Christian Music History


Church Music, Christian Music, Worship Music

General Information

Music that is used as a functional part of corporate Christian worship can properly be called church music. It varies greatly among religious groups by reason of differences in tradition, dogma, taste, financial support, and degrees of musical skill.

By far the largest amount and the highest artistic level of church music may be found for the choir, that is, in Choral Music. The traditional choral forms of the church--Masses, Motets, Anthems, and Cantatas--were developed to fill needs of the liturgies from which they sprang. Nonliturgical faiths have not contributed significant musical forms but have provided additional dimensions to those named here.

The music of the early church was intended for unison chorus (Plainsong), but the general acceptance of Polyphony in the Middle Ages moved the performance of part-music into the choir, which further benefited by the addition of instruments to the performing combination. In later years, such widely different sects as the Russian Orthodox and the Disciples of Christ have stressed choral music but have forbidden the use of instruments in their worship. Christian Science traditionally employs only a solo singer. Most denominations have depended on choirs, paid or volunteer, to supply the bulk of their vocal music, generally with Organ accompaniment. The organ has been an important feature of church music because it satisfies the need for variety in supporting choral music without imposing the burden and expense of an instrumental ensemble; it is also a satisfactory instrument for leading congregational singing.

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There has been a centuries-long debate on the propriety of the popular idiom in church. Borrowing from secular sources in order to "intoxicate the ear" was deplored in the 14th century by Pope John XXII, and the matter has never since been settled satisfactorily. The Cantus Firmi of the Renaissance were often taken from Chansons. Luther adapted secular tunes to the needs of his Chorales, and, since the middle of the 20th century, folk and popular idioms have again been incorporated into the music of the church.

Elwyn A. Wienandt

Davidson, A. T., Church Music (1952); Douglas, W., Church Music in History and Practice, rev. by L. Ellinwood (1962); Ellinwood, L., The History of American Church Music (1953); Fellerer, K. G., The History of Catholic Church Music (1961); Routley, Erik, Twentieth Century Church Music (1964); Stevens, Denis, Tudor Church Music (1955); Wienandt, Elwyn A., Choral Music of the Church (1965; repr. 1979) and Opinions on Church Music (1974).

or Christian Music

General Information

Plainsong is the name given to the monodic (single melodic line) vocal liturgical music of the Christian Catholic churches. It is unaccompanied and is usually in rhythm that is free, not divided into a regular measure. As commonly used, the terms plainsong or plainchant and Gregorian chant are synonymous, although study readily shows the subject to be more complex.


After attending synagogue services on the sabbath, the early Christians repaired to the house of one of their members for agape, or love feast, a reenactment of the Last Supper and of the sacrificial death and resurrection of Christ. Synagogue cantors attended the agape, and they brought a sophisticated music to a fledgling faith. From cantorial song and from the melodic evolution of simple declamation, a profusion of liturgical chants developed by the 4th and 5th centuries. As the church spread, different traditions of chant arose, the most important being Byzantine, Old Roman, Gallican, and Mozarabic. The chant of Rome had developed by the time of Pope Gregory I (The Great; 590 - 604), after whom the whole body of Roman chant is named.

Under the reign of a Byzantine pope, Vitalian (657 - 672), the liturgy and chant of Rome underwent a thorough reformation, the fruits of which were designed for the exclusive use of the papal court. It was this chant that Charlemagne, some 150 years later, spread throughout the Frankish Empire as a part of his attempts at political unification. Vitalian (or Carolingian) chant, although highly ornamented, was characterized by great clarity of melodic line. As befitted the accentual patterns of the free prose texts, the chant melodies were written in a free rhythm using notes of long and short duration in proportion of two to one.

Largely because of the rise of Polyphony, by the 11th century the subtleties of Vitalian chant were quite lost. All notes were given the same basic duration, and thus rhythm was no longer proportional but equalist (hence the term cantus planus or plainsong), and ornamentation gradually disappeared.

Beginning in the 12th century the melodic notes themselves were tampered with, and by the early 16th century the melodies had been ruthlessly truncated.


No liturgical manuscripts exist that contain musical notation by which the old Roman chant as it was heard during Gregory's reign might be read or reconstructed. There is every reason to believe, however, that the tradition of 7th century Vitalian chant is faithfully preserved in 9th and 10th century manuscripts, the earliest actual sources of chant. The musical signs therein are not written notes, but rather depictions of the melodic shapes to be traced in air by the hand of the conductor, whose direction reminded the singers (schola cantorum) of the correct notes and indicated both rhythm and ornamentation. The notational shapes were called neumes, and there were several neumatic systems; the most important and complete manuscripts containing them now bear the call numbers St. Gall 339 and 359 and Einsiedeln 121 (in St. Gall notation) and Laon 239 (in Metz notation).

Various attempts were made in the 11th and 12th centuries to discover methods of notating melodies exactly: in some manuscripts alphabetical letters indicating precise pitches were written above the text's syllables; more often, in so - called diastematic notation, simplified neumes were written on from one to four pitch lines.

During the last hundred years, monks of the French Abbey of Solesmes have compared the melodic configurations in 9th and 10th century neumatic manuscripts with the same melodies in lettered and diastematic notation. They restored and corrected the notes of the melodies; however, they retained the equalist rhythm of the 11th and succeeding centuries, the neumatic rhythmic indications merely as nuances. Such students of chant as Peter Wagner have lamented the loss of a proportional rhythm, pointing out the consistent unsuitability of melodies to texts when the melodies are understood in equalist terms. The Dutch musicologist Jan Vollaerts (1901 - 56), relying heavily on MS Laon 239, developed a system for the proportional interpretation of neumes, thus clearing the way for a complete reconstruction of Vitalian chant; although further clarification and correction are needed, his theories, more than those of any other, point in the correct direction.

Forms and Liturgical Use

Chant plays an integral role in the mass and divine office. Certain parts in simple, set formulas are assigned to the ministers; ordinary parts are sung by the congregation in simple melodies; complex chants proper to the feasts of the liturgical calendar are sung by the schola of trained singers. It was the propers of mass and office that were notated in the neumatic manuscripts. Two basic forms exist: Antiphon and responsory. Both have an ABA structure, with texts normally taken from the psalms. In the antiphon, A is musically rather direct; B is a solo verse set to a simple formula. The A section in the responsory is relatively complex, with B an ornate vehicle for the cantor's musicianship.

The proper parts of the mass sung by the schola include: (1) the introit antiphon, or processional entrance song, which announces the feast being celebrated that day; (2) the gradual, a response to the Old Testament prophetical reading; (3) the alleluia, a response to the New Testament lesson and introduction to the reading of the Gospel; (4) the offertory, a processional piece in modified responsory form having from two to four highly ornate solo verses; and (5) the Communion antiphon. During the time commemorating Christ's resurrection, the gradual is replaced by an alleluia; in times of penance or mourning, the alleluia is replaced by a tract (verses of a psalm); on certain feasts a Sequence is sung. The ordinary parts of the mass sung by the congregation include the petition Kyrie eleison, the Credo or statement of beliefs, the Sanctus, the Pater noster (The Lord's Prayer), the petition Agnus Dei, and the hymn of praise Gloria in excelsis.

The office, or "canonical hours," is a set of 8 prayer hours that are spread throughout the day from before sunrise to nightfall. It consists of the singing of psalms, each preceded and followed by an antiphon proper to the feast or day, with hymns and orations. The 2 main hours are lauds (6 AM) and vespers (6 PM); the nocturnal hour of matins includes sung prophecies and lessons, with proper responsories.

