A Series of Firsts

I have been in an introspective, contemplative, meditative frame of mind as of late.  That is not an unusual state in which to find myself.  I am a pretty thoughtful and analytical sort of person, maybe too much so.  I have been accused of thinking too much, and at times, that accusation is entirely accurate.  I envy those free-spirited individuals who can “go with the flow”, travel without an itinerary, unencumbered with worries about losing control.  I could use a good long stretch of time just contemplating my navel.

I have been working on a series of posts about musical firsts.  A composer’s first symphony, or the first string quartet of a set, or the first album by a great jazz artist.  The common theme for the series is that all of the subjects are some sort of “first”.  Given my meditative mental state, I settled on the idea of writing the initial post of the series on the topic of Gregorian chant.  The body of music that encompasses plainchant, or Gregorian chant, is some of the first music ever written down in the western concert music tradition.  It is certainly not the first music ever heard, but some of the oldest to have survived from the Eurocentric “classical” music tradition with which I am most familiar.  One of the first Gregorian chants I ever studied is Ave Maris Stella, (“Hail Star of the Sea”), a plainsong hymn to the Virgin Mary.

Ave Maris Stella

93gregory19The style of plainchant is almost from another world, when heard from the perspective of modern life.  Listening to this music forces a person to slow down, focus inward, and adopt a prayer-like state of being.  Part of this comes from the plain, unadorned, unaccompanied single-melody texture of plainchant.  It is monophonic, meaning  just one melody is sounded. In the example above a lone vocalist sings an unharmonized melody, answered by a group of vocalists singing together one unharmonized melody.  This is a style of music that has a several HUNDRED year history during the “Middle Ages”, longer than my home country of the United States has been in existence.  We commonly call this music Gregorian chant, after Pope Gregory I (canonized a Saint Gregory the Great).  Pope Gregory did not invent plainchant, but during his papacy (590-604 AD) he made great strides in codifying and standardizing the liturgy of the Roman Catholic church.  The process of collecting chants and creating a somewhat uniform body of music for use in church services continued for a couple of hundred years after Gregory’s death, but the name Gregorian chant was used in his honor.

Already in existence by the time of Pope Gregory I were traditions of chant from various regions of Europe.  Gallican chant from France, Ambrosian chant from northern Italy, Mozarabic chant from Spain, Sarum chant from England, Celtic chant from Ireland, all of which were used regionally in religious services. The Christian church and monasteries were a repository of civilization in Europe after the fall of the Roman empire.  The great libraries of the monasteries preserved a vast body of knowledge, and the institution of the church provided some sense of order in a relatively lawless world.  Plainchant is functional music, created for use in the daily services of the Christian church.  The Roman Catholic liturgy in the monastery is much more extensive than the Sunday Mass most commonly attended today.  The description from the third edition of Donald Grout’s textbook, A History of Western Music, reads like this:

The two principal classes of services are the Office and the Mass.  There are eight Offices, or Canonical Hours, which are celebrated every day at stated times in a regular order, though their public recitation is generally observed only in monasteries and certain cathedral churches:  Matins (before daybreak), Lauds (at sunrise), Prime, Terce, Sext, Nones (respectively at about 6 A.M. 9 A.M., noon, and 3 P.M.)  Vespers (at sunset) and Compline (usually immediately after Vespers).  The Gregorian music for the Offices is collected in a liturgical book called the Antiphonale or Antiphonal.  The principal features of the Offices are the chanting of psalms with their antiphons, the singing of hymns and canticles, and the chanting of lessons with their responsories.  From the musical point of view, the most important Offices are Matins, Lauds and Vespers.  

Quoting that passage reminds me of how the Grout textbook, probably in its 37th edition by now, was a bit of a dry cure for insomnia in my student years.  Nevertheless, Grout shows us how integrated into daily monastic life the Offices were, and with them the rich musical history of plainchant.  To my ears, this music is perfectly suited to a prayerful mindset.  First, there is no regular beat or pulse in plainchant.  A regular beat is associated with dance music, music that is corporal, physical and certainly not church-like.  Dance music makes you want to move your body, especially the lower half, as Professor Robert Greenberg says “all the fun parts”.  Chant avoids all of that pulse and beat, hoping to inspire a spiritual state of mind, avoiding the carnal.

