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History of Gregorian Chant
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Author: Abbey of Solesmes

Gregorian Chant is a musical repertory made up of chants used in the liturgical services of the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, the liturgical tradition which the Church has given us is a vocal, monophonic music composed in Latin using sacred texts from the Ancient and New Testaments. This is why Gregorian Chant has often been called a "sung Bible". Linked intimately to the liturgy in this way, the goal of the Gregorian melodies is to favor spiritual growth, reveal the gifts of God and the full coherence of the Christian message.

What we call Gregorian chant today first appears distinctly in the Roman repertory of the fifth and sixth centuries. Its implimentation and perhaps some of its composition was in the hands of a group of ministers in a service specially dedicated to the Roman basilicas, the schola cantorum. Gregorian chant also appears to have been an aural music, that is, transmitted by ear and committed to memory - like all other music of the world at the time.

In the second half of the eighth century, the political rapprochement between the French kingdom of Pepin and Charlemagne, and the papacy, widened the Roman liturgy's field of application. The French crown decreed its adoption throughout the kingdom. This is when the first written records which have come down to us begin to appear, first in France, then all over the Empire and beyond. Despite wide graphic differences, their uniformity of content clearly records a single reading of an unbroken tradition.

The texts (words and some musical notations), committed to writing in books, become at this time an official reference text. The general allure of the Roman chant with its modal architecture was very attractive to Gallican musicians. They dressed it, however, in a completely different way. The term "Gregorian chant" was first used to describe this hybrid of Roman and Gallican chant.

At first, written records served as memory prompts with only artistic directions for correct interpretation and performance. The musical tones were still taught by ear and transmitted by memory.

But with the gradual increase of pitch indications in the manuscripts came a corresponding decrease in the interpretive directions, and with it, a decrease in the role of memory. As a result, Gregorian chant fell into complete decadence by the end of the Middle Ages: the manuscripts offer little more than a "heavy and tiresome succession of square notes". The Renaissance brought with it Gregorian chant's coup de grâce. The melodies, which show the correct reading of the literary text by highlighting keywords and phrases, were "corrected" by official musicologists - the long vocalises, for example, reduced to a few notes each. Worse, the words, literary compositions which are the official text of the Roman liturgy, and that constitute a lyrical catechism, were also officially "corrected" against a verbatim reading of the Vulgate Bible. The mangled result which persisted for two hundred years is generally known in English as "plainsong".

In 1833, a young priest of the diocese of Le Mans, Dom Prosper Guéranger, undertook the restoration of benedictine monastic life on the site of an old priory at Solesmes, after forty years of silence due to the French Revolution. He seized upon the restoration of Gregorian chant with enthusiasm and began by working on its execution, asking his monks to respect the primacy of the text in their singing: pronunciation, accentuation and phrasing, with an eye to guaranteeing its intelligibility, in the service of prayer. Dom Guéranger also placed the task of restoring the authentic melodies into the hands of one of his monks.

The handwriting, in "thin flyspecks", of the original manuscripts was indecipherable at the time. But the invention of photography soon brought unforeseen benefits with it. Little by little, an incomparable collection grew at Solesmes, facsimiles of the principal manuscripts of the chant contained in the libraries of all Europe. this was the genesis of the Paleography of Solesmes.


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