Gregorian Chant; Religion within Music

Feature Photographs taken by Manuel Jesús Rodriguez of The Cathedral of York

The Middle Ages (476 AD — 1492), is an era controlled by the church and saturated with fearful respect of the church and of the Christian God. The Church ruled with an iron fist because of their ideas of divine rights. On this note, the church was the only one recording the history of music at this time. Everything we know about music from this period was recorded by the church. Churches were the few people able to read, write and play music. Because of this, churches were the main ones producing music. Thus, nearly all music would serve the purposes of the church. And honestly, they prefer it that way. Most of this music was under the genre of Gregorian chants, (aka plainchant, plainsong).

Gregory-the-Great-inspiration-painting-dove-form.jpg
Pope Gregory the Great receiving inspiration from the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove; Carlo Saraceni, c. 1590; National Gallery of Ancient Art, Rome.

Gregorian chants got their name from named after St. Gregory I, who was pope during (590 to 604). However, it was in name only. Charlemagne, king of the Franks (768–814), brought this new style to his kingdom. The use of St. Gregory I’s name is to give it some authority and authenticity.

Gregorian chant is a very monophonic tune, meaning there isn’t typically musical accompaniment to the voices. Its range is narrow, thus it’s rather monotone and doesn’t have many notes within its range and has limited motion in terms of moving between note ranges. This genre is based upon public religious worship in terms of lyrics, which is called a liturgy. Liturgy is the main part of its phrasing since it’s a religious or sacred genre of music. What this means is that most of the lyrics revolve around the church and the church’s uses.

Here’s an example; “In Paradisum” by an anonymous musician. It’s a ninth-century antiphon plainchant used during a funeral. Typically, it’s sung at the end of the Requiem Mass as a final blessing while the body is taken from the church to the cemetery for burial.

In paradisum deducant angeli
In tuo adventu suscipiant te martyres
Et perducant te
In civitatem sanctam Jerusalem
Chorus angelorum te suscipiat
Et cum Lazaro, quondam paupere
Aeternam habeas requiem

Which translates to….

May angels lead you into paradise
Martyrs receive you at your arrival
And bring you
To the holy city Jerusalem
May the choir of angels receive you
And with Lazarus, once a pauper
May you have eternal rest 

Sacred music (religious music) such as Gregorian chants were slowly on the decline while secular music (non-religious music) such as troubadour music and operas are on the rise. In the eras after the Middle Ages (600 and 1600), it was all but replaced. As well, we start seeing an increase in instrumental music as opposed to vocal music around 1450 and the start of the renaissance. This is said to start with the notes in the margins of religious texts called marginalia. This was a practice as monks got bored with copying the same thing over and over.

BODY snail
Knight Duels Giant Snail; British Library, Royal MS 10 E IV

Creativity within religious texts paved the way for creativity in general. It grew from there and started the separation between the church and the people.

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Headless Duel in the Summer volume of the Breviary of Renaud and Marguerite de Bar, Metz ca. 1302-1305

Going towards the renaissance, a revitalization of thought, art and of course music. Gregorian chants, plain chants or plain songs are a genre of the middle ages, an era long past. There are bands that continue the chant such as Gregorian (with a name very much on the nose), The Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo De Silos, and Adoration of the Cross.

In a beautiful combination of old and new, there are Gregorian chant covers of some modern hits making something altogether different. Several cover bands are using Gregorian Chants to blend the past into the present with chilling beauty.

We talked about Gregorian a bit before as a modern Gregorian chant band. Here are two of their covers. Starting with “Losing my Religion” originally by REM, this is a great meta cover. Gregorian Chants fell out of general use because of the transition from sacred to secular; thus the loss of religion. 

Next from Gregorian’s album, The Dark Side is their haunting cover of Evanescence’s “My Immortal”. The original is hauntingly beautiful yet Gregorian adds a whole new level of haunting beauty.

Rebecca Gorzynska has a phenomenal voice. In her Gregorian chants, her voice shines. This is a cover of  Salve Regina also known as Hail Holy Queen.

Pop songs, folk songs, Latin songs; those all make sense to transition into a gregorian chant. There’s a logical transition from one to another. However, hip hop is a genre that you wouldn’t expect in a gregorian chant. Sam Penrhyn-Lowe has provided a Gregorian chant cover of Travis Scott’s “Butterfly Effect“. Granted it’s a lot faster than a Gregorian chant but it’s still monotoned and absolutely gorgeous.

Chants For Kids have done their own rendition of “Ava Maria” with adorable kids. This cover is beautiful and sweet in its own way.

Metal and Gregorian chant is not a combination that first comes to mind about Gregorian covers. Nonetheless, it works so very well. This is a metal cover of “Miserere mei, Deus” of Gregorio Allegri, with Gregorian vocals by the Tenebrae Choir and metal instrumentals by The Pulltabs.

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