What is Gregorian chant?
All you need to know about this early form of religious music, whose calm and spiritual qualities have spawned some hit recordings
What is Gregorian chant?
Gregorian chant is a form of sacred song in Latin (and occasionally Greek), employed within the Roman Catholic Church for centuries. From the start, Gregorian chant has had two key distinguishing features:
- It is unaccompanied, meaning that there are no musical instruments accompanying the singing
- It is monophonic, which means that there is just one melodic line followed by all the singers. This contrasts with later religious and secular music, in which the different voices (soprano, alto, etcetera) may sing different, although harmonising, vocal lines.
When did Gregorian chant develop?
The peak period for the development of Gregorian chant was 9th and 10th-century Europe.
Confusingly, the form takes its name from Pope Gregory I, who has often been credited with the invention of Gregorian chant during his lifetime. This was much earlier, in the later 6th century: however, today's scholars believe that Gregorian chant developed later, and drew on song traditions from both Rome and Gaul (now France).
How is Gregorian chant performed? And what types of voices is it for?
Gregorian chant was originally sung in one of two settings: by men and women in religious orders, in the chapels of monasteries and other such buildings; and by choirs (either men or boys) in churches.
Essentially, Gregorian chant was performed either during the Roman Catholic Mass, or during the monastic Office - the sequence of religious services, or times of prayer, among religious communities.
Gregorian chant is no longer obligatory in either setting. However, it is still considered the music most suitable for worship by the Catholic Church.
How did Gregorian chant influence later classical music?
This beautiful and spiritual musical form had a profound impact on the patterns taken by both medieval and Renaissance music. For example, the way that the modern musical stave is notated was developed directly from Gregorian musical notation. The bass clef and the flat, natural, and sharp accidentals all come from Gregorian notation.
The melodies from Gregorian chant also found their way into hymns and tunes, and helped to shape medieval and Renaissance polyphony. Chants would often be used as a cantus firmus, or a fixed tune around which a polyphonic choral melody can develop. The Marian antiphons, especially Alma Redemptoris Mater, were frequently arranged by Renaissance composers.
Later, the Catholic Church introduced polyphonic arrangements (with different groups singing different melodies) to replace the monophonic Gregorian chant during the Ordinary of the Mass - those parts of the Mass that remain unchanged throughout the year.
Elsewhere, composers including William Byrd and Tomás Luis de Victoria wrote polyphonic settings of the Propers - those parts of the Mass liturgy that change daily throughout the Church year. These polyphonic arrangements often include traces of the original Gregorian chant, before it was replaced by polyphonic arrangements.
When and why did Gregorian chant enjoy a renaissance?
During the late 20th century, Gregorian chant gained hugely in popularity, reaching audiences far beyond those who would ordinarily only hear this beautiful music in churches, chapels and monasteries. Part of the new surge of interest was thanks to the German band Enigma, who included samples of Gregorian chant on their smash-hit 1990 single Sadeness (Part I).
A few years later came an album entitled Chant, featuring Gregorian chant performed by the Benedictine monks of Santo Domingo de Silos in Spain. The music had in fact been recorded back in the 1970s, but only now became a hit. And what a hit: Chant became the best-selling album of Gregorian chant of all time.
Three beautiful pieces of Gregorian chant
Alma Redemptoris Mater
This beautiful melody is one of the four 'Marian antiphons' - hymns in praise of the Virgin Mary, sung in religious communities after Compline the final prater service of the day.
Ave Regina Caelorum
Along with 'Alma Redemptoris Mater' above, this is one of four Marian antiphons sung at the close of the day. Again, it is short, eloquent and beautiful.
Meaning 'Lord, have Mercy', the 'Kyrie Eleison' (or simply 'Kyrie') is a prayer offered during the Roman Catholic Mass. Traditionally, it was often set to Gregorian chant.
Pic: Giles Clarke / Getty Images
Steve has been an avid listener of classical music since childhood, and now contributes a variety of features to BBC Music’s magazine and website. He started writing about music as Arts Editor of an Oxford University student newspaper and has continued ever since, serving as Arts Editor on various magazines.