R John Blackley

W Apel, Gregorian Chant (1958); D Conomos, Byzantine Hymnology and Byzantine Chant (1984); D G Murray, Gregorian Chant According to the Manuscripts (1963); R / B C Pugsley, The Sound Eternal (1987); J Rayburn, Gregorian Chant (1964); Solesmes, ed., Paleographie musicale (1889), M S Einsiedeln 121 (1894), and vol. 10, M S Laon 239 (1909); S J P van Dijk, "The Old - Roman Rite," Studia patristica 80 (1962), "Papal Schola versus Charlemagne," in Organicae Voces (1963), and "The Urban and Papal Rites in Seventh and Eighth Century Rome," Sacris erudiri 12 (1961); J W A Vollaerts, Rhythmic Proportions in Early Medieval Ecclesiastical Chant (1960); P Wagner, Introduction to the Gregorian Melodies: A Handbook of Plainsong (1910); E Werner, The Sacred Bridge (1959).

Choral Music

General Information

The words chorus and choir--both derived from the ancient Greek choros, meaning a band of dancers and singers--are commonly understood to mean a large group of singers who combine their voices (with or without instrumental accompaniment) in several "parts," or independent melodic lines. This definition, however, is very elastic. The most common type of choral ensemble today performs music in 4 parts, each assigned to a different voice range: soprano (high female), alto (low female), tenor (high male), and bass (low male). The abbreviation "SATB" refers to this type of "mixed" chorus, and to the music composed for it. There are many other common types: women's chorus (two soprano parts and two alto, of SSAA), men's chorus (TTBB), and double chorus (two distinct SATB groups), to name a few. Many choral works are in more or less than 4 parts, from as few as one ("monophonic," all singers singing the same melody) to as many as several dozen (as in the 40-part motet Spen in alium, by Thomas Tallis, or certain 20th-century works). Furthermore, there is no agreement as to the minimum number of singers in a "chorus." It has been suggested, for example, that certain choral works by composers such as Heinrich Schutz and J. S. Bach were originally performed with just one singer to a part. The more usual term for such a small group, however, would be not "chorus" but "vocal ensemble."

The distinction (unique to English) between choir and chorus is fairly clear: a choir generally sings sacred or art music of earlier centuries (as in "madrigal choir"), while a chorus is associated with concert works, opera, musical theater, and popular entertainment. Among other names for vocal groups, glee club usually refers to a school chorus; a chorale of singers is a concert chorus; and the meaning of consort, properly an instrumental group that plays 17th- or 18th-century music, is sometimes extended to include singers.

Early Choral Music

Many cultures have traditions of group singing, but the two that laid the foundations of Western choral music were the Greek and Jewish cultures of the pre-Christian era. The chorus in Greek drama grew out of groups that sang and danced at religious festivals. (The sense of "dance" survives in such terms as choreography and chorus line.) The Old Testament contains many references to choral singing on important occasions in Jewish life; the large and skillful choir at the Temple of Jerusalem (supplied by a famous choir school attached to the Temple) was the model for smaller synagogue choirs throughout ancient Israel. Both Greek and Jewish choral music of this period was monophonic and antiphonal--that is, performed responsively between soloists and choirs, or between two choruses.

As an underground sect of Judaism, the early Christian church inherited the anitphonal style but not the splendor of Jewish public worship. Soon after the Roman emperor Constantine the Great officially sanctioned Christianity in 313, the first schola cantorum (literally "choir school," as well as the performing group from such a school) was founded in Rome by Pope Sylvester I. Schools of this type joined with monasteries (notably those of the order founded by Saint Benedict in the early 6th century) to develop the art of choral singing. (Secular vocal music of this time was usually performed by solo singers, not choruses.)

In early medieval choirs, a small number of men, or men and boys, sang Plainsong, a metrically free, monophonic setting of liturgical text. Until the 8th century, when reliable musical notation was invented, plainsong melodies were passed down orally from generation to generation. Gregorian Chant, an outgrowth of the liturgical reforms of Pope Gregory I (reigned 590-604), became the dominant form of plainsong by the 10th century, and has remained in use ever since.

Part-Singing and the Renaissance

The practice of singing in unison began to give way in the 8th century to Organum, which began simply as a second voice part that moved in parallel with a chant melody, above or below it. By the 11th century, organum had flowered into a truly polyphonic style, in which one or more independent parts departed from and decorated the melody (Polyphony). At first the province only of skilled soloists playing or singing together, polyphony reached the choir early in the 15th century.

By this time, the term Motet had come to mean a polyphonic vocal setting of any sacred Latin text except sections of the Mass. Between about 1450 and 1600, the motet and Mass developed into elaborate compositions with three to six melodic lines, as in the works of John Dunstable, Josquin Des Prez, and Palestrena. Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli added to the splendor of Venice with works in eight parts or even more, performed by multiple choirs. In the Church of England, which separated from the Roman Catholic church in 1534, a motet on an English text became known as an anthem (which is still the English and American term for a choral piece sung during worship).

As compositions in many parts appeared, choirs began to take their modern form: ensembles of singers divided into groups according to the range of their voices. The exclusion of women from liturgical roles extended to the choir as well; high voice parts were sung by boys, falsetto singers, or (in Roman Catholic countries after about 1570) Castrato. In England particularly, the training of boy singers for cathedral choirs became a well-established tradition that continues today. As the Middle Ages came to a close, the average size of a choir began to increase gradually; the Sistine Choir in Rome, for example, grew from 18 singers in 1450 to 32 in 1625.

The Baroque Era

Virtually no secular choral music existed before 1600; the Renaissance Madrigal, a polyphonic song, was only rarely performed with more than one singer to a part. The first Italian operas, of which Claudio Monteverdi's Orfeo is the leading example, represent an attempt to revive classical Greek drama, and so featured the chorus prominently. But because the audience's attention focused on solo virtuosity and spectacle, the chorus lost some of its importance in baroque opera. It thrived, however, in Oratorio, a form of concert opera that dramatized a story (usually biblical) without the use of costumes or scenery. George Frideric Handel's oratorios sometimes put the chorus ahead of the soloists in importance; composing for an egalitarian English audience, he cast "the people" as protagonist in such works as Israel in Egypt (1738).

For centuries, instrumentalists had had the option of playing along on one or the other of the choir parts, but now composers such as Monteverdi and Alessandro Scarlatti were giving them their own "obbligato" (that is, not to be omitted) parts.

Whether composed for a prince's birthday or a Sunday on the liturgical calendar, the Cantata included such operatic elements as arias, recitatives (a kind of sung-spoken narration), and often choruses, but with a text more likely to be meditative or celebratory than dramatic.

The Reformation, with its doctrine of "the priesthood of all believers," brought new ideas about church music. Calvinist congregations made their own music by singing psalms in unison, shunning anything that smacked of performance, even accompaniment on the organ. Martin Luther favored congregational singing too, but he kept choirs for their inspirational value. The cantatas of composers such as J. S. Bach and Georg Philipp Telemann incorporate the old German Chorales (hymn tunes) that Luther had collected.

Choral Music in the Age of Democracy

The political and industrial revolutions of the late 18th and early 19th centuries were made to order for choral music. A large and prosperous middle class emerged, eager for cultural accomplishments. They founded such choruses as the Berlin Singakademie--a choir comprising both men and women from its inception in 1791. Many a factory owner encouraged loyalty among his workers by sponsoring a choral group in which they could sing. The mania for Handel, continuing for decades after the composer's death, led to ever-larger performances of Messiah (a London concert in 1791 used over 1,000 performers) and to the formation of choral clubs such as the Sons of Handel (Dublin 1810) and the Handel and Haydn Society (Boston 1815). Following Handel's lead, romantic composers glorified the mass of humanity, whether in this life (Beethoven's "Choral" Symphony) of the next (Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony, in works for large chorus and orchestra. The chorus returned to the opera stage in force after dwindling during the Classical period. Improved methods of music publication and distribution put affordable scores of new opera favorites and old masters in the hands of choral societies in every town and hamlet. Music written for church was performed in theaters, and sometimes new church music (such as Giuseppe Verdi's Requiem, sounded theatrical.

