Gregorian Chant

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Monks praying the Psalms in
Gregorian chant

When attending a liturgical Office in the beautiful abbey church of Our Lady of Fontgombault, one is easily penetrated with the prayerful atmosphere diffused by the chant of the monks. Simplicity, respect, peaceful devotion: everything leads to divine praise.

It is our hope that all those who listen to these recordings may feel as if they were with the monks in the atmosphere of peace and praise of the Abbey church and hence may pray with them once more.

Gregorian chant is the central tradition of Western plainchant, a form of monophonic liturgical music within Western Christianity that accompanied the celebration of Mass and other ritual services. It is named after Pope Gregory I, Bishop of Rome from 590 to 604, who is traditionally credited for having ordered the simplification and cataloging of music assigned to specific celebrations in the church calendar. The resulting body of music is the first to be notated in a system ancestral to modern musical notation.

In general, the chants were learned by the viva voce method, that is, by following the given example orally, which took many years of experience in the Schola Cantorum. Gregorian chant originated in monastic life, in which celebrating the 'Divine Office' eight times a day at the proper hours was upheld according to the Rule of St. Benedict. Singing psalms made up a large part of the life in a monastic community, while a smaller group and soloists sang the chants. In its long history, Gregorian chant has been subjected to many gradual changes and some reforms.

Chant was normally sung in unison. Later innovations included tropes, which is a new text sung to the same melodic phrases in a melismatic chant (repeating an entire Alleluia-melody on a new text for instance, or repeating a full phrase with a new text that comments on the previously sung text) and various forms of organum, (improvised) harmonic embellishment of chant melodies focusing on octaves, fifths, fourths, and, later, thirds. Neither tropes nor organum, however, belong to the chant repertory proper. The main exception to this is the sequence, whose origins lay in troping the extended melisma of Alleluia chants known as the jubilus, but the sequences, like the tropes, were later officially suppressed. The Council of Trent struck sequences from the Gregorian corpus, except those for Easter, Pentecost, Corpus Christi and All Souls' Day.

Not much is known about the particular vocal stylings or performance practices used for Gregorian chant in the Middle Ages. On occasion, the clergy was urged to have their singers perform with more restraint and piety. This suggests that virtuosic performances occurred, contrary to the modern stereotype of Gregorian chant as slow-moving mood music. This tension between musicality and piety goes far back; Gregory the Great himself criticized the practice of promoting clerics based on their charming singing rather than their preaching. However, Odo of Cluny, a renowned monastic reformer, praised the intellectual and musical virtuosity to be found in chant:

“For in these [Offertories and Communions] there are the most varied kinds of ascent, descent, repeat..., delight for the cognoscenti, difficulty for the beginners, and an admirable organization... that widely differs from other chants; they are not so much made according to the rules of music... but rather evince the authority and validity... of music".

Visit our Clear Creek Abbey Gregorian Chant CD's page.