Question: In your discussion of Gregorian Chant you seemed to be saying that it was not really developed by Pope Saint Gregory. What do we know about the origin of the Chant? What is Old Roman Chant?
Answer: The contention is that the Chant we call Gregorian was heavily influenced by the users of the Gallican Rite in France and Germany during the resurgence of learning known as the Carolingian Renaissance (in honor of Charlemagne). which followed the barbarian invasions of the Western Empire. Threatened by disease and invasion Gregory had to be more concerned with the basic survival of Rome and the West than with its music.
Early liturgical history, and particularly the history of liturgical music, is difficult to research due to the non-existence of liturgical manuscripts. There are a few very brief descriptions of early Catholic worship—a few passages in the Bible, the Didache and the “Apology of Saint Justin Martyr,” for example—but these are descriptions rather than liturgical texts. The Apostolic Traditions attributed by some to the third century anti-pope Hippolytus may contain the earliest written ordinary of the Mass, but their origin (Egyptian or Italian) is subject to debate. The Mass text quoted in the Apostolic Constitutions claims the authorship of Saint James the Apostle, but it is a description of the Syrian Mass in about the fourth century.
Early liturgical books for the Roman Rite generally provided the material read by a particular person. The earliest such books are collections for the priest—probably the Pope—known as sacramentaries. In their most complete form they contain the collects, secrets, postcommunions, Lenten prayers over the people, prefaces and canon, and other exclusively priestly prayers; they lack the chants and scripture readings appropriate to choir and clergy.
The oldest Roman sacramentary bears the name of Pope Leo the Great (r. 440-461) but is something of a private collection of Mass formularies completed about a century later. Our oldest copy dates from the seventh century. It is incomplete, lacking the canon and the first third of the year. A more complete book, bearing the name of Pope Saint Gelasius (r. 492-496) exists in an eighth century French copy. Ninth century copies of a Gregorian sacramentary are believed to stem from a book based on the Mass at the time of Pope Saint Gregory the Great (r. 590-604), sent to the Emperor Charlemagne by Pope Hadrian I around 785 or 786. The obvious historical difficulty in all this is that the manuscripts all exist in copies considerably newer than the originals. The extant copies of the Gelasian and Gregorian books were made by Franks and contain Frankish additions; separating the original parts from these Gallican interpolations involves guesswork.
Antiphons and Graduals
The problem is even more difficult for historians of music. While some ancient music included pitch notations (generally as Greek letters), most of the early Roman and Frankish manuscripts did not. Early music for the chant of the Mass and Office appears to have been noteless, with melodies being learned by rote from experienced choir members. A pitch notation which looks something like shorthand symbols above the syllables came into use around 900—well after Gregory the Great had come and gone. The Saint Gall Codex 359 from the Benedictine monastery in Switzerland, and the Laon MS 239 from Picardie (in modern northeastern France) are early examples, each with its own form of staffless notation.
Not until about 1030 did the Benedictine monk Guido of Arezzo develop the four line staff notation which we associate today with Gregorian Chant, capable of recording the pitch and duration of each note.
For the historian to know what the music of Pope Saint Gregory’s day sounded like, he must rely on manuscripts written three hundred years later, often in northern France, Switzerland, or Germany. The copyists of these manuscripts had no reason to distort history, but were more interested in producing useful liturgical books—books which might well contain recent local compositions and variation on the original texts, without any mention that they were not part of the original.
Pope Gregory left a large number of writings, but these shed only a little light on his musical interests. We have a copy of a letter to John, Bishop of Syracuse in which Gregory refuted complaints that he was copying the rites of Constantinople where Gregory had served as apocrisiarius—a sort of ambassador for the Holy See to the Imperial court during the pontificate of Pelagius II. From Gregory’s denials we learn that when he became Pope it was already the custom at Rome to sing the Alleluia before the Gospel even outside of Eastertime. He seemed to take responsibility for the alternating of the Kýrie eléison and Christe eléison between clergy and people—but not in the Greek fashion of responding to a litany. He claims to have restored an earlier custom of the subdeacons not wearing dalmatics or chasubles. He ordered the Lord’s Prayer to be said directly at the end of the Canon.
The Liber Pontificalis made no mention of Gregory’s music at all. Saint Gregory of Tours, a contemporary of Gregory the Pope, devoted a few pages to him in his History of the Franks, but the only mention of music is that Gregory had people singing Psalms and chanting Kýrie eléison in processions to ward off a plague.[ii]
The Venerable Bede (673-735) was the earliest biographer to mention Gregory’s arrangement of the Canon:
John the Deacon (d. 882) who wrote life of Pope Gregory at request of John VIII (r. 872-882) attributes to him a “patchwork antiphonary,” a book with the chant for the Office.
