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Gregorian Chant |
A fourteen hundred-year-old hit

Gregorian Chant is drawn from Chapter Eight, beginning on page 212, of Volume Five, The Sword of Islam of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

With its roots in the papal chapel, and sung by Roman orphans, Gregorian chant forms the basis of Western music and its popularity survives to the present day

Gregorian Chant - A fourteen hundred-year-old hit

Gregorian Chant - A fourteen hundred-year-old hit
Guido’s music staff in a twelfth-century manuscript of the Gloria in excelsis Deo (above), held by the British Library, London. The number of lines in a staff was not yet standardized (here four are used). Groups of notes called neumes represent pitch; symbols for rhythm came later.

In 1994, Spanish monks from Santo Domingo de Silos recorded their own Gregorian chant, a modest project with no grand aspirations. Unexpectedly, the disc racked up more than four million sales in forty-two countries. Their success stunned the producers, marketers, and no doubt the Benedictine monks themselves. For twenty-three weeks, fourteen hundred-year-old music competed among the top ten hits of the American pop chart with the likes of gangsta rapper Snoop Dogg and MTV’s Beavis and Butthead. In Spain, fans began mobbing the cloistered monastery in disruptive numbers. “The irony of all this,” producer Rafael Gil told Billboard magazine, “is that the music, which clearly relieves stress for most people, has brought the monks more stress than they’d ever known.”

Gregorian chant, ancient itself, has still more ancient roots. Early Christians adopted the familiar Jewish psalmody, which in turn was highly influenced by pagan music in Egypt. Evidence of antiphonal singing (i.e., two sides of a congregation taking turns) can be traced back to ancient Babylon and Sumeria. The Celtic tradition provides one tantalizing example of how music traveled in the ancient world; the psalmody still found in some remote Gaelic communities bears a striking resemblance to that practiced by the desert monks of Egypt.

During the second to fourth centuries, hymns were increasingly used as vehicles for theological instruction, intercessions and seasonal celebrations, as well as for praise and thanksgiving. In the second century, Melito of Sardis’s “Homily” magnificently greets the Easter feast:1

Born as a Son,
Led like a lamb,
Sacrificed like a sheep,
Buried as a man,

He rises from the dead as God,
Being by nature both God and man.
He is all things;
When he judges, he is Law,
When he teaches, Word,
When he saves, grace,
When he begets, father,
When he is begotten, son,
When he suffers, lamb,
When he is buried, man,
When he rises, God.
It is I, says Christ,
I who have destroyed death,
And triumphed over the enemy
And trodden hell under foot,
And chained the strong men,
And brought man to the heights of heaven.
It is I! says Christ.

Less formal is another ninth-century Easter hymn by the Irishman Sedulius Scotus, addressed to Archbishop Tado of Milan and delighting in images of the Resurrection found in nature. Here is John McGuckin’s translation:

Christ, our True Sun,
last night from darkness rose,
And in the Lord’s fields,
the mystic harvest now is springing up.
The wandering clan of bees,
happy in their chores,
Murmur far through scarlet flowers,
gathering their honey about.
How many birds now soften the air with melody,
And as dusk falls the nightingale
modulates her song,
While in the church
the choir chants hymns of Sion,
And in its various modes
sing Alleluias hundredfold.
Tado, father of your people,
the joys of this celestial Pasch,
the threshold of the light,
Are rightly yours. All Hail.

Hymns reflected both the temporal and the eternal, as in this intensely personal hymn written by St. Gregory Nazianzen in the fourth century:

All thanks to you, the King of All,
And Maker of all things.
All thanks to you who by your Word,
Commanded spiritual and material forms,
And summoned into being
What was not there before...
And yet, I too shall make my prayer:
Immortal Father,
Before you I shall bend the knee,
To signify my heart;
Immortal Father,
In your presence, I lay down
My inmost mind prostrate.
I rest my brow upon the ground,
To make my prayer to you.
And so I lie, a suppliant.

Early hymns were frequently composed for the purpose of private devotions. As observed by Ian Bradley in Celtic Christian Communities, the prayers and hymns of the earliest Celtic tradition “are for reciting in the kitchen, the bedroom, the milking parlor and the fishing boat rather than in the pew.” Hymns were personal, earthy, humble and intimate, as these verses demonstrate:2

God, and Spirit, and Jesus,
From the crown of my head
To the soles of my feet;
Come I with my reputation,
Come I with my testimony,
Come I to Thee, Jesu —
Jesu, shelter me.

