The Roman Chant

Subject: Art
Type: Profile Essay
Pages: 7
Word count: 1979
Topics: Music, American Culture

The Gregorian chant is a form of monophonic sacred song of the Roman Catholic Church that usually accompanies the text of the mass. The chant was named with reference to Pope Gregory I who led the Roman Catholic Church from 590 to 604. He was, and is honored as the man to whom the Catholic Church owes this chant part of the mass ceremony. The Gregorian chant was developed in the central and western Europe between 9th and 10th centuries. The Gregorian chant, having been adopted as early as 9th century, has been in use and is still being used currently; it has been transmitted through generation to generation either orally or through written formats. This paper provides historical evidences of the methods that were used in the transmission of Gregorian chant. The reasons for broadness as well as swiftness in transmission are also given. In addition to that, the paper provides a clear description of the Gregorian chant and a comparison of the various sources. A critical review of real music piece is also documented.

The King of Holy Roman Empire, Charlemagne, who ruled between 768 and 814, made an imposition of the Gregorian chant in his kingdom. Previously, the kingdom traditionally used a liturgical piece called the Gallican chant. During 8th and 9th centuries, there was assimilation between the Gallican chant and Gregorian chant and the chant evolved to its present-day form. Although some scholars give credit to Pope Gregory I for inventing the Gregorian chant, other scholars believe that it rose from a blend of the Roman and Gallican chant. For many centuries, the Gregorian chant was sung in chorus without any musical instrument accompaniment. It was originally composed in Latin and therefore its lyrics is closely tied to the Latin accent. The Gregorian chant is some kind of a free music with no meter or time signature.

Since the lyrics was sung in its entirety in Gregorian chant, every type of liturgical text was set in chant accordingly, including prayers, mass propers and ordinaries, readings, responsories, and vesicles.

The origin of the Gregorian chant is not clear despite Pope Gregory I getting credit of invention from some scholars. Prior to the reign of King Pippin, chants were in Gallo Roman and Frankish and the whole psalm was sung by a soloist on an ad hock basis. After the visit of Pope Stephen, Pippin and his priests were encouraged to adopt the Roman chant as not just the new melodies and texts but also a new institutional model. The adoption of the Roman chant was rampant despite the differences between the Gallo Roman and Frankish chants. The chants were carried on by memory for a hundred years before being written down. The scholars are still investigating the extent to which chant traditions recorded in Frankish manuscripts contain Gallican elements.

The uniformity of Gregorian repertory was achieved in 9th century mainly in offertory, communion, and graduals. However, it is not clear whether this uniformity was achieved by ways of actual text or just a consensus of traditions. This uniformity, however, is challenged by some scholars who argue that some aspects of the liturgy were not uniform and therefore it does not make sense that the music was uniform. The Roman chants were musically, textually and practically different from other chants. Therefore when the Franks adopted the Roman chant, they took the melodies, texts and the whole concept of the Roman chant.

This would, therefore, mean that music was one of the aspects of the liturgy that was consistently adopted since it was not familiar in substance or form. The Carolingian commentaries, on the other hand, indicated that the melodic tradition in the 9th century was not identical. Even during the time of Pippin and Charlemagne, the melody was not considered uniform. The discussion of unity, or lack of it in the Gregorian chant tradition was not of principle concern. The commentators were interested in the unity of choir signaling which indicated the unity of Christians.

King Charlemagne was distressed at differences in which various provinces and small localities chanted in the early 8th and 9th century. A cantor, who had returned from Rome to Metz taught about the Gregorian chant and his teachings spread widely. He ensured that the chant that was learned was in accordance to the Roman chant. The main concern of the Charlemagne was the consistency of the singing style. This means that there was no claim of the melodic unity in the early 8th and 9th century. Even up to 10th century, there was still no evidence of melody unity to the extent that the Carolingian commentators concerned themselves with such a matter. The unification of chant was, however, achieved in Metz under the influence of the cantor and the Charlemagne legislation by the end of his reign. The commentator’s evidence that there was change throughout the 9th century would then mean that the existing manuscript did not represent the entire Frankish chant tradition or the entirety of the chant tradition.

Since the 9th century, the Roman chant has been transmitted from generation to generation up to the current generation through the written and unwritten channels.

The written and unwritten transmissions are processes that perform the same kind of task, which is, passing on the information. Written transmission implies something is transmittable while the unwritten implies more problems. A well-known hymn can be transmitted well note for note through stable performance. However, an organum melody is not transmitted in a written but realized in performance. The phrase unwritten tends to create a picture of performing from the mental repository of fixed melodies while the written transmission is more reliable in the actual sense. In this context, the Medieval liturgical can be understood as melody presentation of an ecclesiastical verbal text. The role of melody in chant is a presentation of language in such a way to project sound and meaning with distinctiveness while maintaining the principles of melody syntax and coherence of idiom.

It is believed that the Franco-Germanic theorists had considerable influence on the Roman chant. The early tones show a great confusion occurred where Frankish chant was imposed upon Roman chant. There were other native influences on the foreign Roman repertory perhaps from the Gallican chant, Frank singing, and other local elements. However, the revision and arrangement imposed a modal scheme on unclassified Roman chant and also simplified the complex style of Old-Roman into a more direct and stylistically differentiated Gregorian chant. In the Old-Roman, the patterns in the offertory, communion, and responsories were more verbose and lacked the definitive characters of those in the Gregorian chant. When the two were compared, the Old-Roman appeared as the earlier version of Gregorian chant both from the same tradition. The Ambrosian melodies may represent a later stage of development than the Gregorian one which is characterized by a tendency towards amplification of the ornament.