Choral music is also the ideal medium for nationalistic sentiments; in times of war the tide of patriotic choruses reaches flood stage. On the other hand, 20th-century works such as Arnold Schoenberg's Gurrelieder and Benjamin Britten's War Requiem match the power of choral utterance with a text of protest and social idealism.

The strong choral traditions of the United States arrived with European immigrants, spread through music programs in the public schools, and were transformed by Afro-American church music, which contributed rhythmic complexity and a call-and- response style of composition. Professional choruses explore not only older classical repertory but new works that contain every innovation found in new instrumental music: the tone clusters and vocal slides of Krzysztof Penderecki, the aleatory (chance) techniques of John Cage and Lukas Foss, and the minimalist pattern-music of Philip Glass.

David Wright

Heffernan, C. W., Choral Music: Technique and Artistry (1982); Kjelson, L., and McCray, J., The Singer's Manual of Choral Music Literature (1973); Robinson, R., Choral Music (1978); Wienandt, E., Choral Music of the Church (1965; repr. 1980); Young, P. M., The Choral Tradition, rev. ed. (1981).

Plain Chant

Catholic Information

By plain chant we understand the church music of the early Middle Ages, before the advent of polyphony. Having grown up gradually in the service of Christian worship, it remained the exclusive music of the Church till the ninth century, when polyphony made its first modest appearance. For centuries again it held a place of honour, being, on the one hand, cultivated side by side with the new music, and serving, on the other hand, as the foundation on which its rival was built. By the time vocal polyphony reached its culminating point, in the sixteenth century, plain chant had lost greatly in the estimation of men, and it was more and more neglected during the following centuries. But all along the Church officially looked upon it as her own music, and as particularly suited for her services, and at last, in our own days, a revival has come which seems destined to restore plain chant to its ancient position of glory. The name, cantus planus, was first used by theorists of the twelfth or thirteenth century to distinguish the old music from the musica mensurata or mensurabilis, music using notes of different time value in strict mathematical proportion, which began to be developed about that time. The earliest name we meet is cantilena romana (the Roman chant), probably used to designate one form of the chant having its origin in Rome from others, such as the Ambrosian chant (see GREGORIAN CHANT). It is also commonly called Gregorian chant, being attributed in some way to St. Gregory I.


Although there is not much known about the church music of the first three centuries, and although it is clear that the time of the persecutions was not favourable to a development of solemn Liturgy, there are plenty of allusions in the writings of contemporary authors to show that the early Christians used to sing both in private and when assembled for public worship. We also know that they not only took their texts from the psalms and canticles of the Bible, but also composed new things. The latter were generally called hymns, whether they were in imitation of the Hebrew or of the classical Greek poetic forms. There seem to have been from the beginning, or at least very early, two forms of singing, the responsorial and the antiphonal. The responsorial was solo singing in which the congregation joined with a kind of refrain. The antiphonal consisted in the alternation of two choirs. It is probable that even in this early period the two methods caused that differentiation in the style of musical composition which we observe throughout the later history of plain chant, the choral compositions being of a simple kind, the solo compositions more elaborate, using a more extended compass of melodies and longer groups of notes on single syllables. One thing stands out very clearly in this period, namely, the exclusion of musical instruments from Christian worship. The main reason for this exclusion was perhaps the associations of musical instruments arising from their pagan use. A similar reason may have militated in the West, at least, against metrical hymns, for we learn that St. Ambrose was the first to introduce these into public worship in Western churches. In Rome they do not seem to have been admitted before the twelfth century. (See, however, an article by Max Springer in "Gregorianische Rundschau", Graz, 1910, nos. 5 and 6.)

In the fourth century church music developed considerably, particularly in the monasteries of Syria and Egypt. Here there seems to have been introduced about this time what is now generally called antiphon, i.e., a short melodic composition sung in connexion with the antiphonal rendering of a psalm. This antiphon, it seems, was repeated after every verse of the psalm, the two choir sides uniting in it. In the Western Church where formerly the responsorial method seems to have been used alone, the antiphonal method was introduced by St. Ambrose. He first used it in Milan in 386, and it was adopted soon afterwards in nearly all the Western churches. Another importation from the Eastern to the Western Church in this century was the Alleluia chant. This was a peculiar kind of responsorial singing in which an Alleluia formed the responsorium or refrain. This Alleluia, which from the beginning appears to have been a long, melismatic composition, was heard by St. Jerome in Bethlehem, and at his instance was adopted in Rome by Pope Damasus (368-84). At first its use there appears to have been confined to Easter Sunday, but soon it was extended to the whole of Paschal time, and eventually, by St. Gregory, to all the year excepting the period of Septuagesima.

In the fifth century antiphony was adopted for the Mass, some psalms being sung antiphonally at the beginning of the Mass, during the oblations, and during the distribution of Holy Communion. Thus all the types of the choral chants had been established and from that time forward there was a continuous development, which reached something like finality in the time of St. Gregory the Great. During this period of development some important changes took place. One of these was the shortening of the Gradual. This was originally a psalm sung responsorially. It had a place in the Mass from the very beginning. The alternation of readings from scripture with responsorial singing is one of the fundamental features of the Liturgy. As we have the responses after the lessons of Matins, so we find the Gradual responses after the lessons of Mass, during the singing of which all sat down and listened. They were thus distinguished from those Mass chants that merely accompanied other functions. As the refrain was originally sung by the people, it must have been of a simple kind. But it appears that in the second half of the fifth century, or, at latest, in the first half of the sixth century, the refrain was taken over by the schola, the body of trained singers. Hand in hand with this went a greater elaboration of the melody, both of the psalm verses and of the refrain itself, probably in imitation of the Alleluia. This elaboration then brought about a shortening of the text, until, by the middle of the sixth century, we have only one verse left. There remained, however, the repetition of the response proper after the verse. This repetition gradually ceased only from the twelfth century forward, until its omission was sanctioned generally for the Roman usage by the Missal of the Council of Trent. The repetition of the refrain is maintained in the Alleluia chant, except when a second Alleluia chant follows, from the Saturday after Easter to the end of Paschal time. The Tract, which takes the place of the Alleluia chant during the period of Septuagesima, has presented some difficulty to liturgists. Prof. Wagner (Introduction to the Gregorian Melodies, i, 78, 86) holds that the name is a translation of the Greek term eìrmós, which means a melodic type to be applied to several texts, and he thinks that the Tracts are really Graduals of the older form, before the melody was made more elaborate and the text shortened. The Tracts, then, would represent the form in which the Gradual verses were sung in the fourth and fifth centuries. Of the antiphonal Mass chants the Introit and Communion retained their form till the eighth century, when the psalm began to be shortened. Nowadays the Introit has only one verse, usually the first of the psalm, and the Doxology, after which the Antiphon is repeated. The Communion has lost psalm and repetition completely, only the requiem Mass preserving a trace of the original custom. But the Offertory underwent a considerable change before St. Gregory; the psalm verses, instead of being sung antiphonally by the choir, were given over to the soloist and accordingly received rich melodic treatment like the Gradual verses. The antiphon itself also participated to some extent in this melodic enrichment. The Offertory verses were united in the late Middle Ages, and now only the Offertory of the requiem Mass shows one verse with a partial repetition of the antiphon. After the time of St. Gregory musical composition suddenly began to flag. For the new feasts that were introduced, either existing chants were adopted or new texts were fitted with existing melodies. Only about twenty-four new melodies appear to have been composed in the seventh century; at least we cannot prove that they existed before the year 600. After the seventh century, composition of the class of chants we have discussed ceased completely, with the exception of some Alleluias which did not gain general acceptance till the fifteenth century, when a new Alleluia was composed for the Visitation and some new chants for the Mass of the Holy Name (see "The Sarum Gradual and the Gregorian Antiphonale Missarum" by W. H. Frere, London, 1895, pp. 20, 30). It was different, however, with another class of Mass chants comprised under the name of "Ordinarium Missæ". Of these the Kyrie, Gloria, and Sanctus were in the Gregorian Liturgy, and are of very ancient origin. The Agnus Dei appears to have been instituted by Sergius I (687-701) and the Credo appears in the Roman Liturgy about the year 800, but only to diappear again, until it was finally adopted for special occasions by Benedict VIII (1012-24). All these chants, however, were originally assigned, not to the schola, but to the clergy and people. Accordingly their melodies were very simple, as those of the Credo are still. Later on they were assigned to the choir, and then the singers began to compose more elaborate melodies. The chants now found in our books assigned to Feria may be taken as the older forms.

