Paul R. Schilf, Ph. D.
Chant is music with great variety, from simple recitation, to complex melismatic melodies requiring the vocal skills of trained cantors. Much of the chant repertory continues to be sung by clergy, who have limited musical training, and is easily within the capabilities of parish choirs today. It is functional music, designed to serve the needs of the church’s liturgy and is widely regarded for its ‘timeless’ character.
Gregorian chant repertory was developed for Latin texts in Charlemagne’s (768-814 A.D.) Frankish kingdom, which encompassed modern France, Switzerland and Germany. We know little of the Church singing used in these areas before this time, because no modern Western system of music writing had yet been invented. Charlemagne wished the music of the Church in his kingdom to be sung as in Rome, with specific pitches. In the absence of written music, this may have caused some difficulty, since it would have had to be learned orally, as a folk music tradition.
The Frankish “folk music” chant is thought to have received the name “Gregorian” after Pope Gregory, in order to give it greater authority. This music was passed down via an oral tradition; much like the secular “folk music” of the time. It was two hundred years later that the first written, musical manuscripts appeared. Pitch-defined manuscripts begin to appear in the eleventh century, and were well-established by the twelfth. In these manuscripts, the pitches can be read, but the rhythmic details are not precisely documented. These rhythms and pitches were not written down because many of the first Christian church chants were improvised. Approximately 900 A.D. many liturgical-musical missionaries traveled between Rome and the north. These traveling musicians wrote down melodies and rhythms so that the chant melodies of the church became consistent and usable by the common people and the clergy. This same concept of chant applied also to the vernacular languages in churches at the time of the Reformation.
Chanting was and is intended to make the words more distinct and easier to hear. Through the simple monophonic (single melody line) music, chanting lends beauty to the divine service. It sets God’s Word of the Psalms and liturgy apart from everyday, secular words and ceremonies. The early church used five primary modes or reciting tones of chant. These tones are still used today: Aeolian, Dorian, Ionian, Lydian, Mixolydian, and Phrygian (A, D, C, G, and E respectively). The music and modes of the church are deliberately simple. They are intended to float the words, not interpret them. This is what distinguishes chants from spoken words in the Divine Service and more specifically chanting from the singing of our hymns. There are three melodic styles of chant: syllabic, in which each syllable of text is set to a single note; neumatic, in which two to a dozen notes accompany a syllable; and melismatic, in which single syllables may be sung to dozens of notes. In general, the more solemn the church occasion, the more somber the music.
All adapted plainchant melodies reflect the fact that during the period when they were made (from the Reformation and Counter Reformation to the nineteenth century) the Latin chant itself was undergoing an additional process of simplification. During this period, the chant was altered so that accented syllables receive more (or longer) notes than unaccented ones; it was performed more slowly, and the notation recorded a binary rhythmic relation between long and short notes, producing a semi-rhythmic style. This is what is used today in congregations that chant.
Therefore, the Lutheran church has adopted the following process and procedures for chanting in the Divine Service. The chanting of the Introit is done slowly. The following example of chant is from the Introit for the twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost.
Each half verse of the Introit text corresponds to one measure of the motif. Therefore, when chanting, the complete motif is chanted with each full verse. The first half of the verse corresponds to the first measure, the second half verse to the second measure. Notice that in each verse of text an asterisk marks the beginning of the second half verse. Also notice that two or three syllables before the end of each half verse is another mark: a hash mark in the first half verse, and a dash in the second half verse.
When chanting each half verse, each syllable preceding the hash mark is the first half verse is chanted to the tone marked as a hole note in the motif. The last syllables, indicated by the mark, fit neatly to the last three notes of the measure. The second half verse is sung in the same way to the second measure, completing the verse and the motif. This is repeated with each verse of the Introit through the Gloria Patri. The first verse is repeated after the Gloria Patri.
Apel, W and Daniel R.T. (Eds.) (1960). The Harvard Brief Dictionary of Music. New York, NY: MJF Books and Creative Media.
Crocker, Richard (2004). An Introduction to Gregorian Chant, London, Guildford and Kings Lynn
Elson, A. (1937). The Book of Musical Knowledge, New York, NY: Houghton-Mifflin Company.