Looking at the Gradual and Alleluia texts a few Sundays back during Mass, I found myself thinking, rather bored, how alike all the texts were; I wondered idly why the Church hadn't used some of the more searing phrases from the psalms: "I have spent my years like a sigh" - phrases which toll with a pang in our hearts.
After a moment's comparison, however, I realized that the Church had chosen texts whose subject was God, not human experience; and I felt rather embarrassed. Long ago, somebody more godly was sufficiently inspired by these texts to set them to music: a Levite in post-exilic Jerusalem; or a Christian, writing from some cold, war-damaged monastery. Most likely, both played a part.
For the chant used in the Mass today is a child of the chant that Christ would have heard in the Temple and synagogues. The early Christians neither composed commissions to revise the liturgy, nor commissioned composers to recast the chant. They brought to the Christian liturgy the prayers and chant of the Jewish liturgy, and the style of music changed little during Christianity's catacomb years. Etheria, a Spanish nun on pilgrimage to the holy places in about 385, mentions hymns, psalms, responsories and antiphons as part of the Easter liturgy at Jerusalem, the first three being forms familiar from Jewish liturgy.
Antiphons are short pieces of prose set to music and placed like sentinels at either end of the psalm. Today, the bulk of the Latin Office is antiphonal psalm singing, and, at Mass, you hear antiphonal psalms when the priest enters (the Introit); during the Offertory (the Offertorio) - although the music for the antiphon has been embroidered to such length and complexity that the psalm itself is usually omitted; and during the reception of Communion (the Communio) - again, without the psalm.
Following the legalisation of Christianity in 313, different forms and flavours of chant began to develop by region. Roman Spain produced Mozarabic chant, whose title refers to the Moorish rule over Spanish Christians after the invasion of 711. In fact, the chant was composed and complete by the 7th Century, and altered little thereafter. From Milan came Ambrosian chant, named in honour of St Ambrose; from Gaul, or what is now France, Gallican chant; from Rome, Old Roman and Gregorian; from England, the Sarum; from the Church in the East, Syrian, Byzantine, Coptic, Ethiopian and Armenian. Some of these chants were suppressed by Roman pontiffs striving to establish a unified liturgy and music for the Church. Others were abandoned when the region resolved to adopt what it considered a superior chant or liturgy. By these paths Gregorian chant came to dominate liturgical music in the West by the 8th Century.
The one fact almost invariably known about Gregorian chant is that Pope Gregory had something to do with it. In fact, a number of musical popes before him had contributed to the development of chant in Rome, forming chant schools, founding monasteries to preserve and maintain the chant or even composing chant. Pope St Gregory the Great (540-604), however, gathered together the different forms of chant; chose, adapted and ordered them; and had them transcribed into an Antiphonary, which in later centuries travelled long distances to bring Gregorian chant to other countries. He not only organised the chant but also took a firm hand in the chant school. "There today", wrote John the Deacon, a 9th century biographer of Gregory, "is still shown the couch on which he reposed while giving his singing lessons; and the whip with which he threatened the boys is still preserved and venerated as a relic." Despite the famous medieval picture of the Holy Spirit singing melodies into Gregory's ear while he attentively transcribed them, we don't know whether he composed any chant.
If Gregory did not write them, who did? Unfortunately, for the most part, the composers are unknown. Scribes sometimes attributed hymns to mediaevally renowned poets: St Ambrose (d.c. 397), Aurelius Prudentius (d.c. 405), Caelius Sedulius (d.c. 450), Venantius Fortunatus (d.c. 610), St Isodore of Seville (d. 636). But these writers may have set their lyrics to popular tunes, rather than compose original melodies.
The chants of the Mass and Office are largely anonymous. Most Proper chants - those intended for a specific Sunday or feast day (Introit, Gradual, Alleluia, Offertorio and Communio) - were composed between the 5th and 8th centuries; although the composition of new Propers, to accompany new feast days, continued until the post-Vatican II period. The Ordinary chants - those common to every Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei) - that we sing today were composed in the second wind of chant composition, from the 9th to the 12th century. As in Judaism, the anonymous composers were probably clergy, religious or cantors from the Church's chant schools.