Two new forms of Mass music were added in the ninth century, the Sequences and the Tropes or Proses. Both had their origin in St. Gall. Notker gave rise to the Sequences, which were originally meant to supply words for the longissimæ melodiæ sung on the final syllable of the Alleluia. These "very long melodies" do not seem to have been the melismata which we find in the Gregorian Chant, and which in St. Gall were not longer than elsewhere, but special melodies probably imported about that time from Greece (Wagner, op. cit., I, 222). Later on new melodies were invented for the Sequences. What Notker did for the Alleluia, his contemporary Tuotilo did for other chants fo the Mass, especially the Kyrie, which by this time had got some elaborate melodies. The Kyrie melodies were, in the subsequent centuries, generally known by the initial words of the Tropes composed for them, and this practice has been adopted in the new Vatican edition of the "Kyriale". Sequences and Tropes became soon the favourite forms of expression of medieval piety, and innumerable compositions of ther kind are to be met with in the medieval service books, until the Missal of the Council of Trent reduced the Sequences to four (a fifth, the Stabat Mater, being added in 1727) and abolished the Tropes altogether. As regards the Office, Gevaert (La Mélopée Antique) holds that one whole class of antiphons, namely those taken from the "Gesta Martyrum", belong to the seventh century. But he points out also that no new melodic type is found amongst them. So here again we find the ceasing of melodic invention after St. Gregory. The responses of the Office received many changes and additions after St. Gregory, especially in Gaul about the ninth century, when the old Roman method of repeating the whole response proper after the verses was replaced by a repetition of merely the second half of the response. This Gallican method eventually found its way into the Roman use and is the common one now. But as the changes affected only the verses, which have fixed formulæ easily applied to different texts, the musical question was not much touched.

St. Gregory compiled the Liturgy and the music for the local Roman use. He had no idea of extending it to the other Churches, but the authority of his name and of the Roman See, as well as the intrinsic value of the work itself, caused his Liturgy and chant to be adopted gradually by practically the whole Western Church. During his own lifetime they were introduced into England and from there, by the early missionaries, into Germany (Wagner, "Einführung", II, p. 88). They conquered Gaul mainly through the efforts of Pepin and Charlemagne, and about the same time they began to make their way into Northern Italy, where the Milanese, or Ambrosian, Liturgy had a firm hold, and into Spain, although it took centuries before they became universal in these regions. While the schola founded by St. Gregory kept the tradition pure in Rome, they also sent out singers to foreign parts from time to time to check the tradition there, and copies of the authentic choir books kept in Rome helped to secure uniformity of the melodies. Thus it came about that the manuscript in neumatic notation (see NEUM) from the ninth century forward, and those in staff notation from the eleventh to the fourteenth century, present a wonderful uniformity. Only a few slight changes seem to have been introduced. The most important of these was the change of the reciting note of the 3rd and 8th modes from b to c, which seems to have taken place in the ninth century. A few other slight changes are due to the notions of theorists during the ninth and following centuries.

These notions included two things: (1) the tone system, which comprised a double octave of natural tones, from A to a' with G added below, and allowing only one chromatic note, namely b flat instead of the second b; and (2) eight modes theory. As some of the Gregorian melodies did not well fit in with this theoretic system, exhibiting, if ranged according to the mode theory, other chromatic notes, such as e flat, f sharp, and a lower B flat, some theorists declared them to be wrong, and advocated their emendation. Fortunately the singers, and the scribes who noted the traditional melodies in staff notation, did not all share this view. But the difficulties of expressing the melodies in the accepted tone system, with b flat as the only chromatic note, sometimes forced them to adopt curious expedients and slight changes. But as the scribes did not all resort to the same method, their differences enable us, as a rule, to restore the original version. Another slgiht change regards some melodic ornaments entailing tone steps smaller than a semi-tone. The older chant contained a good number of these, especially in the more elaborate melodies. In the staff notation, which was based essentially on a diatonic system, these ornamental notes could not be expressed, and, for the small step, either a semitone or a repetition of the same note had to be substituted. Simultaneously these non-diatonic intervals must have disappeared from the practical rendering, but the transition was so gradual that nobody seems to have been conscious of a change, for no writer alludes to it. Wagner (op. cit., II, passim), who holds that these ornaments are of Oriental origin though they formed a genuine part of the sixth-century melodies, sees in their disappearance the complete latinization of the plain chant.

A rather serious, though fortunately a singular interference of theory with tradition is found in the form of the chant the Cistercians arranged for themselves in the twelfth century (Wagner, op. cit., II, p. 286). St. Bernard, who had been deputed to secure uniform books for the order, took as his adviser one Guido, Abbot of Cherlieu, a man of very strong theoretical views. One of the things to which he held firmly was the rule that the compass of a melody should not exceed the octave laid down for each mode by more than one note above and below. This rule is broken by many Gregorian melodies. But Guido had no scruple in applying the pruning knife, and sixty-three Graduals and a few other melodies had to undergo considerable alteration. Another systematic change affected the Alleluia verse. The long melisma regularly found on the final syllable of this verse was considered extravagant, and was shortened considerably. Similarly a few repetitions of melodic phrases in a melismatic group were cut out, and finally the idea that the fundamental note of the mode should begin and end every piece caused a few changes in some intonations and in the endings of the Introit psalmody. Less violent changes are found in the chant of the Dominicans, fixed in the thirteenth century (Wagner, op. cit., p. 305). The main variations from the general tradition are the shortening of the melisma on the final syllable of the Alleluia verse and the omission of the repetition of some melodic phrases.

From the fourteenth century forward the tradition begins to go down. The growing interest taken in polyphony caused the plain chant to be neglected. The books were written carelessly; the forms of the neums, so important for the rhythm, began to be disregarded, and shortenings of melismata became more general. No radical changes, however, are found until we come to the end of the sixteenth century. The reform of Missal and Breviary, intiated by the Council of Trent, gave rise to renewed attention to the liturgical chant. But as the understanding of its peculiar language had disappeared, the results were disastrous.

