Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Medieval Music

Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University


Before the famous Gregorian chant, music, especially sacred music, was generally monophonic (monody). In early centuries, this was purely vocal. St. Paul mentions psalms as a means of edification, so the Church took this as validation for music in services. Psalmody was entrusted to a soloist; sometimes the congregation would respond with a refrain. This presumably was a continuation of earlier Jewish and Eastern traditions, closer to the Jewish in being vocal only, not instrumental.

Augustine pinpointed, or started, a problem regarding sacred music in his Confessions: “I waver between the danger of voluptuousness and the experience of salvation. Whenever I happen to be more moved by the singing than by the contents of the words being sung, I confess to a grave sin and should have preferred not to have heard the singer.” This would become important to music and religion in general later.

Chant existed in early Greek and Arabic Eastern forms and was part of both Byzantine and Orthodox worship. Latin asserted itself in the 4th century alongside Greek. Five “churches” or dialects developed: the Milanese Church in Northern Italy (Ambrosian chant); the Beneventan Church in South; the Church of the Iberian Peninsula (Mozarabic); the Church of Rome (Old Roman/Byzantine Period); and the Gallican Rite (Gauls).

The Church of Rome chants took shape in the 7th and 8th centuries; they have an Eastern flavor because of dependence on the Byzantine Empire. These chants can include an “ison”: a note sustained by the lowest voices to emphasize modal changes — so there’s a semi-polyphonic tradition in Rome from early on.

The term “Gregorian” is derived from Pope Gregory I (the Great) (c. 540-604), but this pope actually reprimanded deacons for singing the liturgy — he felt they were better off preaching and caring for souls than winning praise for their voices. The papacy eventually considered it necessary to unify the liturgy. Under Pope Vitalian (657-672), the liturgy underwent renewal; chants had become overloaded with passing notes which blurred the melodic line. With clarity in music being considered primary, the chants were restored to their ancient form, but more rhythmic (proportional) chant also resulted. Benedictine monasteries from the 6th century onwards served as useful institutions for teaching “official” chant. (Benedict’s Rule divides day into 8, an “octave,” for worship.) When the Frankish kingdom and Carolingian Empire became politically significant forces, they became interested in, indeed ravenous for, establishing culture, so “official” chant became a valued commodity. Another attempt at unification of the repertory came in the mid-8th century under Pippin the Short, father of Charlemagne and king of Franks (751-768). Cantors were sent from Rome, but they may have sabotaged the spread of the art by teaching chant differently and incorrectly, thereby maintaining the importance of Rome, as crazy as that sounds. The “restoration” of the fixed Roman liturgy continued under Charlemagne (who reigned 768-814). He sent two clerics incognito to Rome to learn the real chants.

The earliest chant books appear at the end of the 9th century, at last making attempts at notation. These were neumes, dots and accents written above the text but with no indication of rhythm or pitch at first. Then chants began appearing on four-staff lines.

Chant was a pervasive part of monastic life where, surrounded by farmland, you would work six hours, spend three hours in spiritual reading and five hours in communal worship. Your presence and participation was required at the following services:

Matins (= morning) — 2:00 am in winter, later in summer. Afterwards you might go back to bed or perhaps just study.
Lauds (= praise, sunrise).
Prime (= first, soon after Lauds, 6:00 am).
Terce (= third, 9:00 am).
Sext (= sixth, midday).
None (= ninth, 3:00 pm).
Vespers (= evening, sunset).
Compline (= completed hour, soon after Vespers, before retiring).

All 150 Psalms were chanted every week, beginning every Sunday at night office. But also included were hymns (devotional songs) and canticles (New Testament songs like Mary’s Magnificat), and some intoned prayers and responses.

The Mass is a celebration and reenactment of the Last Supper. The Ordinary of the Mass consists of Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei. The Proper varies according with the season and feast day. Here is the sequence of the Mass with sung portions designated by * and the “ordinary” by **:

Mass of the Catechumens (those preparing for baptism):
*Introit (entry of celebrants)
**Kyrie Eleison (prayer for mercy)
**Gloria (prayer of adoration)
Collect (prayer of the day’s feast)
Reading (from Epistles)
*Gradual (part of a psalm)
*Alleluia or Tract (melisma at end syllable of alleluia = jubilus)
Reading (from Gospels)

Mass of the Faithful (only the baptized remained for this second half in early days):
**Credo (adopted at Council of Nicea 325 ce, adopted in Mass 1014)
*Offertory (and dedicatory prayers)
**Sanctus and Benedictus
Canon (central prayers)

Pater Noster (the Lord’s Prayer)
Prayer for peace **Agnus Dei (Lamb of God, invocation)
Thanksgiving Prayers
*Ite missa est/Deo gratias.

The first chants (plainchant) were really just heightened modes of speech with syllabic declamations. The modes (similar to “keys”) are difficult to hear because they depend on the end notes.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from syllabic declamation, one can find up to 100 notes on single syllable, often in the Alleluia because this is essentially a nonense word expressing boundless joy. Such passages are called “melismas.” and Mariah Carey and hip-hop groups are guilty of the modern incarnation of this melismatic practice. Eventually these melismas outgrew their alleluias, and for help in memorization they became syllabically texted, so an independent form ultimately called a sequence resulted. (This blurs the old question of which comes first: the music or the lyrics?)

In the 11th century Guido d’Arezzo, an Italian musician and theorist, using squared notation developed a system of learning music. This involved a commonly known hymn from the latter part of 8th century in honor of St. John the Baptist. The chant contains six sections each beginning with a new note in an ascending pattern: Ut queant laxis / Resonare fibris / Mira gestorum / Famuli tuorum / Solve polluti / Labii reatum, Sancte Johannes. So the notes of the “hexachord” — c-d-e, f-g-a (two groups of whole tones and semitone between the groups) — were Ut, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La.

The remaining gap was filled between the octaves with a high/hard B-natural or a soft B-flat. (In German the hard inflection became “H.”) (Ut was replaced by “Do” in the early 1600s, since Ut is not easy for vocalizing. The seventh note “ti” or in Europe “si” came in at the same time. The lowest note on Guido’s scale is Ut in the gamma range, or, gamma-ut. This became our “gamut,” so that “running the gamut” originally means practicing one’s scales all the way through.

Guido’s musical system could produce a competent singer in one or two years, vs. the ten years traditionally. Sight reading was now possible. Shifting the clef so as to avoid adding more lines would conserve parchment.

Early Music Site

Gregorian Chant Site — Abbey of Solesmes