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Gregorian Chants

Updated on May 28, 2009
"Pope Gregory I," c. 1610, after Carlo Saraceni
"Pope Gregory I," c. 1610, after Carlo Saraceni

The Prompt

Rome was in chaos. The once great nation was being plundered from the north by the Lombards, and its crumbling capital city was overshadowed by the brilliance of Constantinople from the east. The people of Rome sorely needed help and needed hope, and there was one man that they looked to for both.

They depended on Pope Gregory for guidance, which he was more than willing to give. Calling himself a “servant of servants,” he sat amidst the ruins of the city and devised the best way to help his flock. First and foremost, he did his best to make peace with the Lombards while creating a sense of unity within his own congregation.

The pope told his church officials that they needed to create a sense of beauty and harmony for the people. More importantly, they must be sure it contained no doctrinal error.

With this resolution in the back of his mind, it was easy enough to come up with lyrics for the new music. After some thought, he decided to take them directly from the Latin translation of the sacred texts. This was not a new concept. After all, the Jews had been singing directly from the Psalms for centuries. Now, the sacred texts were to become the foundation of the Roman Catholic Church’s new official music.

It only remained to put the lyrics to music, something calm and unearthly to create an ambiance suitable for prayers and the rituals of the church. One of Gregory’s friends suggested to him that chants were a common form of musical already, though they were usually sung in a secular setting. They’re also very beautiful and can be sung by the whole church at once, especially if they’re monophonic - that is, if they only have one line of melody instead of different confusing harmonies.

It was true that chants fulfilled all of Gregory’s requirements. They weren’t exactly original, but they didn’t have to be. They just had to be something that could include all of his people, no matter how skilled they were vocally - something that they could sing as a congregation.

Trial Run

 Gregory decided to put this idea to the test. He had the choir director familiarize himself with this form of music and in a few weeks make that the music of choice for one of his masses.

The director agreed readily and went to find a composer, who also got to work right away. Music was composed as slowly then as it is today, even though it was written differently. During much of the medieval period, including the late sixth century, music was written on a staff as a series of squares and sloped lines representing the notes, or neumes, as they were called, without much attention to rhythm, if any. This meant that not only did the composer have to arrange the piece, but the choir director had to decide for himself how it should sound.

At least the lyrics were in front of him, coming from the sacred texts as Pope Gregory ordered, with words of praise such as “Alleluia” often being at the beginnings and endings of the songs. When at last the music was ready to be sung in church, it was an instantaneous success. Gregory’s congregation was impressed with the peace and stateliness of the chanting.

Soon, Gregory decreed that this was now the official music of the church, and appropriate chants would be created for masses of all occasions, from the Lord’s Supper to Lent. This pleased the people, and they spread the news, uniting the Roman Catholic Church with this common theme. Soon, everyone was talking about the music of Pope Gregory. Everyone wanted to hear it, whether or not they were of the Catholic faith and whether or not they were Romans.

Ave Mundi Spes Maria

Spreading the Music

Queen Theodelinde, a Catholic Lombard and a prominent friend, especially enjoyed the music. She loved to hear the people singing as one without instrumental accompaniment, the notes echoing through the massive stone chapel.

In the meantime, the spread of these chants was slow through the churches. Communication took time, now that the Roman roads were falling into ruin and travelers were often stopped by bandits. Also, as the composer suggested, this music would be altered quite a bit over the years.

It would be sung in churches, in monasteries, and eventually even in convents. Hundreds of other composers would make their names creating Gregorian chants. One of these, Abbess Hildegard of Bingen, became one of the first female composers who has had many of her works preserved over the centuries. By the time she was writing her chants, though, there were some changes made to the chants, which changed their overall effect. For example, Hildegard and others of the period often wrote in long, sustained notes called drones that a few people sang while the rest of the church or choir held the melody.

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Surviving manuscripts from those times are extremely rare, but some museums and private collectors are lucky enough to possess pages of them, and sometimes even complete works. The BritishMuseum, for example, has on display an incomplete but relatively famous manuscript. However, Pope Gregory’s music has survived in other forms.

Many more recent composers have been influenced by their medieval counterparts, furthering the Gregorian tradition with songs such as Claude Debussy’s La Cathédrale Engloutie (“The Sunken Cathedral”). It is safe to say that not only did Pope Gregory’s music bring together the early medieval church, but it immortalized an ancient style of music that is still meaningful today.


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    • Music-and-Art-45 profile image

      Music-and-Art-45 5 years ago from USA, Illinois

      I like chant, too. It's different at first but once you get used to the sound its great. That Sunken Cathedral Prelude by Debussy you mention at the end is also one of my favorite pieces by him. Great article.

    • Winsome profile image

      Winsome 5 years ago from Southern California by way of Texas

      We tried these for our worship service in church last Sunday and it was a hit. So peaceful and serene. It makes you want to learn Latin. Thanks for a well written introduction to the Chants. =:)

    • Wrath Warbone profile image

      Terry Chestnutt 6 years ago from Cleveland, Ohio

      Fascinating. And well written. Thank you.

    • profile image

      Nat Bruno - Brazil 7 years ago

      Lovely text. Inspiring and inviting to reflexion.

      Thanks much for the research.


    • blake4d profile image

      Blake Ford Hall 7 years ago from Now Rising Out of Phoenix Arizona Earthlings

      Again your attention to the finer details makes your writintg stand out, do you have any favorite areas or are you still open and exploring your potential? Think about it. I have high praises for your writing and the organization of your hub material. Kudos babydoll.

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 8 years ago from Chicago

      This is an absolutely fascinating Hub!  Congratulations on your excellent research! I have a CD of Gregorian Chants and it is marvelous to listen to.  It definitely sounds otherworldly.  I also have a CD of Hildegard. Martin Luther called Pope Gregory: the last good Pope!

      If I may add one tiny note: when these were written all Christians were Catholics.  900 years to go until the Reformation.  But that's a minor point (just to let you know I was paying attention!). 

      I enjoyed your Hub and look forward to more from you.  Thanks!