Old Roman Chant
There are five extant manuscripts which music historians believe contain the music of Rome in and around the time of Gregory the Great—say, AD 400 to 800—and this music is now referred to as Old Roman Chant to distinguish it from the Chant as it developed in the northern countries during and after the reign of Charlemagne. These five manuscripts are dated in the eleventh, twelvth, and thirteenth centuries, but all are from Roman churches: Saint Peter’s, the Lateran, and St. Cecilia in Trastevere; the latter church being dedicated to the patroness of church musicians. There are three graduale, containing Mass chants, and two antiphoners for the Divine Office. The musical style differs from modern Gregorian chant, and the theory is that it was preserved orally in Roman churches long enough to be written down in musical notation.
There are additional historical reasons to believe that the Old Roman Chant was modified after Gregory’s reign, both in Italy and when it crossed the Alp; later to return to use in Italian churches.
Gregory the Great is believed to have been an accomplished musician, but also a man of great pastoral concern. His insistence that the Kýrie be a responsory between clergy in people points to music simple enough for the common man to sing. We know, as well, that during his time in Constantinople he developed a dislike for the elaborate rituals of the Imperial court. And he was concerned that none of his clerics appear to be giving a concert instead of worshipping God—we are told that he forbade the deacons to sing anything other than the Gospel, lest they appear to be seeking admiration of their fine voices.[iv] Gregory was a Roman and Roman style tended to be succinct.
Not all of the prayers which are chanted were part of the Roman Mass during Gregory’s pontificate, and not all of the Mass propers had yet been composed.[v] Obviously, a new Mass formulary—the Introit, Gradual, Offertory, and Communion hymn for a new saint’s feast—could be composed in Gregory’s style of composition, but some of the later additions to the Mass already had their own native styles. The Credo, introduced in 1014 at the request of Emperor Henery II had been chanted as part of the Gallican Mass (even containing the Filioque, previously forbidden at Rome). From the Antiochene liturgy, the Agnus Dei was added by Pope Sergius I (r.687-701), a Syrian by birth.
Indeed, the Church had a surprising number of Greek speaking Popes in the period beginning with Theodore I (r.642-649) and ending with the election of Stephen II in 752, over a century later. These were men from Greece, Syria, or Greek speaking Sicilly, who surrounded themselves in the papal court with other Greek speaking prelates. Pope St. Vitalian (657-672) “developed the song-school at the Lateran so as to train the singers for the new, more elaborate and Byzantine style papal rites; it chanters were called ‘Vitaliani.’"[vi] Quite a change from the Roman style of Gregory the Great.
The Carolingian Renaissance
While the attempt to identify the origins of Gregorian chant is severely hampered by the lack of musical notation before the tenth century, we do have some other historical data which help us to know something about the development of the Old Roman Chant before it was transmitted to the Carolingian Empire. Various biographies tell us something of the musical interests and accomplishments of the Popes between Gregory I in the late sixth century and the Emperor Charlemagne in the early ninth..
Pope Saint Sergius I (687-701) “of Syrian origin ... came to Rome and was numbered among the clergy of the Roman Church ... he was studious and competent in the task of chanting.... He laid it down that at the time of the breaking of the Lord’s body the clergy and people should sing ‘Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.’ He decreed that on [the Annunciation, Assumption, Nativity of Mary, and Saint Simeon’s day] a litany should go out from Saint Hadrians’s and the people should meet up at Saint Mary’s.”[viii]
Pope Saint Gregory II (715-731) “renewed the deserted monasteries ... so that by day and night they should render praise to God there ... to chant praise to God every day and night. He instituted that on the Thursdays of Lent there should be a celebration of Mass in churches; this used not to be.” The presence or absence of these Thursday Lenten Masses is a valuable tool in dating liturgical manuscripts. Very much like Gregory I, the second Gregory had to deal with Lombard invasion, the overflow of the Tiber, and consequent disease and starvation—like his namesake, “litanies were held repeatedly by the lord Pope, and when he continued in prayer and litanies, God showed His mercy and removed the water.” And, as Gregory I had sent Augustine to evangelize the English, “through Bishop Boniface he preached the message of salvation in Germany.”[ix]
Pope Saint Gregory III (731-741) “of Syrian origin, knowing the Psalms in order ... constructed a monastery of the martyrs SS. Stephan, Lawrence, and Chrysogonus; he established there a community of monks to perform God’s praises as arranged for daytime and nighttime. He likewise renewed the monastery of SS John the Evangelist, John the Baptist and Pancras.”[x]
Chant historians place the development of the Mass propers (Introits, Graduale-Alleluja-Tracts, Offertories, and Communion Hymns) within the reigns of these late seventh and early eighth century Popes. The late Professor James McKinnon theorizes a concerted project to develop to develop a more or less complete liturgical cycle, taking a number of years and ending within the pontificate of Sergius I. He points to the beautifully appropriate layout of the chants for Advent, calling their compilation during this period “the Advent Project,” the title of his book in which he spells out his theory in great detail.[xi]
McKinnon also advanced the theory that writers of the Carolingian renaissance attributed the works of all three Popes Gregory to one man.[xii] There are remarkable similarities in their lives—all three were great men, with an interest in renewing the monastic chanting of the Divine Office. It is not beyond the pale that Alcuin, the English born scholar at the court of Charlemagne, conflated the three Gregories in the person of the Apostle to the English, Gregory I.