Palestrina was one of the men who tried their hands, but he did not carry his work through (see P. R. Molitor, "Die Nach-Tridentinische Choral Reform", 2 vols., Leipzig, 1901-2). Early in the seventeenth century, however, Raimondi, the head of the Medicean printing establishment, took up again the idea of publishing a new Gradual. He commissioned two musicians of name, Felice Anerio and Francesco Suriano, to revise the melodies. This they did in an incredibly short time, less than a year, and with a similarly incredible recklessness, and in 1614 and 1615 the Medicean Gradual appeared. This book has considerable importance, because in the second half of the nineteenth century, the Congregation of Rites, believing it to contain the true chant of St. Gregory, had it republished as the official chant book of the Church, which position it held from 1870 to 1904. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries various other attempts were made to reform the Gregorian chant. They were well intentioned, no doubt, but only emphasized the downward course things were taking. The practice of singing became worse and worse, and what had been the glory of centuries fell into general contempt (see P. R. Molitor, "Reform-Choral", Freiburg, 1901).

From the beginning of the nineteenth century dates a revival of the interest taken in plain chant. Men began to study the question seriously, and while some saw salvation in further "reforms", others insisted on a return to the past. It took a whole century to bring about a complete restoration. France has the honour of having done the principal work in this great undertaking (see P. R. Molitor, "Restauration des Gregorianischen Chorales im 19. Jahrhundert" in "Historisch- politische Blätter", CXXXV, nos. 9-11). One of the bet attempts was a Gradual edited about 1851 by a commission for the Diocese of Reims and Cambrai, and published by Lecoffre. Being founded on limited critical material, it was not perfect; but the worst feature was that the editors had not the courage to go the whole way. The final solution of the difficult question was to come from the Benedictine monastery of Solesmes. Guéranger, the restorer of the Liturgy, also conceived the idea of restoring the liturgical chant. About 1860 he ordered two of his monks, Dom Jausions and Dom Pothier, to make a thorough examination of the codices and to compile a Gradual for the monastery. After twelve years of close work, the Gradual was in the main completed, but another eleven years elapsed before Dom Pothier, who on the death of Dom Jausions had become sole editor, published his "Liber Gradualis". It was the first attempt to return absolutely to the version of the manuscripts, and though capable of improvements in details solved the question substantially. This return to the version of the manuscripts was illustrated happily by the adoption of the note forms of the thirteenth century, which show clearly the groupings of the neums so important for the rhythm. Since that date the work of investigating the manuscripts was continued by the Solesmes monks, who formed a regular school of critical research under Dom Mocquereau, Dom Pothier's successor. A most valuable outcome of their studies is the "Paléographie Musicale", which has appeared, since 1889, in quarterly volumes, giving photographic reproductions of the principal manuscripts of plain chant, together with scientific dissertations on the subject. In 1903 they published the "Liber Usualis", an extract from the Gradual and antiphonary, in which they embodied some melodic improvements and valuable rhythmical directions.

A new epoch in the history of plain chant was inaugurated by Pius X. By his Motu Proprio on church music (22 Nov., 1903) he ordered the return to the traditional chant of the Church and accordingly the Congregation of Rites, by a decree of 8 Jan., 1904, withdrawing the former decrees in favour of the Ratisbon (Medicean) edition, commanded that the traditional form of plain chant be introduced into all churches as soon as possible. In order to facilitate this introduction, Pius X, by a Motu Proprio of 25 April, 1904, established a commission to prepare an edition of plain chant which was to be brought out by the Vatican printing press and which all publishers should get permission to reprint. Unfortunately differences of opinion arose between the majority of the members of the commission, including the Solesmes Benedictines, and its president, Dom Joseph Pothier, with the result that the pope gave the whole control of the work to Dom Pothier. The consequence was that magnificent manuscript material which the Solesmes monks, expelled from France, had accumulated in their new home on the Isle of Wight, first at Appuldurcombe afterwards at Quarr Abbey, remained unused. The Vatican edition, however, though it is not all that modern scholarship could have made it, is a great improvement on Dom Pothier's earlier editions and represents fairly well the reading of the best manuscripts


The theory of the plain chant tone system and modes is as yet somewhat obscure. We have already remarked that the current medieval theory laid down for the tone system a heptatonic diatonic scale of about two octaves with the addition of b flat in the higher octave. In this system four notes, d, e, f, and g, were taken as fundamental notes (tonics) of modes. Each of these modes was subdivided according to the compass, one class, called authentic, having the normal compass, from the fundamental note to the octave, the other, called plagal, from a fourth below the fundamental note to a fifth above. Thus there result eight modes. These, of course, are to be understood as differing not in absolute pitch, as their theoretical demonstration and also the notation might suggest, but in their internal construction. The notation, therefore, refers merely to relative pitch, as does, e.g., the tonic sol-fa notation. Not being hampered by instrumental accompaniment, singers and scribes did not bother about a system of transposition, which in ancient Greek music, for instance, was felt necessary at an early period.

The theoretical distinction between authentic and plagal modes is not borne out by an analysis of the existing melodies and thier traditional classification (see Fr. Krasuski, "Ueber den Ambitus der gregorianischen Messgesänge", Freiburg, 1903). Melodies of the fourth mode having a constant b flat fall in badly with the theoretic conception of a fourth mode having b natural as its normal note, and some antiphon melodies of that mode, although they use no b flat but have a as their highest note, e.g., the Easter Sunday Introit, are out of joint with the psalmody of that mode. It would, therefore, seem certain that the eight mode theory was, as a ready made system, imposed on the existing stock of plain chant melodies. Historically the first mention of the theory occurs in the writings of Alcuin (d. 804), but the "Paléographie Musicale" (IV, p. 204) points out that the existence of cadences in the Introit psalmody based on the literary cursus planus tends to show that an eight mode theory was current already in St. Gregory's time. From the tenth century forward the four modes are also known by the Greek terms, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, and Mixolydian, the plagals being indicated by the prefix Hypo. But in the ancient Greek theory these names were applied to the scales e-e, d-d, c-c, b-b respectively. The transformation of the theory seems to have come to pass, by a complicated and somewhat obscure process, in Byzantine music (see Riemann, "Handbuch der Musikgeschichte", I, §31). The growth of the melodies themselves may have taken place partly on the basis of Hebrew (Syrian) elements, partly under the influence of the varying Greek or Byzantine theories.


Practically, the most important question of plain chant theory is that of the rhythm. Here again opinions are divided. The so-called equalists or oratorists hold that the rhythm of plain chant is the rhythm of ordinary prose Latin; that the time value of all the notes is the same except in as far as their connexion with the different syllables makes slight differences. They hold, however, the prolongation of final notes, mora ultimæ vocis, not only at the end of sentences and phrases but also at the minor divisions of neum groups on one syllable. In the Vatican edition the latter are indicated by vacant spaces after the notes. The measuralists, on the other hand, with Dechevrens as their principal representative, hold that the notes of plain chant are subject to strict measurement. They distinguish three values corresponding to the modern quavers, crotchets, and minims. They have in their favour numerous expressions of medieval theorists and the manifold rhythmical indications in the manuscripts, especially those of the St. Gall School (see NEUM). But their rhythmical translations of the manuscript readings do not give a satisfactory result, which they admit themselves by modifying them for practical purposes. Moreover, their interpretation of the manuscript indications does not seem correct, as has been shown by Baralli in the "Rassegna Gregoriana", 1905-8. We may mention here also the theory of Riemann (Handbuch der Musikgeschichte, I, viii), who holds that plain chant has a regular rhythm based on the accents of the texts and forming two-bar phrases of four accents. He transcribes the antiphon "Apud Dominum" in this way:

