Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of May 26, 2008
What is Gregorian chant?
By SR. LOUISE ZDUNICH, NDC
The monks of Solsmes began a restoration movement that has revealed some of its original form and style.
Among scholars, there is still question how plainchant developed from the fifth to the ninth centuries.
Regional versions of plainchant arose: the Mozarabic in Spain, the Celtic in the British Isles, the Gallican in Gaul, the Roman, Ambrosian and the Beneventan in Italy.
A uniform Gregorian chant was ordered by Charlemagne (742-814) throughout his empire to consolidate his power through uniformity. The result was the disappearance of most of these. However, Ambrosian chant has survived in Milan.
Plainsong is different from modern music in that it is monodic, like a mournful or plaintiff composition composed for one voice or a choir. Originally very simple in its form, plainchant belonged to the people.
However, as it became more complex and the neume (number of notes for one syllable) increased, Gregorian chant became the preserve of professionals who alone could master its complexities.
Three melodic styles of chant existed in the Gregorian-sung Latin Masses. In the syllabic style, usually heard in psalms and antiphons, there is one note for each syllable. Two to a dozen notes are used for one syllable in the neumatic style, found in the Sanctus and Agnus Dei.
In the melismatic style, one syllable is sung to many notes as in the alleluias and offertories.
Plainsong had lost its original beauty until the second half of the 19th century when the monks of Solsmes began a restoration movement that has revealed some of its original form and style. Popular singers have used it in recent years and it has been used for the sound track of computer games such as Halo.
As reported in recent newspapers, Universal Music is planning a recording of the singing of 15 monks from a 12th century Austrian monastery because they were struck by its beauty and immediacy.
They found it calming and spiritual, suitable for today's society of heightened anxiety.
Why would the pope want to restore it? Prior to Vatican II, it was the only official music of the Latin or Roman Catholic Church and still is considered most suitable for worship.
There is also a concern, I believe, that we may be losing some of the beauty of the traditions of the Church.
However, there appears to be no question of making it the sole form of Church music. Other forms in current use have not been downgraded as a result of the new enthusiasm for chant.
The note by Robert Hartford with the 1996 double CD recording of the Solesmes monks expresses it well.
"The slow and inevitable progress of this music acts as a reminder of things eternal. It is the aural equivalent of stepping into a great and ancient cathedral from the hustle and bustle of a busy city street.
"Just as the solemn presence of old stone walls can convey an impression of enduring tradition so the time-denying sounds of Gregorian chant can likewise bring a reassuring sensation that they have existed since mankind first gave voice. . . .
"It must not be forgotten that, for many millions throughout the ages, these are the sounds of mortals addressing their God."
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