14 November 2015

Gregorian Chants: History, Development and Restoration


For many centuries, Gregorian chant, or plainchant, has been seen as the first documented music of the Western church. It has been categorized as a form of spiritual music, unique to the history of Western music, yet it appeals only to a small group of people today. From the Carolingians to the Solesmes, this review provides a historical context that includes the development of musical notation between the Old Roman and the Frankish from the eighth to eleventh century and its restoration in 1833.


Gregorian chant derived during the time of Carolingian Europe from medieval literature and has since been subjected to change due to social and cultural environments. Its history began with Pope Gregory I (540 – 604), whom the music was named after, though he played no role organizing the music. He did, however, wrote the antiphonaries, which were the lyrics to the chant. The Gregorian chant is mostly sung in monophonic tone in Latin but also encompasses Greek, Hebrew and English. It is also nonmetric, has an adaptable prose rhythm, melodically conjunct with a limited range and written in a special neumatic notation. It has also been seen in the Liber Responsorialis that the several chants were specifically sung at different hours of the day or at special events and were delegated by Pope Gregory I. Vocal chanting was seen as a pious movement in the medieval times and sung during the liturgical celebration. After medieval Europe was divided, Gregorian chants dwindled with the favorable increase towards polyphonic compositions in the fourteenth century.

Development of Musical Notation in Gregorian Chants: Old Roman and Frankish

It is difficult to know the development or beginning of Gregorian chants as it picked up a variety of changes from the eighth to the eleventh century. Several researches speculated the derivation of the chant, even though they did not provide enough evidence to support their stand. To Hugo Leichtentritt, studies of ancient Hebrew melodic formulas were similar to Gregorian chants and could have inherited the music from the Jews. Quite similarly, Theodore Karp wrote that Gregorian chants were influenced by the chants from Middle East, such as Turkey and Ethiopia. Kenneth Levy also mentioned that the oral tradition of Gregorian music started during the reign of King Pepin III, when Gallican chants circulated throughout Europe. King Pepin then introduced one of the earliest neume called ‘Paleofrankish’ to classify pitch. His successor, Charlemagne, introduced another neume to show movement of the melody called the ‘archetype’. These two neumes were present prior to the Gregorian chants and were used during the liturgical celebrations in the ninth century. This could have allowed the music by the Old Romans and the Franks to merge in both areas to form their own brand of music, replacing the Gallican chants sung previously.

Additionally, there were many speculations as to when Gregorian chants were moved to Rome and replaced by the Old Roman music. Levy goes on to mention it either developing in the second half of the eighth century orally or the tenth century when Charlemagne ruled and could have wanted to promote Gregorian in Rome. There was also evidence provided in the story of Notker's Vita Caroli where Charlemagne once watched a Byzantine choir perform a Greek song and appropriated the lyrics to Latin and the notes to a Gregorian melody. The same song was later developed into an Old Roman melody. However, Leo Treitler opposed Levy’s theory with his interpretation, since there was a ‘common textual archetype’, most scribes could have ‘understood the sense of contents in the same way’ and therefore created chants that were almost identical. He also suspected in the possibility of a written communication in the eleventh century, when the first manuscript of Gregorian chants were found. He also included that in order for two choirs to have an identical melody; it could not have been transmitted orally. This would have created an opportunity for a faster trade in influence among the Old Romans and the Franks, if the scores were written. Nevertheless, the exchange provided new musical notations, which affected how Gregorian chants were sung over the centuries.

Composition and Tones

There were difficulties in understanding how Gregorian chants were composed, since there is a large difference concerning centuries of perceptual processes from the people who constructed the melodies and the lack of translations available. Treitler hinted that the people who received the manuscripts could have made their own depiction of the melody. Therefore making each arrangement difficult to decipher. According to Paul Johnson, he discovered a way to acquire better understanding of Gregorian chants through the use of semiotics. He categorized his findings under five integrative devices: matrix alignment, fourfold method, Christ recognition, and contradiction and unity motive. For instance, the fourfold method was a metaphorical technique, used to explain and understand information in the bible. The first fold was seeing the original data while the others concealed themselves as allegory, troupe and anagoge. In a Gregorian chant, an allegory adds or deletes a note the fourth or fifth pitch series, a troupe could suggest a bold gesture and an anagoge expresses elevation in the tune. Richard Crocker contributed other factors such as the laudes, melismas, the introit troupes, texted melisma, prose and sequence. Crocker also believed that the rise and fall of the neumes and clef demonstrated the Latin language and the spiritual aspirations of the people singing the highest note in the composition. However they are almost all in the same length without much dramatic tones, which ensures an inalterable sound sung for any event. In most of the chants, the analyst would be able to recognize Christ based on the notes played in the chant, as each song would illustrate a biblical story. Scholars in the past have also found a way to classify Gregorian chant by analyzing the four finals or seven tones of the diatonic system. In turn, they were able to identify each chant and categorized them into eight modes: Dorian, Hypodorian, Phrygian, Hypophrygian, Lydian, Hypolydian, Mixolydian and Hypomixolydian. These modes were also sub-divided into authentic, which had Greek names, plagal, which had the prefix ‘hypo’ and mixed modes, which were a combination of authentic and plagal. This also led to some researchers to agree that if they were able to deeply understand and identify these eight modes of chant, they would be able to form their own Gregorian composition.

Restoration of Gregorian Chants

The current style of the Gregorian chant sung now was due to the effort of Prosper Dom Guéranger and his group of Benedictines of Solesmes. Guéranger reestablished Gregorian chants after the French Revolution in 1833 at Solesmes, France. He wanted to revive the medieval tradition and also use it as a platform for the Benedictine monks to pray. Other young monks such as Dom Jausions, Dom Joseph Pothier and Dom Gontier were also interested in reformation of the chant. Through their studies of the medieval manuscripts, new discoveries were made and discussed among its performance, rhythmic practices and other areas. However, since there was no general structure to the melody, they had to experiment with various versions of a score. Martin Hoondert also commented that there were also many changes in the music based on the manuscripts that Guéranger read from the eleventh to the seventeenth century. In 1860, Dom Joseph Pothier reworked the notations through the studies of Dom Gontier and created modern versions of the chant, while Dom Jausions recorded documentations on four-line music sheets. As time progressed to 1907, the Vatican identified the works of Solesmes and issued a book called 'Graduale Romanum'. As the book was distributed and translated, people started to embrace the ‘Solesmes method’, which resulted in Vatican Council II approving it as the model to follow in 1963.


With its long-standing history, Gregorian chants can be seen as a model for Western sacred music. However, it is questionable as to why Gregorian chants are not as widely spread as they were in the past, despite its support from the Vatican. There is still a lack of understanding in Gregorian chants as well as a well-documented research of the manuscripts. Perhaps ethnomusicologists could observe other chant traditions during the same time period, such as Judaism and consider their relationship between the oral tradition and written communication. Likewise, ethnomusicologists and scholars could conceivably work together to comprehend the score. They could find general perspectives, discover the new qualities of the Gregorian chant and ultimately restore it to its original state.


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