This looks quite plausible. But he has to admit that this antiphon suits his purposes particularly, and when he comes to more complicated pieces the result is altogether impossible, and for the long final neumata of Graduals he has even to suppose that they were sung on an added Alleluia, a supposition which has no historical foundation. Possibly the melodies of Office antiphons, as they came from Syria, had originally some such rhythm, as Riemann states. But in the process of adaptation to various Latin texts and under the influence of psalmodic singing they must have lost it at an early period. A kind of intermediate position, between the oratorists and the mensuralists is taken up by the school of Dom Mocquereau. With the mensuralists they state various time values ranging from the normal duration of the short note, which is that of a syllable in ordinary recitation, to the doubling of that duration. Their system is based on the agreement of the rhythmical indications in the manuscripts of St. Gall and Metz, and recently Dom Beyssac has pointed out a third class of rhythmical notation, which he calls that of Chartres ("Revue Grégorienne", 1911, no. 1). Moreover, they find their theories supported by certain proceedings in a large number of other manuscripts, as has been shown in the case of the "Quilisma" by Dom Mocquereau in the "Rassegna Gregoriana", 1906, nos. 6-7. Their general theory of rhythm, according to which it consists in the succession of arsis and thesis, i.e., one part leading forward and a second part marking a point of arrival and of provisional or final rest, is substantially the same as Riemann's (see his "System der musikalischen Rhythmik und Metrik", Leipzig, 1903), and is becoming more and more accepted. But their special feature, which consists in placing the word accent by preference on the arsis, has not found much favour with musicians generally.


Plain chant has a large variety of forms produced by the different purposes of the pieces and by the varying conditions of rendering. A main distinction is that between responsorial and antiphonal chants. The responsorial are primarily solo chants and hence elaborate and difficult; the antiphonal are choral or congregational chants and hence simple and easy. Responsorial are the Graduals, Alleluia verses, and Tracts of the Mass, and the rsponses of the Office antiphons and their psalmody. The Mass antiphons, especially the Introit and Communion, are a kind of idealized antiphon type, preserving the general simplicity of antiphons, but being slightly more elaborated in accordance with their being assigned from the beginning to a trained body of singers. The Offertories approach more closely to the responsorial style, which is accounted for by the fact that their verses were at an early period assigned to soloists, as explained above. Another distinction is that between psalmodic and what we may call hymnodic melodies. The psalmody is founded on the nature of the Hebrew poetry, the psalm form, and is characterized by recitation on a unison with the addition of melodic formulæ at the beginning and at the end of each member of a psalm verse. This type is most clearly recognized in the Office psalm tones, where only the melodic formula at the beginning of the second part of the verse is wanting. A slightly more ornamental form is found in the Introit psalmody, and a yet richer form in the verses of the Office responses. But the form can also still be recognized in the responsorial forms of the Mass and the body of the Office responses (see Pal. Mus., III). Of a psalmodic nature are various older chants, such as the tones for the prayers, the Preface, some of the earlier compositions of the Ordinary of the Mass, etc. The hymnodic chants, on the other hand, show a free development of melody; though there may be occasionally a little recitation on a monotone, it is not employed methodically. They are more like hymn tunes or folk songs. This style is used for the antiphons, both of the Office and of the Mass. Some of these show pretty regular melodic phrases, often four in number, corresponding like the lines of a hymn stanza, as, e.g. the "Apud Dominum" quoted above. But oftentimes the correspondence of the melodic phrases, which is always of great importance, is of a freer kind.

A marked feature in plain chant is the use of the same melody for various texts. This is quite typical for the ordinary psalmody in which the same formula, the "psalm tone", is used for all the verses of a psalm, just as in a hymn or a folk song the same melody is used for the various stanzas. But it is also used for the more complicated psalmodic forms. Graduals, Tracts, etc., though oftentimes with considerable liberty. Again we find it in the case of the Office antiphons. In all these cases great art is shown in adapting the melodic type to the rhythmical structure of the new texts, and oftentimes it can be observed that care is taken to bring out the sentiments of the words. On the other hand it seems that for the Mass antiphons each text had originally its own melody. The present Gradual, indeed, shows some instances where a melody of one Mass antiphon has been adapted to another of the same kind, but they are all of comparatively late date (seventh century and after). Among the earliest examples are the Offertory, "Posuisti" (Common of a Martyr Non-Pontiff), taken from the Offertory of Easter Monday, "Angelus Domini", and the Introit, "Salve sancta Parens", modelled on "Ecce advenit" of the Epiphany. The adaptation of a melodic type to different texts seems to have been a characteristic feature of antique composition, which looked primarily for beauty of form and paid less attention to the distinctive representation of sentiment. In the Mass antiphons, therefore, we may, in a sense, see the birth of modern music, which aims at individual expression.


There is little need to insist on the æsthetic beauty of plain chant. 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 to-day, 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. Here, however, a great difference of standard is required for the various classes of melodies. While the simplest forms are quite fit for congregational use, and forms like the Introits and Communions are within the range of average choirs, the most elaborate forms, like the Graduals, require for their adequate performance highly trained choirs, and soloists that are artists. As to the liturgical fitness of plain chant it may be said without hesitation that no other kind of music can rival it. Having grown up with the Liturgy itself and having influenced its development to a large extent, it is most suitable for its requirements. The general expression of the Gregorian melodies is in an eminent degree that of liturgical prayer. Its very remoteness from modern musical language is perhaps an additional element to make the chant suitable for the purpose of religious music, which above all things should be separated from all mundane associations. Then the various forms of plain chant are all particularly appropriate to their several objects. For the singing of the psalms in the Office, for instance, no other art form yet invented can be compared with the Gregorian tones. The Falsi Bordoni of the sixteenth century are doubtless very fine, but their continuous use would soon become tedious, while the Anglican chants are but a poor substitute for the everlasting vigour of the plain chant formulæ. No attempt even has been made to supply a substitute for the antiphons that accompany this singing of the psalms. At the Mass, the Ordinary, even in the most elaborate forms of the later Middle Ages, reflects the character of congregational singing. The Introit, Offertory, and Communion are each wonderfully adapted to the particular ceremonies they accompany, and the Graduals display the splendour of their elaborate art at the time when all are expected to listen, and no ceremony interferes with the full effect of the music.

The revival of religious life about the middle of the nineteenth century gave the impetus for a renewed cultivation of plain chant. The extended use and perfected rendering of plain chant, so ardently desired by Pope Pius X, will in its turn not only raise the level of religious music, and enhance the dignity of Divine worship, but also intensify the spiritual life of the Christian community.

Publication information Written by H. Bewerunge. Transcribed by WGKofron. With thanks to St. Mary's Church, Akron, Ohio The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XII. Published 1911. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, June 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York


WAGNER, Einführung in die gregorianischen Melodien (Leipzig, 1911), first vol. also in English: Introduction to the Gregorian Melodies (London); GASTOUÉ, Les origines du chant romain (Paris, 1907);RIEMANN, Handbguch der Musikgeschichte, I (Leipzig, 1905); WEINMANN, History of Church Music (Ratisbon, 1910); MÖHLER AND GATES, Compendium der katholischen Kirchenmusik (Ravensburg, 1909); JACOBSTHAL, Die chromatische Alteration in liturgischen Gesang der abendländischen Kirche (Berlin, 1897); NIKEL, Geschichte der katholischen Kirchenmusik, I (Breslau, 1908); LEITNER, Der gottesdienstliche Volksgesang im jüdischen u. christlichen Altertum (Freiburg, 1906); BEWERUNGE, The Vatican Edition of Plain Chant in Irish Ecclesiastical Record (Jan., May, and Nov., 1907); MOCQUEROU, Le nombre musical grégorien, I (Tournai, 1908); DECHEVRENS, Etudes de science musicale 93 vols., 1898); BENEDICTINES OF STANBROOK, A Grammar of Plainsong (Worcester, 1905); POTHIER, Les mélodies grégoriennes (Tournai, 1880); JOHNER, Neue Schule des gregorianischen Choralgesanges (Ratisbon, 1911); KIENLE, Choralschule (Freiburg, 1890); WAGNER, Elemente des gregorianischen Gesanges (Ratisbon, 1909); ABERT, Die Musikanschauung des Mittelalters (Halle, 1905).