On Christmas Day AD 800 Pope Leo III crowned the Frank, Charlemagne, emperor of the Christian West. Charlemagne represented something of a return to the stability lost in the 500s with the barbarian invasions of Europe. While the new emperor was remarkably successful in military affairs, his renewed emphasis on education and religion is most important for our purposes. Under the direction of the English monk Alcuin of York, Charlemagne required each cathedral, monastery, and even the parishes in his realm to establish a school that was to be open to the children of the faithful. The parish schools taught Christian doctrine, chant, grammar, and sometimes the trades. The monasteries and cathedrals added more advanced work in music, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, music and astronomy.
Although the Franks had observed the Gallican rite, Charlemagne was anxious to standardize worship within the Empire using the rite of Rome. We have manuscript copies of the Gregorian Sacramentary precisely because around 790 Pope Adrian I responded to Charlemagne’s request for a copy of the rite used by the Pope. Unfortunately, sacramentaries include only the parts of the Mass spoken or sung by the celebrant; a very small portion of the Roman musical repertory—and the eighth century date puts the Gregorian book before the invention of western musical notation.
From his biographers we know that Charlemagne was an enthusiastic Catholic. He not only built and furnished churches and monasteries, but, as long as his health and his military affairs permitted, he was a regular participant at Mass and the Divine Office.[xiii] We are told that he was insistent that the rites of the Church be performed properly, offering encouragement to those who tried to learn. He was disturbed by the lack of uniformity within his realm, and requested that Pope Stephen III (768-772) send accomplished singers to teach his clergy to sing as they did in Rome. Although Pope Stephen gladly complied, the results were not what Charlemagne had hoped for. The singers came, but, generally, they did not stay as long as necessary, and there were complaints that their teaching varied from place to place. One of the biographers, a monk with the endearing name of Notker the Stammerer, with classic Gaulic pride, claimed that the teachers, “like all Greeks and Romans, greatly envious of the Franks, plotted among themselves ... to prevent the Franks ... from ever achieving uniformity.”[xiv]
One suspects that the Romans sent by Pope Stephen were more “homesick” than they were envious—or frozen, really. Charlemagne’s capital, Aachen (or Aix-la-Chapelle when it is in French hands) is located on the modern day German boarder with the Netherlands at about 51° north latitude; roughly as far north as Newfoundland, a long way from the Mediterranean climate of Rome. And, even though Charlemagne was an enlightened man, attempting to restore Western civilization, it is very unlikely that the creature comforts and cultural opportunities in any of his cities could have matched those of the Italian peninsula. The Roman singers put in an appearance and then went home to warm up. As a result, the Roman influence on the Gallican chant was spotty—many of the Roman texts were adopted, but the music was often a local construction.
Charlemagne, ever on the move throughout his realm, was disturbed with the variations in the chant he encountered from place to place. Notker claims that Pope Stephen’s successor, Pope Leo III (795-816), exiled or imprisoned all of the “envious” singers, and offered to train two of Charlemagne’s monks in Rome. On their return one was assigned to the cathedral at Metz; and the other, whom Notker identifies as “Peter,” to the monastery at Saint Gall. Both Metz and Saint Gall developed into early centers for the refinement of the chant—there are extant manuscripts from both places, where, for the first time, we find the chant notated with staff less symbols somewhat resembling shorthand. (As we have seen, the four line staff was a later invention of the Tuscan monk Guido of Arezzo, about 1030.)
