Gregorian Chant: Sacred, Precious, Beautiful
by Kara Gordon
Kara Gordon is a sixteen-year-old high-school junior who lives with her parents and two younger brothers in Wheeling, West Virginia. This essay was written as a home-school class assignment.
[Details about the Young Writers Award.]
In the beginning of the sixth chapter of the Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Liturgy, it is proclaimed, “The music tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art.”
Why does music have such a prized place in the Church? It has such an honorable place because music alone has the highest power of any art to influence human emotions, as exemplified in I Sam 16:14-23, in which David was able to free Saul from the evil spirit that was tormenting him by playing his lyre.
Logically following this fact is the realization that, if music has such an emotional impact on people, great care should be taken that sacred music, especially the music of the Mass, promotes correct emotions and does not provide diversion or turn the Mass into a mere musical performance. Therefore, music in the Mass should draw the congregation further into the truth of the Sacrifice they are celebrating. Is there a particular form of music that does this better than others? Yes, there is one: Gregorian chant.
To distinguish it from other early forms of chant, all of which are now nonexistent, Gregorian chant has been given the name of the pope who was responsible for the ordering and recording of its songs, and whose papacy is recurrently used to mark the beginning of the Medieval age.
This pope was Pope Gregory I, also known as Pope Saint Gregory the Great. This last title, “the Great”, was later bestowed upon him in recognition of his excellent example of Christian life during his papacy. Leading the Church during a time of instability in Rome due to barbarian invaders, Gregory consistently manifested great charity and competency, always alloyed with humility, as shown by his title, “Servus servorum Dei” (“Servant of the servants of God”). Acknowledged as one of the Church Fathers and the last of the Latin Doctors, Pope Gregory is remembered for innumerable momentous accomplishments, especially the establishment of Gregorian chant.
Even before his historic papacy, Pope Gregory I had a high standing in the Roman world. His father was a wealthy nobleman and senator; Gregory himself became a prefect for the police as well as a judge for criminal cases.
Taking a holier turn after his father’s death, Gregory dispensed with his entire wealth, funding the erection of seven monasteries and donating generously to the poor. Having rid himself of his earthly fortune, an action highly praised by the Medieval church, Gregory became a simple monk in one of his monasteries in Rome.
Not long afterward, the pope appointed Gregory one of the seven deacons of Rome, and in 579 AD, he was further promoted as nuncio, the pope’s personal ambassador, of Constantinople.
He was finally elected to the office of Saint Peter in 590 AD, an office he was at first loath to accept. However, he finally judged the appointment to be God’s will, and so accepted his calling. Later he would be known as Pope Saint Gregory the Great, a fitting title for the pope who established the greatest of Church music.
Although he is known not to have composed any of the melodies of what is now referred to as Gregorian chant, Pope Saint Gregory has given his name to this form of praise because of his efforts to permanently establish it for liturgical worship. In many churches at the end of the sixth century, the congregation took part in the Mass by singing a Roman form of plain-chant with no harmony. The melodies were very simple, but drew the people into the Holy Sacrifice and focused their minds on God’s majesty. However, these songs were never recorded or organized and would have in time been irretrievably lost, had not Pope Saint Gregory the Great stepped in.
He encouraged a general organization and simplification of the various chants, many of which are believed to come from ancient Jewish sources, and he is credited with ordering the cataloguing of the music as assigned to specific parts of the church calendar. This influence not only preserved the ancient form of chant, but also led to further musical development.
So, thanks to Saint Gregory, Gregorian chant not only remained intact but flourished to such a degree that it influenced every aspect of Medieval music. Style, notation and method of singing all permeated the compositions of the Middle Ages and still have a tremendous though often unrealized hold on music and musicians today. For centuries this impact dominated every corner of Europe, uniting the entire western world in one basic style of song. Monks chanted the Holy Office in every monastery. Common parishioners chanted the responses of the Mass. Even Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Emperor, demanded chant replace all other forms of sacred music in his empire. In this way, chant formed the basis for all other written music and has survived to similarly enrich our present liturgy.
