Mass Propers
Gregorian Chant
Dom Cabrol
Romano Guardini
Papal Documents


By Stephen Thuis, O.S.B., M. Mus. St. Meinrad, Indiana

The Beginnings of Chant until 600

To the student of the history of Gregorian Chant the first great epoch is naturally the reign of St. Gregory the Great (590-604). His name it is that has been given to plain chant. For one, however, who is interested in the comparative study of the history of the Chant and the history of the Catholic Church there is much of importance during those memorable first six centuries of the Christian era. Standing on those ancient hills of Rome and, with Gregory, the noble "Last of the Romans," looking back in a sweeping glance over those first six centuries he sees how the infant Church leaves the hands of her Divine Founder beautiful in the radiance of her baptismal innocence he sees, too, how, as she grows, she is bathed and strengthened in the crimson blood of her glorious martyrs he notes her formation and organization, her development of doctrine, her difficulties and yet all preparing her for the great expansion under him who was to be called "The Father of the Christendom that was to come," Gregory, the first of that name to mount the throne of the Supreme Pontiffs.

During the same period, in the world of sacred music, the student observes the forces at work which are to develop into that finished product of the liturgical song, Gregorian Chant. Meager as are his sources of knowing the exact nature and content of the music of the early Christian Church, he knows that the Church did sing and the music that developed during this formative period furnished St. Gregory with the material for that masterpiece of liturgical musical expression, the Roman plain chant, which has been characterized as religious music in its baptismal innocence, as religious music in its highest and most intense form. Cast by Gregory, after this formative period into a definite mold, the Chant would be prepared to set out upon its mission of diffusion, as it accompanied the monastic missionaries to new fields of conquest.

Little indeed is known of the exact nature of the music of the early Church. We cannot forget, however, that Jesus Christ Himself has consecrated sacred chant by using it at that most solemn of events, the Last Supper (Mt. 26:30). Then, too St. Paul exhorts the early Christians to the singing of "psalms, hymns, and spiritual canticles" (Col. 3:16). A late Roman archaeologist tells us:
The inscriptions of the Roman Catacombs give little clue to the character of the chant used in the services of the Church during the time of the first persecutions. From this, however, we may not infer that there existed no definite form of liturgical chant in the Christian communities before the time of Constantine, who enlarged the opportunities of public worship. The letter of the Roman Governor Pliny to the emperor Trajan (c. A.D. 103), the authenticity is unquestioned, indicates clearly that the Christians of Bithynia and Pontus were accustomed to chant the Psalter or the praises of Christ, Whom they revered as God, at their services in alternate choirs.

600 to 1300

CHURCH music had sufficiently developed during the first six centuries of the Church to be ready for a definite and lasting mold. This it was to receive from a pope who still belonged to the old classical world that was fast passing away, from St. Gregory the Great. In its finished form the Chant would now set out on its era of diffusion and perfection. But before following the Chant on its conquest, we must first take a hurried view of the condition of the Church during this period.

The Church had been, for six hundred years, preparing her forces for new and greater conquests and now her intrepid missionaries would set out with renewed zeal to carry to many and distant lands the gospel of civilization and salvation. First we have St. Gregory sending to England St. Augustine the monk who was to change "the Angles into angels," and thus become the Apostle of that land. Other monks of St. Benedict were active elsewhere. The great St. Boniface (d. 755) was effecting the conversion of Germany: St. Willibrord (d. 738), that of Holland. The blessings of the true faith were being brought to the Saxons; then later to the lands of Denmark and Sweden, to Moravia, Bohemia, Russia, Poland, and Hungary. Determined to show their gratitude to the Church that had brought them the treasures of civilization and of the true Faith, the newly converted barbarians knew of only two ways to do so: to deal vigorous blows to the enemies of the Church, and to make large donations to the Church and her poo Yet this very generosity became a danger. As a result of their generosity, the rulers of the new Christian nations began to feel a right over the Church, the spiritual and temporal were confounded, no longer was there rendered to God what belonged to God, and the evils of lay interference became manifest: and yet the Church finally emerged from out of all this more powerful than ever before, and we have the glorious Ages of Faith, culminating in the "Thirteenth, the Greatest of Centuries." Having torn herself away from the "embrace of feudalism, which desired to make of her a religion of camp chapels and connect her with its fleeting destinies," the Church now "presided at the birth of communes and universities, she covered with her prestige Gothic art and scholasticism, she saw saints ascend the thrones of France and of Castle. And during two centuries, the twelfth and thirteenth, she became the supreme authority of Western Europe, the oracle of the Christian world."

And what of the history of the Gregorian Chant? The Chant was experiencing, in large part, the fortunes of her whom it was serving so well. Despite difficulties it was, like the Church, reaching the zenith of its perfection and glory until it became the musical oracle of the Christian world.