The early chant was generally a monastic thing. In addition to the ceremonies of the Mass, the monks carried on the full round of chanted Psalms prescribed by the rule of Saint Benedict of Nursia or one of a number of lesser known monastic rules. Benedict’s vision of monasticism was a community of men living far enough from the press of civilization to be undisturbed in its prayer and its work. The community came together to sing the Psalms at appointed times throughout the day and night; a priest or two would be available for the celebration of Mass and the other Sacraments; there would be time for spiritual reading, which would even continue at the common dinner table. The community was a self sufficient extended farming family. The monks would sustain themselves through their own labor in the fields and in a few small workshops; surplus production might be sold at a reasonable price to bring in the few things the community did not produce.
Monasticism was, thus, rural in nature. In the cities, bishops generally tried to keep a chapter of monks or canons to sing the Mass and Office at the cathedral. In such an urban setting, the life of a monk was considerably different, with a number of non-Benedictine rules being followed. In some cases the canons were seculars, who lived with their families instead of in monastic communities.
Under the Carolingian rulers, the rural monasteries became income producing enterprises, which were given as military and political rewards to the supporters of the king.[xv] The lands were farmed by serfs, and the monks became upper class religious, who contributed to society with their prayers. By the time of Charlemagne, many of the monks and nuns of the Continent were the second and third sons and daughters of the nobility, placed in the monasteries where they could live a life of respectability and ease.[xvi] Saint Benedict’s motto, “ora et labora—pray and work” was threatening to give way to “pray and socialize,” for the children of the nobility found themselves with much time to go about the latter. In some cases the noble owners of the monastery even moved in and functioned as abbots—a rather confusing thing for monks trying to avoid the turmoil of the world to share their buildings with a nobleman, his wife, children, retainers, and friends! A monastic reform was in the offing.
The Rise of Cluny
The reform may be said to have come in the person of Saint Benedict of Aniáne (747-821), a Goth born in the Languedoc region of southern France, but educated in the Frankish court of Pippin the Younger, the father of Charlemagne. Benedict established two monasteries at Aniáne, the first, around 780 was based on Eastern practices; the second, around 799 on the Rule of Saint Benedict (of Nursia). Charlemagne’s son, Louis the Pious (781-840), established Benedict in a monastery called Abbey of Cornelimünster, on the River Inde, near Aachen, and appointed him as the director of all monastic activity in the Empire (Abbot-General would be the modern term). Cornelimünster became a training center—“a kind of ascetical staff college where Abbots and monks would be sent to learn the approved practices, so that they could return home and instruct their communities.”[xvii] Benedict hosted several synods at Aachen to formulate uniform monastic discipline throughout the Empire.
Benedict of Aniáne’s rule reformed the existing monastic disciple by making the cloisters far more secure from casual visitors and from trips outside the monastery. The rules were actually enforced by the central authority of the Abbot General, often with the help of the imperial authority. But from the perspective of Church music, the most significant change was drastic increase in the number of hours spent in singing the Mass and Offices of the day. One Abbot of the time, Angilbert of Saint-Riquier reported “three monastic choirs, each of a hundred monks and thirty-four boys, litanies, solemn processions, and the celebration of at least thirty Masses daily on different altars.” The Aachen decrees prescribed “in addition to the sevenfold office of the day, monks were now required to chant additional psalms before the night office, and visit the numerous altars in procession , and to recite the Office of the Dead daily. ...The community or chapter Mass was now celebrated daily, and it was a growing practice for individual monks to celebrate ‘private’ Masses on the numerous altars that were coming to be a feature of monastic building.”[xviii]
A few centuries later, the pressure for monastic reform would push the other way with the founding of the Cistercians—monks who wanted to return to the strict observance of the unmodified Benedictine Rule, and who would balance monastic chant and prayer with a return to manual labor. But before Cîteaux would come the founding of Cluny in the Burgundy region of modern day France by Duke William of Aquitane in 909.
The monastery at Cluny was the most successful of several abbeys engaged in monastic reform. The Abbey at Gorze in the Diocese of Metz had a similar history, as did a handful of Flemish abbeys. All of these establishments followed the decrees of Saint Benedict of Aniáne, which is to say that all were centers of intense liturgical activity—one might even say “pageantry.” The more successful ones were those granted autonomy by their lay founders, and were later received autonomy from the local bishop by grants of the Holy See. Cluny formed a vast federation by founding daughter houses and reforming other monasteries over which it retained control. By the twelfth century, Cluny was father-house to over 300 monasteries, in France, Italy, the Empire, Lorraine, England, Scotland, and Poland, most of which were theoretically priories of the grand Abbey, and which enjoyed the same exemptions from local control as Cluny itself..[xix] By the twelfth century, Christian Europe was covered with monastic enclaves which brought the chant with them, and by this time enjoyed the benefit of four line notation to keep the chant uniform throughout the federation.
