Exquisitely pure melodies from the earliest days of Western music.
Gregorian chant is the oldest music that has come down to us in the Western musical tradition. It became the official music of Christian worship in the mid 8th-century AD.
Legend has it that it was Pope Gregory I — ‘Gregory the Great’ — who wrote the first of these chants, but he died in 604, well before the tradition was established. If there was a Gregory involved, it was more likely Pope Gregory II, whose name appears on some of the earliest chant books. We don’t know who actually wrote the tunes.
The music consists of a melody, sung in unison with no accompanying instruments. The rhythm is smooth and even, following the regular flow of the syllables in the Latin texts. In the 13th century, it came to be known as ‘plainsong’ or ‘plainchant’, to distinguish it from the more elaborate polyphonic style of music, which had several different melodic lines sung simultaneously, and rhythmic patterns of strong and weak beats, arranged into bars.
Medieval monks and nuns used to sing all of their church services in Gregorian chant: the whole mass, plus several hours each day of chanting the psalms. Until the 11th century, there was no standard system for writing music down, so they had to learn all the chants from memory.
The earliest notation consisted of little dots and squiggles, called ‘neumes’, written above the words, showing when the tune went up and when it went down. It was an Italian monk called Guido of Arezzo who came up with the idea of using a set of parallel lines ruled across the page — what we now know as a ‘stave’ — in which the lines and the spaces in between represented specific musical pitches.
The music of the Christian church has gone through many changes over the centuries, as styles of worship have changed and musical language itself has evolved. Gregorian chant fell out of favour in the 17th and 18th centuries, and the knowledge of how it was originally performed was lost. Much of our current understanding of plainchant performance practice comes from the work of French scholars at the monastery of Solesmes, who led a revival of Gregorian chant in the late 19th and early 20th century.