beginning, Gregorian chant had two key distinguishing features:
- It is unaccompanied, meaning there are no musical instruments accompanying the vocals
- It is monophonic, which means that there is only one melodic line followed by all the singers. This contrasts with later religious and secular music, in which the different voices (soprano, alto, etc.) may sing different, albeit harmonizing, vocal lines.
When did Gregorian chant develop?
The peak period for the development of Gregorian chant was the Europe of the 9th and 10th centuries.
Confusingly, the form takes its name from Pope Gregory I, who is often credited with inventing Gregorian chant during his lifetime. This was much earlier, at the end of the 6th century: however, scholars today believe that Gregorian chant developed later and was inspired by the chanting traditions of Rome and Gaul ( today France).
How is Gregorian chant performed? And what types of voices is it aimed at?
Gregorian chant was originally sung in one of two contexts: by men and women of religious orders, in the chapels of monasteries and other similar buildings; and by choirs (men or boys) in churches.
Essentially, Gregorian chant was performed either during Roman Catholic Mass or during the monastic office – the sequence of religious services, or times of prayer, between religious communities.
Gregorian chant is no longer compulsory in either context. However, it is still considered the most appropriate music for worship by the Catholic Church.
How did Gregorian chant influence later classical music?
This beautiful and witty musical form had a profound impact on the patterns borrowed by Medieval and Renaissance music. For example, the way the modern musical staff is notated was developed directly from Gregorian musical notation. The bass clef and flat, natural, and sharp accidentals all come from Gregorian notation.
Gregorian chant melodies also found their way into hymns and arias, and helped shape the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. polyphony. Songs were often used as cantus firmus, or a fixed tune around which a polyphonic choral melody can develop. The Marian antiphons, in particular Alma Redemptoris Materwere frequently arranged by Renaissance composers.
Later, the Catholic Church introduced polyphonic arrangements (with different groups singing different melodies) to replace monophonic Gregorian chant during the Ordinary of Mass – those parts of the Mass which remain unchanged throughout the year.
Elsewhere, composers including William Byrd and Tomás Luis de Victoria wrote polyphonic arrangements of the Propers – those parts of the liturgy of the Mass which change daily throughout the liturgical year. These polyphonic arrangements often include traces of the original Gregorian chant, before it was replaced by polyphonic arrangements.
When and why did Gregorian chant experience a renaissance?
At the end of the 20th century, Gregorian chant grew in popularity, reaching audiences far beyond those who would normally only hear this beautiful music in churches, chapels and monasteries. Part of the new wave of interest is due to German band Enigma, who included Gregorian chant samples on their 1990 hit single. Sadness (Part I).
A few years later released an album titled singing, featuring Gregorian chant performed by the Benedictine monks of Santo Domingo de Silos in Spain. The music had actually been recorded in the 1970s, but only now has it become a hit. And what success: singing became the best-selling Gregorian chant album of all time.
Three beautiful pieces of Gregorian chant
Alma Redemptoris Mater
This beautiful melody is one of four “Marian antiphons” – hymns in praise of the Virgin Mary, sung in religious communities after Compline in the last prayer service of the day.
Avenue Regina Caelorum
Along with ‘Alma Redemptoris Mater’ above, it is one of four Marian antiphons sung at the end of the day. Again, it’s short, eloquent and beautiful.
Meaning “Lord, have mercy”, the “Kyrie Eleison” (or simply “Kyrie”) is a prayer offered during the Roman Catholic Mass. Traditionally, it was often set to Gregorian chant.
Photo: Giles Clarke/Getty Images