The importance of Cluny to the propagation of the Chant can appreciated by examining its influence on everything in Christian Europe. At least four Popes came to the Church from the Cluny federation: Gregory VII (r.1073-1085), Urban II (r.1088-1099), Paschal II (r. 1099-1118), and Urban V (r. 1362-1370). Yet in the period the Abbots of Cluny were likewise on familiar terms with the crowned heads of Europe: Abbot Hugh of Cluny (r. 1049-1109) was a personal friend of Pope Gregory VII, and also Godfather to Henry IV, the Emperor made by Gregory to do penance in the snow at Canossa. A dozen or so Cluniac foundations were made in Britain because first, William the Conqueror, and later William Warenne, first Earl of Surrey, were insistent on bring the monks to England.[xx]
King Ferdinand I of León built the third abbey church for Abbot Hugh. Hugh’s niece married Ferdinand’s son, Alfonso VI of León-Castile, who in turn took great pains to establish the Cluny federation in Christian Spain, and to encourage non-federation monasteries to adopt the customs of Cluny.
Abbot Peter the Venerable (r. 1122-1156) was a composer of chant in his own right. He protected Abelard from his friend Innocent II, protected the Jews against the mob, and had the Koran translated into Latin. Peter introduced the Salve Regina into the Office of Cluny, he left a complete set of chants for the Transfiguration, as well as a number of Lady chants.
The reform of Benedict of Aniáne—by way of Cluny, Gorze, and a large number of other monasteries—left an indelible mark on both music and monasticism. The production-like quality of the liturgy in the larger houses, with its coordination of large numbers of singers, and more and more elaborate music, set the stage for the development of western music. The orchestra, for example, can only develop in a culture capable of bringing a large number of musicians in a well managed organization. The forms of music more complex than monophonic plain chant on a diatonic scale were natural outgrowths of an art constantly seeking to elaborate itself. The Church and civil society are both artistically richer for these developments.
Yet there will always be a sort of “cultural tension” between the monasticism of Benedict of Nursia and that of Benedict of Aniáne. That tension will have a parallel in the way Catholics worship, and in the way people choose their musical expression.
The Rule of Saint Benedict of Nursia envisioned communities of humble monks who would do all of the hard physical work required to support themselves in a rural environment. The motto of the Order was “Ora et Labora—Pray and Work.” On the other hand, the reform of Benedict of Aniáne envisioned monks of noble birth, dedicated to more or less continuous musical prayer, for whom work was a best a token effort, so as not to depart completely from the original Rule. Their motto might as well have been Ora et Canta—Pray and Sing! While great honor was given to God in liturgical pageantry, some contemporaries questioned the propriety of such an aristocratic life for monks. A revival of the original Rule would come under Robert of Molesme, with the foundation of the Cistercian Order on 21 March (the feast of Saint Benedict of Nursia) 1098.
The other consideration was that the simple chants of Gregory the Great had become so complex under the influence of the highly professional musicians of Cluny, that they became impossible or nearly so for the average Catholic to sing in his parish church.
The genius of the Catholic Church can be seen in the co-existence of both forms of monasticism and both forms of music. In the Catholic Church one can be a worker-monk or a singer-monk. Likewise the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass can be accompanied by the most elaborate chant mankind can produce—or the least elaborate, or none at all.
[ii] Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks. Bk. X, Ch. 1.
[iii] Venerable Bede, A History of the English Church and People, Bk. II, Ch. 1.
[iv] Gregory I, Registrum epistolarum in James McKinnon, The Advent Project (University of California, 2000) pp. 84-85, and p418 n.30.
[v] Described at length in James McKinnon, op. cit.
[vi] JND Kelly, Oxford Dictionary of Popes, p. 76.
[a] Liber Usualis, Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost.
[viii] Liber Pontificalis (LP) #86. Pages 82-87 in Raymond Davis, trans. The Book of Pontiffs, (Liverpool University Press, 1989).
[ix] LP #91. Pages 3-16 in Davis, trans., The Lives of the Eighth-Century Popes (Liverpool, 1992)
[x] LP #92. Ibid., pages 17-28.
[xi] James McKinnon, The Advent Project (Berkely: University of California Press, 2000).
[xii] Ibid., pages 97-98.
[xiii] Cf. Einhard the Frank, Vita Caroli, 25-28.
[xiv] Cf. Notker, Charlemagne, 7-10
[xv] CH Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism ( London: Longman, 1989), p. 75.
[xvi] Ibid. pp. 59, 71,72
[xvii] Ibid. p. 78.
[xviii] Ibid. p. 80.
[xx] Lawrence, Ibid., p. 97-98.