Though it is not extensively known, most of the modern system of notating music, such as the five-bar staff, the bass clef, and the flat, natural, and sharp accidentals, come directly from the early forms of written chant. Originally, chant was documented by placing musical signs called neumes the precursors of our modern notes above the words of the text. Later on, one or two bars were added and the neumes became squares positioned on specific lines to clarify pitch and the intervals between notes. Before these lines were added, the notes served mainly to indicate tone movements and gestures, since the melodies and note pitches were taught orally and memorized by the choirs who led the singing. In the first half of the eleventh century, Guido d’Arezzo, an Italian Benedictine, developed the four-line staff for chant and our modern staff is derived from this early version. Besides the neumes, other signs gradually developed to indicate tempo, note duration, and pronunciation of the lyrics. These innovations were then borrowed for other types of music and are still used to notate chant in modern times.
The chants sung during Mass originally were led by choirs of men, usually members of the clergy. They chanted the songs from memory during the early days of Gregorian chant; later it would be sung from notated manuscripts. Simplistically beautiful, the chants were sung with no harmony. This emphasized the actual lyrics themselves, which was the purpose of liturgical music from the beginning. Generally, the songs would be started by one lead cantor and the main choir, as well as the congregation, would join in the refrain or response. This allowed the cantor to establish the pitch and tempo, making it easier for the choir to stay together. Chant is still intoned much the same way, without harmony and with minimal accompaniment. The methods and melodies are usually uncomplicated. However the singing of chant uniquely evokes a sense of majesty and eternity.
It has been stated often that beauty lifts the soul to a better awareness of the divine, and beauty does not require complexity. Through the simplicity of Gregorian chant, the mind is elevated and the listener is given almost an auditory glimpse of heaven. Not all forms of music are capable of this. Many modern genres focus on the fellowship of the congregation but fail to give the parishioner a proper sense of awe at participating in the Divine Sacrifice. The same important qualities that these other varieties lack are the qualities that Gregorian chants possess in abundance. Popes, bishops, and priests have praised it thus for centuries. In every way, Gregorian chant is an instrument for meaningful participation in Mass, and more perfect worship of God.
A strong case for Gregorian chant is the multitude of recommendations and praise it has received from the leaders of the Catholic Church. In 1903, Pope Saint Pius X declared that Gregorian chant is “proper to the Roman Church” and that “[holiness and universality] are to be found in the highest degree in Gregorian chant”. Certainly, such commendations from a pope and saint should not be tossed aside without consideration.
Also, the fathers of the Second Vatican Council wrote, “Chant is a living connection with our forebears in the faith, the traditional music of the Roman rite, a sign of communion with the universal Church, a bond of unity across cultures, a means for diverse communities to participate together in song, and a summons to contemplative participation in the liturgy” (Sacrosanctum Concilium §116). With these and other writings, the Church has consistently shown her high regard for chant and belief in the benefits of chant in the Mass.
As the oldest form of liturgical music in present-day use, Gregorian chant has long since earned a powerful reputation for being practical and beneficial in most ordinary parishes. The reason for this may be partially discovered by determining the purpose of music during Mass, namely to help the faithful better understand the words of the Mass and to intensify appropriate dispositions. In all these requirements, chant excels. Gregorian chant commands an unsurpassed ability to intensify text and it gives an unmistakable sense of the spiritual and eternal.
Chant also has no secular associations. This gives chant a solely religious identity, thereby promoting the truth that Mass is not just an exchange of fellowship between humans, but a fellowship of God and man. On the practical side, when led by even a tiny choir that has learned the chants gradually, any congregation can learn the Latin chants of the Mass, and in a short time, they sing them with more ease than other forms of religious music, thus not bewildering them with complexity. Also many Catholics may already be familiar with some more common chant-hymns, such as Veni, Veni Emmanuel, (O Come, O Come, Emmanuel), Pange Lingua, and Tantum Ergo, Saint Thomas Aquinas’s hymns to the Blessed Sacrament.
Gregorian chant deserves a place in the Mass because of its innate power to draw people to the truth of the Mass as an event in which the people offer humble prayer and receive infinite healing, forgiveness, nourishment, and eternal grace from their loving and divine Father.
Above all, the perfection of chant lies in its simple, heavenly loveliness. The singing of chant brings out the true beauty, humility and perfection of Christ in man, while simultaneously uplifting his soul. During the celebration of the Mass, heaven and earth meet, allowing humankind to join the celestial choirs of angels in singing divine praise to God. The music of the Mass should remind the congregation of this.
From the earliest nomadic temple of the Israelites to modern cathedrals and parish churches, the holy places of God have been built and furnished with the most precious materials and visual art forms to set these places of worship apart from the secular activities of society. Likewise should churches also be filled with the most sacred, precious, and beautiful music: Gregorian chant.
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