Gregorian Chant

What is Gregorian Chant

Gregorian Chant is a mystical form of music, which penetrates the deepest recesses of the soul. It opens the human heart to a profound awareness of the transcendent glory of God, allowing the listener to experience His eternal Serenity and Peace. Indeed, Gregorian Chant is an inspired form of music, which draws the soul into the depths of contemplation.

The heavenly melodies of Chant are so far beyond human ingenuity that they can only be attributed to divine inspiration. At times, the listener will hear the soaring and eternal quality of Gregorian Chant and experience the sweet love flowing from the Heart of God.

What is Gregorian Chant

Gregorian Chant is often synonymous with plainsong or plainchant, composing of Roman Catholic church music from the early Middle Ages, as well as later compositions (sequences and elaborate melodies for the Ordinary of the Mass, etc.) written in the same style up to the 16th century and in event into more modern times. In the stricter sense, the Gregorian chant refers to the Roman form of the early plainchant as distinguished from the Mozarabic, Gallican and Ambrosian chants. Although the Mozarabic, Gallican and Ambrosian chants were similar to the Roman form of early plain song, they were gradually superseded by it from the 8th century to the 11th century.

Origin of the name “Gregorian Chant”

The term Gregorian Chant points to Pope St. Gregory the Great I (590-604). A pretty consistent tradition ascribes a particular final composition of the Roman chant to Gregory the Great. In more recent times, religious music scholars have attempted to demonstrate, with a considerable amount of learning, that the final arrangement of the Mass songs can be traced back to the end of the 7th or the 8th century. Their debates led to a closer investigation of the question on the origins of the chant, and at present typically all authorities hold that a considerable majority of the chants were composed prior to the year 600.

Types of Gregorian Chants

The comprising the Gregorian chant can be categorized into three forms distinguished by the degree of complexity or difficulty.

  • The simple category chants permitted the entire congregation to take part, and some chants could easily date back before Pope Gregory, maybe as far back as the chants of the synagogues.
  • On the other hand, the more complex category is the antiphons for vespers and lauds. Still, they are not very complex for a monastic community comprised of members with varying skills. This second category largely comprises of the “O” antiphons for Advent.
  • Finally, small factions of trained musicians or solo cantors would usually sing the melismatic chants or the complex chants for the propers of Mass. These difficult chants are founded on structural notes that are connected by an intricate interlacing of notes, which produce the effect of a form of medieval jazz.

Development of Chant Notation

During the 9th Century, a scheme of notation was developed to help the cantors. Unlike modern notation, which hints to rhythm and pitch, this system of lines and dots sought to conserve the nuances of the oral performance. With time, memory faded, and the need to indicate pitch arose, resulting in the development of the four-line staff with its square notation.

However, the new scheme lacked nuance. Under the new system, a single category of square notes denoted five or more varying signs from the old scheme. The modal system and free rhythm were also fading from liturgy. The development of polyphony precipitated the need for strict measured time, and the minor and major keys dominated. The original tradition was blurred, if not completely lost altogether. However, modern scholarship has attempted to recover the lost elements of the oral performance, and the issue of rhythm has preoccupied a larger part of the scholarly discussion.

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