Gregorian Chant: A Barometer of Christian Fervour

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

Excerpts from the first two chapters follow below.
(The following page is reproduced from the Una Voce Website:


Gregorian Chant has been for centuries the official chant of the Catholic Church. If the Chant is an external expression of the beauty and sanctity within the Catholic Church — and thus part of the very life of the Church one is led to expect that the Chant has shared, in the main, the same fortunes as have been the lot of the Church through the ages. That this has been the case, the writer has endeavored to show in the following pages. In fact, it does not seem too much to say that the status of the Gregorian Chant during the centuries may be considered a barometer indicating the state of religious fervor in the Catholic Church at the time.

We might dwell on the argument based upon the very nature of the ideas concerned, by stating that just as, according to the theological axiom, the lex credienti becomes the lex orandi, so the lex orandi should be the lex cantandi – that is, just as the rule of believing” becomes the “rule of praying,” so the “rule of praying should be the “rule of singing.” This would result in the statement that that is the best form of church music which best corresponds to the lex orandi the “rule of praying.” The next step would be to show that Gregorian Chant is the best musical expression of the prayer of the Church. But history confronts us with the fact that periods of religious fervor have been periods in which Chant flourished, and that periods of falling off in religious fervor have been accompanied by the decline of Chant. In fact, a survey of the synchronous histories of the Church and chant discloses a parallelism that is both striking and significant.

It is of interest to note that today we are experiencing a revived appreciation of the plain chant. This, then, would indicate, from the study of the history of the Chant, that we are in the midst of a reawakening of the religious spirit. From the same study one is led to believe that the extended use and perfected rendering of the Chant today will, in its turn, intensify the revived spiritual life of the Christian community.

The writer indulges the hope that whereas he is not aware of any other attempt to treat this phase of the Chant from just this viewpoint, he may be making a modest contribution to the existing literature on plain song.

A treatise such as this, is usually liable to the charge of the construction of facts in accordance with a preconceived idea. It may be interesting to note how Bekker, in his recent The Story of Music, anticipates this.

I shall probably be accused of “construing” the facts in my own way. I shall not dispute the accusation save to add that I know no presentation of history which is not a “construction” in this sense. Every scientific theory is a construction — we should not allow ourselves to be pleasantly misled as to the significance of alleged “facts.” The question is not whether facts are construed, but what is the opacity of the interpretation put upon them. If it leads to a creative attitude, there must be something alive in it, of which we must take heed, even though it may not have received academic sanction.’ Here, too, the writer wishes to protest that in treating of the traditional plain song he has not the least idea of condemning the other forms of music, secular or sacred. The enthusiastic devotee of the plain chant will consistently be also an ardent admirer of the opera, as also of polyphony and the modern forms of church music. But as to music that does not possess the necessary requisites of liturgical music, he does insist that it remain in its proper place – that it do not invade the sacred precincts of the sanctuary.

Just as we do not build a church on the same architectural lines as we do an opera house just as Catholic priests do not wear, in the exercise of sacred functions, an evening dress with silk hat, leaving aside the magnificent church vestments used for centuries so the sacred Liturgy of the Church would not bear to be musically clothed after the style of concert music, dances, and love songs (Manzetti, Church Music and Catholic Liturgy).

Before beginning the comparative study of the two histories that of the Chant and the Church – it has been thought advisable to preface the comparison with an opening chapter including observations on the Chant in general. This, it is hoped, will serve to aid an appreciative understanding of the following chapters


Music is the language of love. Hence the Church, as the Bride of Christ, has always sung the praises of her Divine Lover, Jesus Christ. Her praises, in turn, are the echo of that ineffable canticle sung in the Godhead from all ages. For the Eternal Word Jesus Christ is a Divine canticle singing the Father’s praise. This is the infinite hymn that ever sounds “in the bosom of the Father,” the canticle that rises up from the depths of the Divinity, the Living Canticle wherein God eternally delights, because it is the infinite expression of His perfection.

But Christ does not separate Himself from His mystical Body – the Church. Before ascending into Heaven, He bequeaths His riches and mission to His Church. Christ, in uniting Himself to the Church, gives her His power of adoring and praising the Father, this is the Liturgy. It is the praise of the Church united to Jesus, supported by Jesus or rather it is the praise of Christ, the Incarnate Word, passing through the lips of the Church. Dowered with the riches of Christ, the Church, His Bride, is introduced by Him into the palace of the King of Heaven, into the Father’s presence, and there, united to Jesus Christ, she sings – as she will do until the end of ages the canticle sung “in the bosom of the Father” by the word, and brought by Him to earth.

Since, then, a lover is wont to sing – Cantare amantis est, as St. Augustine says the Church has always made use of music just as she has summoned to her service the other fine arts. But This music must be true art, as the sainted Pope of Sacred Music Pius X, admonishes in his immortal Motu Proprio of 1903, on Sacred Music. To quote further from the Motu Proprio, which has force of law for the Catholic Church: Sacred Music should possess, in the highest degree, the qualities proper to the Liturgy, and precisely sanctity and goodness of form, from which its other character of universality spontaneously springs.