Since the Old-Roman shows less melody fixation than Gregorian chant, and since none of the Old-Roman extracts can be dated earlier than mid 11 century and since 9th-century reporters claimed that Romans sang their chant differently always, then, the Old-Roman may have been transmitted orally and the tradition was improvisatory. The difference between the Frankish and Roman could have resulted from the continually changing Roman practice. Rome, being a liturgical city, one would expect that liturgical melody would be well known. However, this was not the case as there was a closer identity of melodies among the Gregorian across Europe as compared to a group of manuscripts from Rome. The Old-Roman chant is marred with the disparity in musical texts among the antiphones. After the split of the Roman chant into two branches, changes did occur in the Old-Roman tradition. The Old-Roman did not contain the fixity as shown by the Gregorian chant. It was characterized by alteration, variation, and free adaptation.

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It is evident that the lack of standardization in Old-Roman chant was not dependent on a written model which may have never existed. This then means that manuscript redaction was done by some Roman Churches directly from oral translation rather than from a written source such as Gregorian chant. If these manuscript copies had been made at the same time, then we would assume that the oral tradition ceased at the same time and became written. However, the manuscript came from a period covering range of about 200 years and therefore this means that oral tradition continued to exist until about 13th century when the Old-Roman declined and the Gregorian became firmly planted in Rome. The poor manuscript and poor state of preservation indicated that Old-Roman had always been oral.

In the comparison of the Old-Roman and the Gregorian chant, it revealed that certain verse melodies reoccur once or more times. Therefore the total number of the phrases that the singer was required to know was limited and the aspect of repetition of the subsequent verses made it easier to understand. Out of the fifty-four Old-Roman alleluias, only eight had unique melodies. The reset had limited number of melodies types. Old-Roman is more consistent using fewer patterns and applying them more uniformly while the Gregorian describes the variation or relaxation of the formula. With these in mind, it will be easy to notice the signs of the consistency in use of musical materials.

This forms the evidence of the oral composition and transmission of a common ancestor of both traditions. The Old-Roman is, therefore, more consistent and economical and it relies on standard phrases and melody types with fewer variants. This means that oral transmission shows more with Old-Roman while the written transmission is more prevalent with the Gregorian chant. The Old-Roman chant shows more thrift as a result of it having transmitted orally for a longer time.

During the time of split of the Roman chant into the Old-Roman and the Gregorian chant, the Old-Roman repertory was not fixed but continued to expand with the addition of other chants and responsorial. The comparison of the late Old-Roman and the late Gregorian chant found that responsorial that largely relied on standard melodic material show signs of ancient times than those that do not. The verses of the late Gregorian chant were set to the standard tone but with some variation especially in the second part. Tones in this class occur in the order of modes from one to eight and the ninth start tone one again. The melodic material seems to be newly constructed with considerable ornamentation. The late Gregorian chant consisted long melismas composition just before the final rhythm in the response.

It has not been proved that the transmission of the later chant additions has any difference with the earlier materials. However, individual intuition may suggest that a difference may have existed. Vulnerable music would be accorded respected while most recent music may not. Singers perceive differences even within official repertoire based on the style features. The uniformity of the melodic transmission of Gregorian chant does not indicate uniformity in the musical practice. It is unimportant to inquire what would be required to prove uniformity since it can be inherently unprovable. However, it is essential to enquire the cause of the observed uniformity. These agreements must have some other unidentified cause but it is extremely difficult to identify what cause it is.

In conclusion, it is evident that the most probable origin of the agreement is the general and regional uniformities of musical practice. The new historical view, therefore, suffers practical challenges as well as theoretical difficulties. Several different inscriptions do represent the same melody and therefore the same inscription cannot represent different melodies. In the improvised versions of chant, they must share bits of phrases. At the same time, other phrases will gain similarity from the identity of text, melodic traditions singers own rendition and specific rules governing a specific genre.

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  1. Apel, Willi. “The Central Problem of Gregorian Chant.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 9, no. 2 (1956): 118-127.
  2. Cutter, Paul. “Oral Transmission of the Old-Roman Responsories?” The Musical Quarterly 62, no. 2 (1976): 182-194.
  3. Cutter, Paul. “The Old-Roman Chant Tradition: Oral or Written?” Journal of the American Musicological Society 20, no. 2 (1967): 167-181.
  4. Hornby, E. “The Transmission of Western Chant in the 8th and 9th Centuries: Evaluating Kenneth Levy’s Reading of the Evidence.” Journal of Musicology -Michigan- 21, no. 3    (2004): 418-457
  5. Hucke, Helmut. “Toward a New Historical View of Gregorian Chant.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 33, no. 3 (1980): 437-467.
  6. Bergeron, Katherine. Decadent Enchantments: The Revival of Gregorian Chant at Solesmes. California: University of California Press, 1998.
  7. Hughes, David. “Evidence for the Traditional View of the Transmission of Gregorian Chant.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 40, no. 3 (1987): 377-404.
  8. Levy, Kenneth. “A new look at Old Roman chant.” Early Music History 19: 81-104.
  9. Treitler, Leo. “The “Unwritten” and “Written Transmission” of Medieval Chant and the Start-Up of Musical Notation.” Journal of Musicology 10, no. 2 (1992): 131-191.
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