Gregorian Chant

Catholic Information

The name is often taken as synonymous with plain chant, comprising not only the Church music of the early Middle Ages, but also later compositions (elaborate melodies for the Ordinary of the Mass, sequences, etc.) written in a similar style down to the sixteenth century and even in modern times. In a stricter sense Gregorian chant means that Roman form of early plain chant as distinguished from the Ambrosian, Galliean, and Mozarabic chants, which were akin to it, but were gradually supplanted by it from the eighth to the eleventh century. Of the Gallican and Mozarabic chants only a few remains are extant, but they were probably closely related to the Ambrosian chant. Of the latter, which has maintained itself in Milan up to the present day, there are two complete manuscripts belonging to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries respectively, and a considerable number belonging to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. An incomplete manuscript belongs to the twelfth century. It is at present in the British Museum and has been published in the fifth volume of the "Paléographie musicale". All these manuscripts contain the chants both for the Office and for the Mass. The Office chants are antiphons and responses, as in the Roman books. The Mass chants are Ingressa (corresponding to the Introit, but without psalm), Psalmellus (Gradual), Cantus (Tract), Offertory, Transitorium (Communion), and, in addition, two antiphons having no counterpart in the Gregorian Mass, one post Evangelium, the other the Confractorium. There are, further, a few Alleluia verses and antiphons ante Evangelium. Musically it can easily be observed that the syllabic pieces are often simpler, the ornate pieces more extended in their melismata than in the Gregorian chant. The Gregorian melodies, however, have more individuality and characteristic expression. Though it is very doubtful whether these Ambrosian melodies date back to the time of St. Ambrose, it is not improbable that they represent fairly the character of the chant sung in Italy and Gaul at the time when the cantilena romana superseded the earlier forms. The frequent occurrence of cadences founded on the cursus at all events points to a time before the latter went out of use in literary composition, that is before the middle of the seventh century. (See Gatard in "Dict. d'arch. chrét.", s.v. "Ambrosien (chant)" and Mocquereau, "Notes sur l'Influence de l'Accent et du Cursus toniques Latins dans le Chant Ambrosien" in "Ambrosiana", Milan, 1897.) The name Gregorian chant points to Gregory the Great (590-604), to whom a pretty constant tradition ascribes a certain final arrangement of the Roman chant. It is first met in the writings of William of Hirschau, though Leo IV (847-855) already speaks of the cantus St. Gregorii. The tradition mentioned was questioned first by Pierre Gussanville, in 1675, and again, in 1729, by George, Baron d'Eckhart, neither of whom attracted much attention. In modern times Gevaert, president of the Brussels music school, has tried to show, with a great amount of learning, that the compilation of the Mass music belongs to the end of the seventh or the beginning of the eighth century. His arguments led to a close investigation of the question, and at present practically all authorities, including, besides the Benedictines, such men as Wagner, Gastoué, and Frere, hold that the large majority of plain- chant melodies were composed before the year 600.

The principal proofs for a Gregorian tradition may be summarized thus:

The testimony of John the Deacon, Gregory's biographer (c. 872), is quite trustworthy. Amongst other considerations the very modest claim he makes for the saint, "antiphonarium centonem. . . compilavit" (he compiled a patchwork antiphonary), shows that he was not carried away by a desire to eulogize his hero. There are several other testimonies in the ninth century. In the eighth century we have Egbert and Bede (see Gastoué, "Les Origines", etc., 87 sqq.). The latter, in particular, speaks of one Putta, who died as bishop in 688, "maxime modulandi in ecclesia more Romanorum peritus, quem a discipulis beati papae Gregorii didicerat". In the seventh century we have the epitaph of Honorius, who died in 638 (Gastoué, op. cit., 93):

. . . . divino in carmine pollens

Ad vitam pastor ducere novit ovis

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Namque Gregorii tanti vestigia iusti

Dum sequeris culpiens meritumque geris

-- that is: "Gifted with divine harmony the shepherd leads his sheep to life .

. . for while following the footsteps of holy Gregory you have won your reward." According to this it was thought in Rome, less than forty years after the death of St. Gregory, that the greatest praise for a music-loving pope was to compare him to his predecessor Gregory.

The feasts known to have been introduced after St. Gregory use in the main melodies borrowed from older feasts. See the detailed proof for this in Frere's "Introduction".

The texts of the chants are taken from the "Itala" version, while as early as the first half of the seventh century St. Jerome's correction had been generally adopted.

The frequent occurrence in the plain-chant melodies of cadences moulded on the literary cursus shows that they were composed before the middle of the seventh century, when the cursus went out of use.

Publication information Written by H. Bewerung. Transcribed by Thomas M. Barrett. Dedicated to Mother Angelica The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume VI. Published 1909. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, September 1, 1909. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York


GEVAERT, Les Origines du Chant Liturgigue de l'Eglise Latins (Ghent, 1890); IDEM, La Melopee Antique dans le Chant de l'eglise Latine (Ghent, 1895); MORIN, Les Veritables Origines du Chant Gregorien (Maredsous, 1890); CAGIN, Un Mot sur l'Antiphonale Missarum (Solesmes, 1890); BRAMBACH, Gregorianisch (Leipzig, 1895, 2nd ed., 1901); FRERE, Introduction to the Graduale Sarisburiense (London, 1894); Paleographie musicale, IV; WAGNER, Introduction to the Gregorian Melodies, Pt. I (1901, English ed. by the Plainsong and Medieval Music Society, London, chapter xi); GASTOUE, Les origines du Chant Romain (Pris, 1907), pt. II, i; WYATT, St. Gregory and the Gregorian Music (London, 1904).

Religious Song

Catholic Information

(Sacred Song)

Religious song is the general designation given to the numerous poetical and musical creations which have come into existence in the course of time and are used in connection with public Divine worship, but which are not included in the official liturgy on account of their more free and subjective character. It has its origin in the desire on the part of the faithful, a desire even encouraged but always guided and controlled by the Church, to participate actively in the public religious ceremonies of the Church. While the psalms were sung in traditional fashion during the early Eucharistic celebrations at the public meetings, and the love-feasts, or agapae, or the early Christians, there soon sprang up the custom of improvising songs, participated in by the whole assembly, which, though religious in burden, by their spontaneity and freedom stood in contrast to the psalms and other lyric parts of the Holy Scripture in use at the Eucharistic celebration. These creations in course of time lost their spiritual character, dignity, and fervour as the institution which gave them birth and of which they formed an important part degenerated in character, departed from its original purpose, and became an occasion for pleasure and dissipation. The songs thus originated continued in use long after the institution had lost official sanction, and have become known in history by the name of the institution which gave rise to them.

