Why Gregorian Chant is Supreme (Part I of II)

“How I wept in hearing Thy hymns and canticles, touched to the quick by the voices of Thy well-beloved Church!  The voices flowed into my ears and Thy truth distilled into my heart, whence the affections of my devotion overflowed, and tears ran down, and happy was I therein.” 

-St. Augustine (Confessions, IX)

Sacred liturgy expresses the highest and most sublime truths, not only in a concrete, but also in an artistic manner.  The music which it demands must be such that it will interpret the thoughts and sentiments of Christ and the Church in their united action.  It must be a suitable means for conveying to God’s throne the prayers of the Catholic faithful. 

That sacred music and liturgical hymns are a powerful means of prayer and training the mind and heart can scarcely be denied.   In the Catholic tradition, sobriety, gravity, and nobility have always characterized sacred music rendered in sacred places. 

The different tones of the voice of music evoke in people corresponding emotions.  There is a mysterious relation between music and melody and the deepest human aspirations.  Sacred song excites us in a loathing of the sinful things of the earth.  Music and chant fill the soul with joy and consolation. 

“Music,” says Cassiodorus, “dispels sorrow, soothes anger, softens cruelty, excites to activity, sanctifies the quiet of vigils, recalls men from shameful love to chastity, by the sweetest rapture expels the diseases of the mind, and soothes, through the medium of the corporeal senses, the incorporeal soul” (Variarum, Lib. II, Ep. xl, in P.L., LXIX, 570).

Indeed, this has always been the case throughout history.  Homer’s hero found relief from the pains of a diseased heart by sitting beneath a lofty rock on the seashore and giving himself to singing.  Saul’s tumultuous passions were appeased, his gloom and suspicion and envy were dispelled by the music of David’s harp.

In general, Catholics are not too conscious of the power of sacred music and the fact that the Church’s music is a sacramental, touched by the Blood of Christ.  This is particularly true of Gregorian chant, which the Roman Church considers her own as handed down from antiquity and kept under her close tutelage and which she proposes to the faithful as belonging to them” (Mediator Dei, 191).

In fact, the chant “makes the celebration of the sacred mysteries not only more dignified” says Mediator Dei (191), “but helps very much to increase the faith and devotion of the congregation.”  And “a congregation that is devoutly present at the Sacrifice, in which our Savior with His children…sings the nuptial hymn of His immense love, cannot keep silent, for song befits the lover” (Ibid, 192). 

Gregorian chant has been called by the late Fr. Fidelis Boeser, O.S.B. the “pulse-beat of the Heart of Christ.”  Certainly, if the words of the sacred liturgy which are so full of sacramental power are presented to God the Father together with the fragrance of the sacramental chants, then greater honor is given to the majesty of the Lord.  Are we not here on earth to know God, and love Him and serve Him, celebrated through the official worship of the Church as the Church in her wisdom has instructed us?

Gregorian chant contains in itself the musical traditions of both the synagogue and the Church. It is the Roman form of early plain chant, as distinguished from other liturgical chants such as the Ambrosian, Gallican or Mozarabic.  Historically, Gregorian chant gradually supplanted these other chants from the eight to the eleventh centuries. 

This chant is called Gregorian because it was St. Gregory the Great, who occupied the chair of St. Peter from 590-604, who tradition ascribes as the one who made the final arrangement and ordered these melodies brought to perfection and published.  From Rome, what became the Gregorian Antiphonary gradually spread throughout the Catholic world. 

Gregory the Great is said to have discovered the octave as the naturally complete succession of sounds and to have distinguished the various notes by means of letters, while adding many new chants to those beautiful harmonies that have since borne the name of “Gregorian.”

The present idea of the staff of four lines with movable clefs is said to have come much later from a Benedictine monk, Guido d’Arrezzo, who lived in the eleventh century. He is also said to have given the names to the first six notes of the octave. The note “do” was originally called “ut,” and the six names (Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti) were taken from the Vespers hymn of the feast of St. John the Baptist: UT [Do] queant laxis REsonare fibris MIra gestorum FAmuli tuorum, SOLve polluti LAbii reatum, Sancte Joannes.

Gregorian chant is essentially diatonic, that is, its melodies are formed out of the tones of the diatonic scale without any preconceived relation to harmonic accompaniment.  The melodies are sung in unison, without any fixed time-measurement, but according to the rhythm of the spoken language. 

Well has it been said that the Church through the sublime music and poetry of her liturgy has contributed as powerfully to the conversion of nations as by her preaching itself.  It is said that St. Augustine and his forty-nine monks delighted the natives in Britain by their Gregorian chants.  St. Boniface used it to soften the savage ways of the pagan Germanic tribes.  Charlemagne favored its expansion throughout the Frankish Empire and in union with the Roman Pontiffs, made use of it as one of the most powerful instruments for civilizing his vast lands.   

For this reason it comes as so surprise that Pius X, by his Motu Proprio of November 22, 1903, ordered the universal restoration of the authentic Gregorian melody as the sole chant of the Roman Church, describing it as the “supreme type of sacred music (which is one and the same as liturgical music) because it contains in the highest degree the qualities characteristic of sacred music: true art, and holiness” (The New Catholic Dictionary, p. 418). 

It follows that Gregorian chant, given its supreme nature and artistry, is altogether indispensable in the celebration of the solemn liturgy since it is an integral part of the Roman liturgy.  So much so that if chant is lacking, the sung Mass cannot be carried out properly.  Such is the relation between the liturgy of the Church and the music it employs, as laid down by Vatican directives through the centuries.

While Gregorian chant is not so much heard these days in all places, it is making a distinct comeback in certain parishes due to a renewed appreciation for its artistry and its knack – a natural skill and tendency – to reach the depths of the soul of those who are fortunate to hear it live in the context and drama of the sacred rites, the official worship of the Church. 

The fact that a chaotic and ill-educated time cannot clearly grasp these simple truths does not alter the fact that Gregorian chant reigns supreme and is making a strong comeback.  In the words of G.K. Chesterton, “The boldest plans for the future invoke the authority of the past.”  The world is old, but the Church (similar to Gregorian chant) – every ancient and ever new – is young.

Finally, it is helpful to include the entry for Gregorian chant taken from The Catechism Explained by Fr. Francis Spirago, a well-known classic and an authoritative resource:

“It is believed that it was by divine inspiration or through direct revelation that the saint [Gregory the Great] did so much in the interests of Church music. This chant is marked by extreme gravity, tranquil solemnity, majestic dignity. It is free from all rapid movements, florid passages, all striving after effect. It is the language of another, a higher sphere, it is truly the voice of prayer and of praise. In the Gregorian style special attention is paid to the text, the words of which are plainly audible; the beautiful, subdued melody holds a secondary place. This style of chanting is not hampered by restrictions of time and measure, and that gives it the irresistible power it possesses over the feelings, as an eloquent discourse carries away the heart. Gregorian music undergoes no change; like Latin, the language of the Church, it is always and everywhere the same. Hence it admirably corresponds to the nature and characteristics of the Church, particularly her unity and universality. Many devout Christians prefer this style of singing to any other, because it is a stimulus to recollection and devotion” (The Catechism Explained, pp. 566-567).

To be continued…stay tuned for Part II.