God, bless Thou Thyself my reaping
Each ridge, and plain, and field,
Each sickle curved, shapely, hard,
Each ear and handful in the sheaf,
Each ear and handful in the sheaf.

Come, Mary, and milk my cow,
Come, Bridget, and encompass her,
Come, Columba the benign,
And twine thine arms around my cow.
Ho my heifer, ho my gentle heifer,
Ho my heifer, ho my gentle heifer,
Ho my heifer, ho my gentle heifer,
My heifer dear, generous and kind,
For the sake of the High King take to thy calf.

Bless, O Chief of generous chiefs,
My loom and everything a-near me,
Bless me in my every action,
Make Thou me safe while I live.

I will cast down my hook,
The first fish which I bring up
In the name of Christ, King of the elements,
The poor shall have it at his wish.

There were, of course, formal composers of hymns for ceremonial occasions, generally monastics and bishops. Venantius Fortunatus, a sixth-century poet from northern Italy, whose influence lasted well into the Middle Ages, was considered to be the major literary figure of his time in Gaul. Two of his hymns are still well known today: Pange Lingua (Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle) and Vexilla Regis (The royal banners forward go).

The early church fathers condemned the use of musical instruments during worship. The flute,

tambourine and cymbal had strong associations with pagan ritual, while the disreputable circus and theater employed the hydraulus (ancestor of the modern organ). The Canons of Basil (373) decree that: “If a lector learns to play the guitar, he shall also be taught to confess it. If he does not return to it he shall suffer his penance for seven weeks. If he keeps at it he shall be excommunicated and put out of the church.”

To this day, the Eastern Orthodox churches sing a capella (unaccompanied). But other traditions follow the Old Testament, which sanctions the use of instruments in sacred music. Among the Copts, cymbals and triangles accompany the liturgy. Ethiopians use drums, as well as hand-clapping and rhythmic dancing. In the West, the hydraulus was rehabilitated as early as the seventh century, to train and accompany singers.

Gregorian chant, another characteristic western musical expression, began in the papal chapel.3 In the fifth century, a schola cantorum (choir school) was created in Rome, possibly doubling as an orphanage. The chants are simple, generally staying within the range of an octave, with melodic lines that followed the natural stresses of the text. (Earlier, church chant likely consisted of lines sung in monotone, with a change up or down only on the final word.) An envoy from Gaul brought the innovation to the attention of his king. A Gallic schola cantorum, established in Metz, disseminated Gregorian chant across western Europe.

By the eleventh century, the repertoire of chants had become too large to memorize. Rudimentary musical symbols first consisted of markings to indicate inflection, accent and length of notes. A crucial breakthrough was achieved by an eleventh-century monk, Guido d’Arezzo. Thanks to this Italian Benedictine’s invention of the staff, which enables pitch to be recorded accurately, the western world acquired its first method of music notation. On that foundation, virtually all of modern music has been erected. n

1. The greatest translator of ancient hymns is undisputedly the English Victorian John Mason Neale, whose carefully crafted and poetic translations, still appearing in new hymn books, are familiar to Western churches. His Hymns of the Eastern Church introduced to the West this previously unavailable resource, some of which existed only in fragments. Ancient Greek hymns pose particular problems in translation, as their prose/free verse form is difficult to convert to rhymed meters while still retaining the original meaning.

2. These verses are from the collection Carmina Gadelica, collected by Alexander Carmichael in the mid-nineteenth century. Carmichael was a customs and excise inspector who traveled the Scottish Highlands and islands on foot and by sea in the course of his work. His passion for recording the ancient hymns and poems resulted in six volumes of collected material, and an honorary degree from Edinburgh University.

3. Pope Gregory’s role in helping to popularize the music named after him is not clear. This doctor of the church did not compose music nor did he refer to it in his writing, but he assuredly encouraged its development.

This is the end of the Gregorian Chant category article drawn from Chapter Eight, beginning on page 212, of Volume Five, The Sword of Islam. To continue reading more about Gregorian Chant from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at