Deum Verum

Plainchant also predates the tonal harmonic system, the common practice harmony used from the Baroque period of Bach, all the way into the popular music of today.  Instead of the familiar major and minor scales of the tonal system, plainchant uses church modes.  These modes sound ancient, and unfamiliar the first time you hear them.  The vocal range of the melodies are compact, and do not contain any large leaps.  This creates a very smooth melodic line.  The words of each chant are set at times in a syllabic fashion, with one note per syllable.  At other times the words are set in a melismatic fashion, with many notes on one syllable.  The effect on the singer and listener is one that is calming and emotionally centering.

The huge body of plainchant was passed on orally for hundreds of years before attempts to preserve it in writing were made.  Almost all were traditional melodies, performed somewhat improvisationally, and passed on for generations.  Early musical notation of Gregorian chants are not quite the same as what we are used to in modern times.  Again I quote from Donald Grout: “The earliest musical notation did not give an exact picture of the melody; the signs were rather in the nature of a reminder to the singer of something he already knew pretty well.”

Traditional Gregorian Chant Notation

Most striking to me is the anonymous nature of these compositions.  I am so accustomed to listening to a piano sonata by Beethoven,  a prelude and fugue by Bach,  a blues by Willie Dixon, or an arrangement for the Count Basie band by Sammy Nestico.  Most music I know is credited to a composer, someone who wrote the piece and takes credit for the writing.  An ego, a person, the source of the expressive content of the work.  Much of the meaning I take from listening to music is found in what that person is trying to express, and the manner in which the composer is making that expression.  That kind of ego is completely absent from Gregorian chant.  Chant is functional music, in service of the Christian church and God, music for worship and prayer.  The composer of a given melody is not the important point, rather the prayer and the spiritual mindset the chant conveys to the service is the key.

It is just that kind of prayerful, meditative, centered mindset that I have found myself in at times lately, and which made me think of sharing some Gregorian chant on Good Music Speaks.  Chant is such a contrast from the always connected, text/email/smartphone enslaved life we so often find ourselves in during the 21st century.  So many people are isolated with earbuds in their ears, neck crooked down, thumbs sprained and eyes strained from looking at their cell phone.  Gregorian chant reminds me of a time when people shared a communal experience, focused on the spiritual, connecting to something outside of themselves as a congregation.

I find the concept refreshing.

Gregorian Chant on Spotify

Notre Dame album



14 thoughts on “A Series of Firsts

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  1. I was right-brained at birth and a church organist by age twelve. Music dictates my poetry and moves my paint brush. Even my view of the world has been constructed by what can be imagined inside an artist’s mind. I frustrate my rigid friends and musicians embrace my essence. Keep writing and exploring the muse/music in your soul.

  2. Thank you for taking me back to my undergraduate days (and yes, Grout was and is a cure for insomnia). As a massage therapist I use chant in my workroom now and then; I really need to do it more often. Can you say Reticular Activating System? Ahhh….

  3. I will have to come back to read this from beginning to end as I plan to go to a plain song singing workshop in August. I find I can sing this kind of music more confidently than other kinds because the note intervals usually go up and down in steps!

  4. Wow! What a post! First of all, I want to thank you for dropping by my new blog and liking one my post on the new pop singles. They are nowhere near as deep or as informative as yours. Secondly, through your kind liking, I have discovered your blog and have come across some interesting new posts. Music and history is fascinating and I look forward to reading more about classical, blues and jazz music.

  5. Fabulous! I once wrote a post about Allegri’s Misere, musing on whether it was what Heaven would sound like. Your post takes a similar line with plainchant – oh, how beautiful this music is, and yes I love the point about the lack of knowledge of the composer adding to the mystery.

  6. Oh, from what I gather people always had their ways of living an ego driven live, full of distraction and it hardly matters if you isolate yourself, over-intellectualizing things while reading a papyrus or a wordpress blog, does it? That is why spiritual texts about the subject that are 1000 years old still apply today. Very interesting read, I didn’t even know where the term Gregorian came from.

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