It must be holy and must, therefore, exclude all profanity, not only in itself, but in the manner in which it is presented by those who execute it. It must be true art, for otherwise it will be impossible for it to exercise on the minds of those who listen to it that efficacy which the Church aims at obtaining in admitting into her Liturgy the art of musical sounds.

But it must, at the same time, be universal in the sense that while every nation is permitted to admit into its ecclesiastical compositions those special forms which may be said to constitute its native music, still these forms must be subordinated in such a manner to the general characteristics of sacred music that nobody of any nation may receive an impression than good on hearing them. These qualities are to be found, in the highest degree, in the Gregorian Chant, which is, consequently, the Chant proper to the Roman Church, the only chant she has inherited from the ancient Fathers, which she has jealously guarded for centuries in her liturgical codices, which she directly proposes to the faithful as her own, which she prescribes exclusively for some parts of the Liturgy, and which the most recent studies have so happily restored to their integrity and purity.
On these grounds the Gregorian Chant has always been regarded as the supreme model for sacred music, so that it is fully legitimate to lay down the following rule: the more closely a composition for church approaches in its movement, inspiration, and savor the Gregorian form, the more sacred and liturgical it becomes and the more out of harmony it is with that supreme model, the less worthy it is of the temple.

That Gregorian Chant is really the ideal form of liturgical musical expression has been admitted by some of the finest musical minds. As Bewerunge writes: Melodies that have outlived a thousand years and are at the present day attracting the attention of so many artists and scholars, need no apology. It must be kept in mind, of course, that since the language of plain chant is somewhat remote from the musical language of today, some little familiarity with its idiom is required to appreciate its beauty. Its tonality its rhythm, as it is generally understood, the artistic reserve of its utterance, all cause some difficulty and demand a willing ear. Again, it must be insisted that an adequate performance is necessary to reveal the beauty of plain chant.’

Gregorian Chant is essentially prayer sung-not merely music rendered. It is prayer first, music second. Here we see the difference from so-called “religious music,” which is so often confounded with liturgical music. By “religious music” here is meant music which has a certain atmosphere of devotion as the “prayer scenes” in the operas, as the oratories, as some “Masses” of the masters, like Bach and Beethoven. “Religious music,” be it ever so beautiful and artistic, is not necessarily liturgical music. Liturgical music is prayer “religious music is the expression of the personal emotional reaction in the soul of the individual. In church the composer and singer are there to pray, not to force their own personal mood on others. They are there to aid the faithful to follow devoutly and to realize deeply the awful liturgical action at the altar-they are not there to direct attention to the choir loft.

The priest at the altar is re-enacting the greatest Drama world has ever known-and undoubtedly with deep emotion. Yet he does not make wild grimaces, does not dishevel his hair, does not utter groans and piercing laments. Such belongs to the opera. But here all is idealized, and the individual-with his devotional intensity not at all suppressed, only restrained, restrained from individual caprice and arbitrariness,-is merged into the universal. The exact ceremonies and rites of the Mass serve as an aid and expression of religious feeling, at the same time preventing the most sacred of rites from degenerating into whimsical and arbitrary show. God is here and the music like the priest at the altar- must observe the gravity and reserve proper before the “King of Kings,” even though its suit and burden be of the most urgent nature. This is as it should be even before a mere earthly monarch how much more so, then, before the Real Presence of the unspeakable God Himself, before Whom the very angels tremble.

Before taking up the actual comparison of the two histories that of the Chant and the Church — the writer takes the liberty of mentioning here a difficulty that frequently suggests itself in regard to the plain chant. Many a well-intentioned person complains of an absence of relish for Gregorian Chant. Such a one may, possibly, find it of benefit to ask himself the three following questions. “In the first place, am I really certain that I have ever heard Chant properly and artistically sung?” You would not judge a Beethoven Sonata by its treatment at the hands of an inexperienced school boy-. ‘Secondly, am I actually capable of judging according to the standards of ideal liturgical music?” -We have suffered much from mal-education especially in the sphere of church music. In the world of music at large, not every listener appreciates Bach and Beethoven. “Finally, do I really, love prayer?” Gregorian Chant is prayer sung: it is prayer first, music second. Pray the words as you sing – and then judge.

We shall now proceed to consider the various periods of the history of the Chant in relation to the history of the Catholic Church at large. It w ill be well to recall the words of Dickinson in writing of the early Christian music: It [the music of the early Church] was an outgrowth of the conditions of the age, of the necessities of devotional expression, and of that peculiar genius of Catholicism that has made every external phenomenon symbolic of the spiritual life within. The Catholic Church develops, but, in essence she does not change. The history of her music is likewise typical of her whole history.’


(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 — 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.