The Gregorian melodies have their roots in the Jewish synagogue service. Simple psalm recitations and prayers were adopted into the Christian liturgy. As early as the fourth century AD we find evidence for the antiphonal singing of psalms (alternating between two choirs) and for responsorial singing (between a precentor and a schola). Gregorian melodies developed largely out of these liturgical recitatives, and in particular from the psalmody.
In their present form, the great majority of the chants originated in the course of the standardization of the liturgy that took place under Carolingian rule in the eighth and ninth centuries, from the convergence of two previously independent traditions: the song of the Roman liturgy and the chant of the Gallican liturgy. From this convergence arose a new symbiosis of word and song, a perfect unity of text and melody, of great artistic expressivity and spiritual depth. The composers often were monks, formed by their daily contact with the Bible and particularly with the psalms. The sound bodies given to the biblical texts stem from this contemplative spirituality.
Tradition and Notation
It was originally by oral tradition that these chants were handed down. In the ninth and tenth centuries we find the first Gregorian music written down, representing the earliest examples of musical notation in the West. Written above the text in these manuscripts one finds a system of signs, the neumes that stem from the hand-signals of the director and from rhetorical signs; these represent a detailed notation system. These neumes supply no more than a relative key to the melodic line. They contain, rather, nuanced indication for a rhythmic-agogic interpretation of the music. In the eleventh century, we find manuscripts the notation of which documents the exact melodic line through precise graphic positioning of signs, through the use of lines or of a lettering system that indicates pitch. With the help of these manuscripts it is possible today to restore the original melodies of Gregorian compositions.
Gregorian chant throughout the centuries has enriched and deepened the Latin liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church and has been a source of inspiration in almost every period of European music history. A new interest in the ancient manuscripts was awakened with the movement of biblical and liturgical renewal that took place in the second half of the nineteenth century, and the resulting paleographic research brought the first important discoveries to light. The 1950s saw the rise of Gregorian semiology as a scientific musical discipline. With the help of the indications preserved in the manuscripts, its goal has been to revive the Gregorian melodies in their greatest possible authenticity and in their original artistic and religious expressivity.
Gregorian Chant as Exegesis in Song
Gregorian chant may well be the most biblical musical-liturgical repertoire of the Roman Catholic Church and it is often rightly referred to as exegesis in song. Three brief examples will illustrate this point. The melody that accompanies the word Laetare in the Introit Laetare Jerusalem of the Fourth Sunday in Lent is identical with the melodic conclusion of the Easter Vigil Alleluia. This connection is clear and compelling for one wellversed in the Gregorian repertoire. The composer thus interprets the joy of Jerusalem in an Easter perspective, allowing an anticipated echo of the Resurrection joy to sound through already with the first sung word of the Fourth Sunday of Lent. The final phrase Christo Domino of the Communion Quinque prudentes virgines literally and deliberately cites the melody of the text mortem autem crucis of the Graduale Christus factus est of Palm Sunday. The Lord whom the virgins hasten to meet is the Crucified Christ, who redeemed us by his death. The Gregorian theologian and composer makes this concrete Christological statement through his conscious melodic citation. And wherever in the Gregorian repertoire God is spoken of in an intensely personal way (laetabor et exsultabo in te; in te confido; Deus meus adiutor meus, etc.) the compositions regularly shift into a mystical-tender, even intimate sound coloring. The personal, interior relationship to God, which in a special way is the basis of monastic life, clearly leaves its stamp on Gregorian spirituality and theology. Thus far three concrete examples of a Gregorian interpretation of Holy Scripture, of a Gregorian theology, which, in its principles and in its spirituality clearly takes its lead from the exegesis of the Fathers of the Church.
Gregorian Chant as Prayer
The dialogical structure of numerous Gregorian forms, the liturgical function of the chants, but above all the biblical texts themselves, which are most often taken from the Psalms, make Gregorian chant a prayer in song. The chants of the mass propers, for example, fullfil different functions depending on their liturgical setting: some are a profound, meditative reflection on the Word of God heard in the readings (Gradual, Alleluia); others accompany and interpret a liturgical action (Communion, Offertory); still others serve to thematically introduce a given feast or Sunday (Introit). In every case they amount to a dialogue between God and man, to a prayer in song. Qui bene cantat bis orat – he who sings well prays twice. This expression of Saint Augustine is particularly applicable to Gregorian Chant.
Gregorian Chant today
In recent years Gregorian chant has experienced a revival, not only as a form of liturgical music in various Christian denominations, but also as a cultural asset of the West in the realms of music and spirituality. In large measure, this is due to the position held by Gregorian chant at the beginning of Western music history, as well as to its high artistic quality. However, this alone cannot adequately explain the new appreciation for this music.
What makes Gregorian chant so popular today is its religious power that appeals to the deeper levels of the human heart; its spiritual and transcendental dimensions. A number of factors contribute to this. The most significant of all is the power of the texts themselves. Gregorian compositions participate in a special way in the magnificence of the contents as well as in the poetic density of the Psalms; they share in the Psalms’ wholesome, dynamic, often robust spirituality that embraces every domain, every situation of our lives. Like the Psalms, as Old Testament poetry, the Gregorian compositions have at their disposal a broad range of artistic and expressive potentialities; they can do justice to the most diverse feelings and sensitivities: they can express boundless joy as well as the most profound sorrow, vibrant anger over the presence of evil or injustice as well as mystical fervor and devotion. The newly-awakened interest in Gregorian chant is a way in which the search for spiritual depth, the yearning of our times for the religious dimension and ultimately for the Word of God, expresses itself – clothed in this unique garment of sound.
Alexander M. Schweitzer