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Music In The Post-Classical World

Gregorian Chant

Peter Kun Frary


Gregorian chant, also called plainsong, is the sacred melody of the medieval Roman Catholic Church. It consists of sacred Latin text set to a monophonic vocal line using free flowing pulse and rhythm. Chant was used in worship services and setting the atmosphere of Church rituals.

Madonna and Child with Donors, c. 1365 Florence | Giovanni da Milano (active 1346–69) | Metropolitan Museum of Art

Origin of Gregorian Chant

Gregorian chant evolved from centuries of development beginning with the Hebrews and continuing through the early Christian Churches of the Middle East and Europe. Consequently, the Catholic Church inherited melodies from prior churches, modified existing songs and composed new ones. Before the invention of music notation, chant melodies were passed along as an oral tradition. Through the centuries chant composers were forgotten and, thus, most remain anonymous to this day.

Pope Gregory I (c. 540-604) | Antiphonary of Hartker of the monastery of Saint Gall (c. 1000) | Gregory depicted with a dove at ear while dictating plainsong to a scribe. Gregory is the patron saint of musicians, singers, students, and teachers.

Gregorian Chant was named after Pope Gregory I (reign 590-604). Gregory is credited with standardizing chant repertoire and implementing major revisions to Church liturgy. Medieval legend states a dove lit on Gregory's shoulder and tweeted chant melodies in his ear and he, in turn, brought them to his flock.

Church Language

Latin was the language of ancient Rome and its empire but had faded from popular use during the Middle Ages. However, Latin remained the official language of the Roman Catholic Church and was used in all services, rituals, songs and written materials such as Holy Scripture and archives. Most of Europe's population could not read or understand Latin. Only educated clergy were privy to the language of the Church.

Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris is one of Europe's finest Gothic churches.

Chant Style

Gregorian chant was mainly performed by male clergy. Women were not allowed to sing mass although they sang among themselves during convent prayer and worship.

Gregorian chant has an otherworldly quality due to use of Church modes (modality), free flowing pulse and the objective, restrained emotions of the performance style. Church modes are seven-note scales but sound different than the do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do scale or major scale due to a differing pattern of whole and half steps. For example, play the C major scale from re to re ( D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D) and you'll hear the sound of Dorian mode, a common mode in Gregorian chant.

Play the C major scale from la to la (A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A) and you'll hear the sound of Aeolian mode, another common mode used in Gregorian chant.

Gregorian chant is performed in three different textural styles:

  • Direct: soloist or unison choir
  • Responsorial: alternation of soloist and unison choir
  • Antiphonal: alternation of two unison choirs

Basilica of the Holy Blood | Bruges, Belgium | Romanesque relief over doorway


The Roman Catholic Eucharist or Holy Communion service is known as the Mass. This term is also used to refer to the music performed during the service. There are two types of Mass: ordinary and proper. The Mass ordinary is celebrated all year around and the music portion consists of five movements:

  • Kyrie: Kyrie eleison (Lord have mercy)
  • Gloria: Gloria in excelsis Deo (Glory to God in the highest)
  • Credo: Credo in unum Deum (I believe in one God),
  • Santus (Holy)
  • Agnus Dei (Lamb of God)

The Mass proper has variable text according to the church holiday calendar and typically has four or five movements: Introit, Gradual, Alleluia, Offertory and Communion.

Viderunt omnes | Liber Usualis | Mensural notation score.

Viderunt omnes (All the Ends of the Earth), composed in the fifth century, is a chant sung on December 25, Christmas (Mass of Christ). Thus, Viderunt omnes is part of the Mass proper. Viderunt omnes is a gradual, a response sung between the Epistle and Gospel in the Mass.

There are three main sections (symbolized as A B A). The first section, A, is sung by a unison choir. The extended phrase on the first syllable of omnes, "o," is called a melisma. A melisma is an florid treatment of a single syllable sung to a long series of notes. The B section (Notum fecit...) is performed by a soloist and features a contrasting melodic character. Finally, the third section is a repeat of the text and melody of the A section. Because of the alternation between choir and soloist, the performance style of this chant is responsorial.


Choir: Viderunt omnes fines terræ (melisma on "o") salutare Dei nostri. Jubilate Deo, omnis terra.

All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God. Rejoice in the Lord, all lands.


Solo: Notum fecit Dominus (melisma on "do") salutare suum; ante conspectum gentium revelavit justitiam suam.

The Lord has made known his salvation; in the sight of the heathen he has revealed his righteousness.


Choir: Viderunt omnes... (repeat of A above)

Viderunt Omnes (4:27) | Anonymous | Christmas Gradual performed by the Benedictine monks of St. Martin Beuron

Hildegard of Bingen

Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) was a German Benedictine abbess, writer, composer, philosopher, mystic and visionary. She founded the Rupertsberg and Eibingen monasteries. One of her musical works, Ordo Virtutum, is an early example of liturgical drama. She also wrote theological, botanical and medicinal texts, as well as liturgical songs and poems.

The Universal Man from Liber Divinorum Operum 1165 | Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) | Biblioteca statale, Lucca

Hildegard's chant, O successores (You Successors), is unusually expressive for the era. Plus, the composer's name is actually known! Like all medieval chant, it's notated as a single monophonic line. However, the performing ensemble, Carmina Slovenica, added a drone accompaniment to fill out the texture and support the singers. A drone is a continuously sounding note or interval. In this case, two sustained tones at the interval of a fifth are played on a medieval fiddle, a bowed string instrument similar to a violin.

O successores fortissimi leonis You successors of the greatest lion
inter templum et altare between temple and altar
dominantes in ministratione eius you the masters in his household
sicut angeli sonant in laudibus, as the angles sound praises
et sicut adsunt populis in adiutorio, and are here to help the nations,
vos estis inter illos, you are among those
qui haec faciunt, who accomplish this,
sempter curam habentes forever showing your care
in officio agni. in the service of the lamb.

O successores | Hildegard of Bingen


Gregorian Chant, plainsong, Latin, Church modes, Dorian mode, direct, responsorial, antiphonal, mass, Mass ordinary, mass proper, Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Santus, Agnus Dei, Gradual, Pope Gregory I, melisma, drone, Hildegard of Bingen

©Copyright 2018 by Peter Kun Frary | All Rights Reserved