The Chant was borne by the missionaries to the newly converted lands, thus extending its domain until it permeated every phase of musical activity and reigned supreme, not only in the realm of sacred music, but, in fact, of all music. Difficulties devloped, it is true. As familiarity with the Church had led to interference, so in the Chant world familiarity with the chants now led to a desire for novelty, which resulted in interference with the traditional rendering of the sacred melodies. In the government of the Church at large, much of the havoc of this time was due to the confounding of spiritual with the temporal; the world of music, the havoc to the Chant would be due largely to the fact that the new musica mensurabilis - which was, of course, a perfectly legitimate development-was being confounded with musica plana and the theorists were endeavoring to treat both on the same basis, to the detriment of the latter. However, this decadence belongs rather to the subsequent period The confusion of the spiritual with the temporal led to the neglect of the spiritual, though there was no great upheaval as yet; but the way was being prepared for that. The confusion as to the new music and the Chant led to the neglect of the old though there was no serious harm to the Chant as yet; but the seeds of decay were being slowly sown. In fact, after the year 950 the compositions that were being produced were in part inferior to the earlier ones as regards simplicity, naturalness, and warmth of feeling nevertheless, the Gregorian Chant continued to hold its sway as the universal musical language of the one universal Church. Furthermore, it was the monastic hearths that preserved and fed the sacred fire of Christian fervor; likewise it was the monastic homes of the sons of Benedict that preserved and fostered the sacred Chant, for without them the Chant would have been lost to the succeeding generations. And if St. Benedict, through his Order, can be said to have saved Christianity he can also be said to have preserved the Chant; just as his sons of a later day, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, were to be the principal agents in the restoration of that exquisite traditional plain song.

If, as one historian says, Gregory deserves far better than either Brutus or Boethius the title of Last of the Romans, certainly not the least of his services rendered to the Church and art was his work on the Chant which was later to bear his name. A the first pope drawn from that Order which has always cherished the Opus Dei - the Divine Office-the Liturgy-as the most sacred charge consigned to her zealous care by her founder, Benedict of Nursia, Gregory would be expected to give largely of his solitude to the Liturgy-and what is inseparable from the Liturgy -the Chant. As to the Liturgy, we know, among other things, that the Canon of the Mass is still the same as when it left his hands a masterpiece at the end of the sixth century.

In the Middle Ages the legend long prevailed that Gregory one night had a vision in which the Church appeared to him in the form of an angel, magnificently attired, upon whose mantle was written the whole art of music, with all the forms of its melodies and notes. The pope prayed God to give him the power of recollecting all that he saw and after he awoke, a dove appeared, who dictated to him the chants which are ascribed to him."

St. Gregory was, above all, the practical Roman; he had that broadness of vision that characterized the Roman lawgiver. His parents, as is known, belonged to the Roman nobility; he himself had been Prefect of Rome, when he renounced the honors and pleasures of his station to become a lowly monk. His activity in regard to the Chant - and this in particular concerns us here -may be summed up in the words of an early writer: "Multa subtrahe, Paula convertens, nonnulla vero superadiciens"-removing much, altering little, and adding some. This is to say, as far as we can judge, St. Gregory composed few of the melodies, if any; but he but he pruned and fashioned existing material, and together with his school of musicians characterized by "a keen perception for strict form, for proportion in the parts, and for delicacy, rich variety, and tenderness of melody," brought forth those melodies that for many centuries have been, and still are, the dmiration of the greatest musicians.

According to an ancient writer, St. Odo, the second Abbot of the renowned Abbey of Cluny, who died in 942, the real merit of St. Gregory's labors lay in the fact that he suited the melody to the text in a really wonderful manner. The holy Abbot Odo delighted how, for example, Gregory, by the melodies, summons us in the Introits of the Mass to the celebration of the Divine mysteries as with the trumpet call of a herald: how the Alleluia is filled with sweet joy: how in the nocturnal Responses he seems to admonish us to throw off the fetters of drowsiness and to watch and the like. The original Latin follows: Ex quo probatur, quod S. Papa Gregorius plus omnibus per divinam gratiam hujus artis industriam sit adeptus...

Enriched with this melodic treasury, the Choral now out into the world. Gradually it penetrated throughout Italy (with the sole exception of Milan, where the Ambrosian Chant held sway), then Gaul, Spain (where, however, it found opposition on the part of Mozarabie Chant), but especially England (which received the Chant simultaneously with the true faith), and Germany. Especially was Charlemagne, King of the Franks, its great patron he at once commanded the introduction of the Roman Chant books into his entire kingdom.

The missionaries sent from Rome took the Chant with them. Augustine made his first entry into Canterbury amid the melodies of the Roman Chant-the Chant that was to be loved and sung in that land for well-nigh a thousand years, until the Reformation, by brute force, silenced those cherished melodies. "Every monastery founded in the savage forests of Germany, Gaul, or Britain became at once a singing school, and day and night the holy strains went up in unison with the melodies of the far distant sacred city,"-Rome.