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Gregorian Chants: Sung Prayers for the Heart and Soul
Pope Gregory 1st and the Chants
Gregorian Chants were written with square notation on a four-line rather than a five-line staff.
Gregorian Chants are love songs for our hearts and souls. When we listen to them, the Latin words and the melodies unite our hearts with God and the presence of the Holy Spirit can be felt within.
The Gregorian Chants are sung prayers which grew out of Jewish and Byzantine religious chants. The chants originated as aural music. The tones were taught by ear and were memorized and handed down. The early Christian church used psalm verses and scripture as the textural contents of the chants. The Gregorian Chant took its name from Pope Gregory 1, also known as Saint Gregory the Great, who ruled from 590 to 604. Pope Gregory was the first pope to have a monastic background. He codified the chants and created a uniformity of them throughout the Roman Catholic Church during the 6th century. He was canonized and is the patron saint of musicians, singers, students and teachers.
The Gregorian Chant is also known as the "Grandfather of all Western music." Today we are familiar with music which has accompaniment by many different types of instruments, has harmony, has a time signature and tempo and, in North America, is generally sung in English. The Gregorian Chant is sung in Latin which I find to be a beautiful language. It is a monophony(which means that each syllable is sung to a single tone), is free rhythm without meter or time signature and is not in a major or minor key. The chants are floating melodies. They move melodically within the Latin texts to which they are set. They are Liturgical; they are used in the religious ceremonies of the Roman Catholic Church.
Today, the Gregorian Chant is the official music of the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church and is used in the Mass. There are four chants that are used in the "Ordinary of the Mass." The "Ordinary of the Mass" refers to the sections that maintain the same text for every Mass. This differs from the "Proper of the Mass" which includes scriptural texts that change according to the feast day or season such as Advent or Lent.
The French poet and composer, Guillaume de Machant (c 1300-1377) wrote La Messe de Notre Dame for the Cathedral at Reims. His composition included 5 movements (Kyrie eleison, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei). These songs were already being used by the Church. His composition was the earliest complete setting of the "Ordinary of the Mass." He wrote La Messe de Notre Dame polyphonically (with accompanying harmony or accompaniment) rather than monophonically.
Today, Catholics are familiar with the 5 chants. Four of the chants Kyrie eleison, Gloria, Sanctus and Agnus Dei are generally sung in English or in Latin during the celebration of the Mass. There are melodies for the Credo, but is is generallly said as a prayer at Mass. The 4 chants are referred to as Gregorian chants or post-Gregorain chants because there have been changes and additions made to them over the centuries. The 4 chants are an integral part of the Mass and add to its beauty and holiness. Descriptions of the 4 songs are as follows.
Kyrie eleison is originally a Greek song. It is a song of petition and thanksgiving and asks Christ to have mercy on us. It is sung at the beginning of the Mass.
The Gloria, or also known as the Gloria in excelsis Deo, is a hymn which originated with the angels song announcing the birth of Christ to the shepherds, Luke 2:14. The Gloria gives glory to God the father, Jesus his son and the Holy Spirit.
The Sanctus gives glory to God in Heaven and on earth. It became a part of the Eucharistic Prayer before 400 AD. The text was inspired by Isaiah 6:3 "Holy, holy, holy Lord."
Agnus Dei is sung after the consecreation of the bread and before communion. The congregation sings this song contemplating the mystery of the bread becoming our Lord or also known as transubstantiation. The song Agnus Dei gives glory to Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world and then asks for his mercy.
The words of Gregorian Chants are words of praise, worship and thanksgiving to our Lord. When we listen or sing the songs, the Holy Spirit fills us and brings love and peace to our hearts and souls. This type of music is also healing.