Gregorian chant takes it name from Pope St. Gregory the Great.
Although the tradition proclaims him as the composer of chant,
historical scholarship shows rather that he served as the great
link between the early Church and the Middle Ages. As such, he
symbolizes the chant of the churches in Rome, which spread to
England and to Gaul in the seventh and eighth centuries.
With the impetus of Charlemagne (768-814) and his Carolingian
renaissance, musicians created new and more elaborate chants. The
early development is difficult to trace because all the music was
handed on as an oral tradition; nothing was written down even
though the repertoire for the Mass and the Divine Office comprised
well over 2,000 pieces.
Types of Chant
This music can be divided into three types, marked by the degree
of difficulty. Simple chants allowed the whole congregation to
participate, and some could easily reach back before Gregory,
perhaps even to the music of the synagogue.
More complex are the antiphons for lauds and vespers. Still,
they are not too difficult for a monastic community with members of
varying skills. The "O" antiphons for Advent belong to this second
Finally, solo cantors or small groups of trained musicians would
sing the complex or melismatic chants for the propers of the Mass.
These complex chants are built of structural notes that are linked
by an elaborate interlacing of notes, not unlike the Celtic knots
found in the art of theBook of Kells. The effect is a kind of
During the ninth century, a system of notation developed to
assist the cantors. Unlike modern notation, which indicates pitch
and rhythm, this system of dots and lines sought to preserve the
nuances of the oral performance. As time passed, memory faded, and
it became necessary to indicate pitch, and so the four-line staff
developed with its square notation.
The new system lacked nuance; one grouping of square notes stood
for five or more different signs in the old system. The free rhythm
and modal system were also losing ground. The development of
polyphony demanded strictly measured time, and the major and minor
keys dominated. The tradition was obscured, if not lost
Modern study has sought to recover the lost oral performance.
The scholarship begins at Abbey of Solesmes with the collecting and
copying of texts. The question of rhythm has occupied much of the
Saint Meinrad Chant
While some have argued for a metric approach, the Solesmes
school has emphasized the natural word rhythm as the basis for
chant. Dom Eugène Cardine of Solesmes, with his students at Musica
Sacra in Rome, has documented this fundamental principle across the
manuscript tradition. This work has opened the way to recovering
the nuance of the medieval chant.
Fr. Columba Kelly, OSB, director of the Saint Meinrad Gregorian
Chant Schola, did his doctorate under Dom Cardine. The music on
Saint Meinrad's Advent/Christmas and Lent/Easter CDs reflects that
study in two ways.
The interpretation of the Latin chant seeks to recreate the
vitality of the chant recorded in the earliest manuscripts. The
English chant that Fr. Columba has created is grounded in English
word accent and the natural word rhythm of the language. The result
is strangely modern: modal, free rhythm music.