As Christianity spread, there was an ever greater increase of spontaneous creations of this kind originating in the desire on the part of their authors to get nearer to the people and to convey to them by this means instruction as well as edification. As early as the fourth century there had come into use so many chants, hymns, and songs, in various parts of the Christian world, and abuses and aberrations had become so general, that the Council of Laodicea (360-381) forbade the singing of any text not taken from Holy Scripture. The hymns by St. Hilary and St. Ambrose of Milan (especially the latter) - which now form a part of the liturgy - had for their original purpose the instruction of the people by having them sing in striking metrical form and to vigorous melodies the fundamental truths of religion. The sequences and tropes which came into existence with such exuberance in the early Middle Ages, while popular in form, sprang directly from the liturgy and always partook of its character. In those regions where the liturgical language remained at the same time the tongue of the people, at least in a modified form, participation in the official chant of the Church on the part of all was general for many centuries, and in consequence the influence of the spirit of the liturgy and its music prevented the early development of a more subjective religious poetry and music than was to be the case in later times in other regions. This is probably the reason why in Italy, Spain, and the other Latin countries the religious song in the vernacular has never taken root.

While this was also true of France, for a considerable time, we find there an early and rapid growth of songs of every kind, bearing a strong national character. Every important event in the domestic and religious life of the people soon found expression in song. The festivals of the Church inspired them and became by these means in turn impressed upon the popular imagination. One of these characteristically French songs is the noël, or Christmas song, which had great vogue in the eleventh century, a vogue which reached its height in the seventeenth century and has survived in a certain form, ever to our day. The noël, the words of which were often paraphrases of liturgical texts, set to melodies naive and pastoral in character, was popular in every section of the kingdom and sung in every dialect in use. Processions, pilgrimages, and especially the mystery and miracle plays gave rise to many forms of songs. The troubadours in the south and trouveres in the north exerted great influence on the development and propagation not only of secular but of religious songs as well. Among the many forms in use was the complaint, a song in narrative form of which the "Story of the Resurrection" (O filii et filiae) is a prominent type. The pastorale was another form which flourished from the twelfth to the sixteenth century, sometimes having religious texts and then again voicing secular sentiments. With the sixteenth century began the custom of substituting secular airs in use at the time for the melodies to which the sacred texts of the noëls, complaints, etc., had thus far been sung; they were not only modelled on the Gregorian chant but had a distinctively niave simple character. This substitution sometimes involved even the partial taking over of the profane text as well. This was the beginning of the decadence which finally, in some places, reached the point where chansons de galanterie, or love songs, were completely transformed into cantiques, or religious songs, by merely substituting the name of the Blessed Virgin or that of Jesus Christ, for the name of the beloved one mentioned in the original. The modern French cantique, which has taken the place of the traditional religious songs, is sentimental, quasi-military, and savours of the world, plainly showing the influence of the favourite French musical form, the opera.

On account of their total unfamiliarity with the Latin language, the Germanic races were prevented from participating in the liturgical chant introduced with Christianity itself by their first missionaries. At most they joined in singing the Kyrie Eleison, and that in the form of a refrain. This primitive practice became so general that it survived long after songs in the vernacular had come into universal use. The latter would frequently end with the above invocation, which was gradually abbreviated into "Kyrieleis". The songs or hymns in the vernacular were themselves called later on "Kyrieleis" and "Leisen". The word "lay", which designates a vast song literature of a whole subsequent period, is derived from "Leisen". To wean their neophytes from pagan beliefs and practices, the early missionaries were wont to make use of melodies familiar to the people, apply Christian texts to them, and turn them into effective means of instruction. This practice soon led the naturally emotional and subjective race to give vent to their growing religious feelings in words and melodies of their own invention, so that as early as the latter part of the ninth century words in the vernacular were mixed with those of liturgical chants, the former forming a sort of glossary to the latter. From this time on there is a constant growth in songs of all kinds in honour of Jesus Christ, the Blessed Virgin, the saints, inspired by the great feasts; songs called forth by national events, the Crusades, and, as elsewhere, processions and pilgrimages, many of them created and all of them fostered by the minnesingers and poets of the day. The texts in the vernacular and the melodies originated from the earliest days of Christianity up to the Reformation in Germanic countries; they were usually sung by the whole congregation, and belong to what is most sturdy and profound in sentiment and expression in this field. The fact that some 1500 melodies, antedating the Reformation, have come down to us gives us some idea of the hold the religious song had upon the people. The Reformers, like the Arians of the fourth century, availed themselves of the love for song on the part of the people, and converted it into an insidious and powerful means for the dissemination of their erroneous doctrines. The impetus thus given to singing exclusively in the vernacular by the leaders of Protestantism was so widespread and powerful that it soon reacted upon those who remained loyal to the faith of their fathers. It resulted not only in the creation of a large number of new hymn books but also in the custom, which has not yet been rooted up in all places, of singing in German during liturgical services.

A number of influences have contributed to the degeneration of the hymn in the vernacular which reached its limit in the eighteenth century. The most potent factors in its decay were the growth of Rationalism affecting even those within the fold and the ever-increasing ascendancy of secular music, resulting in the seventeenth century in the abandonment of the Gregorian modes, upon which practically all hymn melodies had been modelled, and the substitution of the modern keys. With the revival of the Catholic spirit at the beginning of the nineteenth century came a return to early ideals. Poets and musicians of the right stamp, both clerical and lay, inspired by the spirit of the Church and later fostered by the power agency of the Saint Cecilia Society, have restored to the Catholic people of German-speaking countries a song literature in the vernacular tongue, which is as rich in variety as it is sturdy in its expression of faith. In France a vigorous effort is being made, as part of the Gregorian restoration, to reconstruct a sound and wholesome taste among the people by the republication and propagation of proses, rhythmes, sequences, and other chants in honour of Jesus Christ, the Blessed Virgin, the saints, or the church festivals, written in one or other of the Gregorian modes, and in vogue during the ages of simple and lively faith. Competent church musicians and Gregorianists are successfully creating similar new melodies to standard texts.

Their use is becoming widespread.

There is very little trace of the existence in early times in most English-speaking countries of religious songs in the vernacular. The missionaries sent from Rome in the sixth century introduced the liturgical chant into the British Isles and seem to have made but little effort to utilize any characteristically national melodies already existing. Unlike their colleagues in regions across the Channel, the gleemen, harpers, and bards of old continued to cultivate chiefly the secular field, and their productions and activity had not much influence on the creation and development of a national religious song literature, nor does Celtic musical and poetical culture seem to have been directed into that channel. While polyphonic music had attained a highly flourishing state before the sixteenth century, it was only at the time of the Reformation that singing in the vernacular assumed greater importance in England. As in the other Protestant countries the song in the vernacular became a great factor in British national worship. On account of most unpropitious conditions during several hundred years English-speaking Catholics had created but very little of any permanent value until, about the middle of the last century, a new era was inaugurated by religious poets like Faber and Newman. Unfortunately their lyrics have as yet seldom found adequate musical interpretation. What is true of transatlantic English-speaking Catholics holds good in a greater degree in the United States of America. Partly on account of the scarcity of suitable and worthy hymns in the English vernacular and partly on account of incompetency on the part of those who undertake to supply the deficiency, the taste of the people has been formed by trivial and superficial tunes, generally echoes of the opera, the shallow popular air, and even the drinking song set to sentimental and often trivial texts. Of late years, however, several collections of hymns in the vernacular, indicating a return to what is best in religious poetry and in popular sacred song, have come into existence and are gradually making their way into general use.

Publication information Written by Joseph Otten. Transcribed by Thomas M. Barrett. Dedicated to Christian musicians and composers The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XIV. Published 1912. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, July 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York


WEINMANN, History of Church Music (New York, 1910); BAUMKER, Das deutsche Kirchenlied in seinen Singweisen (Freiburg, 1901); WAGNER, Einfuhrung in die gregorianischen Melodien (Fribourg, 1901); TIERSOT, Melodies populaires des provinces de France, noëls francais, etc. (Paris, 1894); DUCHESNE, Christian Worship (London, 1903).

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