Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Escapades in Early Music, Writing, and Editing

Musical Misperceptions

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There are loads of things that we all take for granted about Gregorian chant that are fundamentally false. I’ve been collecting these for a little while, and here’s a short selection of them.

• Pope Gregorius did not invent Gregorian chant. Chant was alive and well long before he was born. While he was pope (590-604), he instigated the documentation of chant. There wasn’t any music notation yet, so it was mostly the lyrics and the suitable events that were written down.

• Pope Gregorius also got credit for updating the calendar. But basically, he wanted an accurate way of documenting the various feasts of the year along with the assortment of suitable songs and had a calendar built. The real update to the calendar was done by another Pope Gregory in the 16th century.

• Gregorian chant was originally sung in Greek, until the language of the church officially changed to Latin in the 3rd or 4th century. Even then, it was only Latin in Western Europe—all of Byzantium stuck to Greek. It’s from this language digression that the names for the current flavors of chant originate: Gregorian in Rome, Ambrosian in Milan, Gallican in France, and Mozarabic (or Visigothic) in Spain.

• Liber Usualis, long thought to be the ultimate source for Gregorian chant, was only compiled and published in 1896, and is an abridged collection from four other works (the Gradual, Antiphonal, Missal, and Breviary).

• The Mass used to be comprised of the songs of the Proper (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo,Sanctus, Agnus Dei), exemplified by Bach’s B minor Mass in its highest form, and of course, many other favorite composers (Palestrina, Josquin, Brumel, et al). A change of meaning came around 1300, when the songs of the Ordinary (Introit, Gradual, Alleluia, Tract, Offertory, Communion) were added. Songs from the Proper were included as early as the 6th century. It seems that the Ordinary songs originated in Byzantium and spread westward.  Their arrival in Rome wasn’t documented until around the 11th century.

• Not all Propers were created equal. Although current practice offers only a few choices for the Propers, there is documentation for more than 300 versions of Agnus Dei (in chant. There are WAY more options in polyphony and more modern music).

• There are lots of similarities between Jewish and Gregorian chant: absence of regular meter, responsorial and antiphonal performance, prevailingly conjunct motion, psalmodic recitation, syllabic style mixed with melismas, and use of standard formulas. It’s probable that Christian chant was based on Jewish, although it doesn’t seem to be documented.

• Alleluia (hallelujah) does not mean “yippee.”  It’s from Hebrew, translated from Greek and then derived into Middle English, and means “praise ye Jehovah” (or Yahweh).  Its first known use in English was in the 14th century. In the New Testament, it appears only in Revelation 19 (although it’s there four times). It was translated in the Septuagint (the Jewish Greek version of the Bible made in the pre-Christian period) and became “alleluia” in the Vulgate, which was the 4th century Christian Latin version of the Bible.

• Gregorian chant is not sung only by men. In fact, the earliest documents imply that antiphons had women and children singing in response an octave up from where the men sang the first part. This is documented by a fellow called Philo, a Jewish chronicler in circa 60 A.D. That’s right, 60. So around the same time people were starting to document the New Testament.

• The idea some people have of Gregorian chant, where it’s sung on one note with a vacuum-cleaner swoop to begin each new phrase is fairly new. Gregorian chant is super melodic. The single-note thing was invented by Giovanni Guidetti (1530-1592). I don’t know why, though.

• Gregorian chant is not (correctly) sung all at one plodding speed. It was meant for the words of Christ to be sung slowly and on a low pitch, the words of the Jews to be sung fast and high, and a medium pace and pitch for the words of the evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

I hope you enjoyed this little list. Let me know if you have others to add! (I do too, but I’m still looking for documentation for some of them.)

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Written by Melanie Spiller

January 26, 2012 at 12:11 pm

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