Gregorian Choral

by Mirko Rechnitzer

Gregorian choral – why is it actually called that? It takes its name from Pope Gregory, whom you can see in the following portrait. The dove sitting on his shoulder embodies the Holy Spirit, who whispers the melodies directly into his ear. He eagerly notes the dictation of divine inspiration. This is the origin legend of the Gregorian chant, which served to make it sacrosanct as directly divinely inspired and fixed ritual music.

Heiliger Gregor, Kirchenfenster in der Kirche von Stabroek, ©jorisvo

As a common property of the Catholic Church, guarded for centuries, it exerted a great influence on the polyphonic composition of diverse music-historical epochs and schools, and even today Gregorian melodies are incorporated into new compositions. Yet for many listeners, “Gregorian chant” seems meditative at best, boring at worst. In this paper, I would like to demonstrate the complexity and richness of this musical tradition. What is this chant, anyway? In what way is it interesting?

Historically, Gregorian chant can be defined as a particular tradition of liturgical singing in the church, which developed under predominantly Frankish influence from older Roman singing styles. In research, therefore, “Romano-Frankish chant” has also been proposed as a more adequate term. The roots of ecclesiastical chant go even deeper. Possible influences include the music of ancient Greece, music from Byzantium, and traditions of singing in synagogues in the Middle East. The manifold historical and cultural points of contact help make the study of this music and its history so exciting.

To get an overview of what has come down to us as Gregorian chant, one can distinguish between different genres of chant. These can be characterized by their structure and function in the divine services. There are responsorial chants, in which musical responses are made to preceding readings in the Liturgy of the Hours or the Mass, and antiphons. These frame, as it were like reciprocal verses, psalms recited in a melodically simple manner as part of the Liturgy of the Hours or to accompany liturgical actions in the Mass such as Entrance, Offertory, or Communion. These chants form the core of Gregorian chant. So-called sequences and hymens, strophic chants with regular verse meter, supplemented the repertoire in later centuries.

In this way, then, we can divide what Gregorian chant there is. But this still tells us little about the essence of this music. To get closer to it, we must turn to the exciting question of tradition. Despite an assiduous oral and written tradition, the creators and expert singers of this music have been separated from us for centuries, and much of the original richness and knowledge about the performance of these chants has been lost. Only extensive comparative philological and also ethnomusicological research can bring us closer to the spirit of this music again.

Why this is so and how and what exactly can be reconstructed from the chorale is the subject of the following overview. In further articles, various aspects will be examined more closely, with regard to which one can trace possible secrets of this music.

The history of the notation of the chorale leads us directly to various exciting questions of the tradition. Let us begin the journey with the most familiar. The notation that most associate with Gregorian chant is characterized by rectangular notes:

Fribourg/Freiburg, Couvent des Cordeliers/Franziskanerkloster, Ms. 9: Graduale (

This is the typeface that triumphed, especially in printed books, and in recent centuries became the Gregorian musical notation par excellence. The characteristic squares resulted from scribes drawing strokes of varying thickness by using the broad and pointed side of a quill. This was an efficient way to write broad, clearly visible note heads with connecting lines. Squares placed one above the other are not chords, by the way, but are sung from bottom to top. As iconic as this writing has become, it still represents a comparatively late development. Before the introduction of the squares, and for a long time after, other forms of signs were in use: linear figures that snake around the staves, as it were:

Porrentruy, Bibliothèque cantonale jurassienne, Ms. 18: Gradual (

One can intuitively hear here that the music appears to a lesser extent as a sum of different points – individual tones – which the square notation clearly emphasizes. The individual figures appear like small gestures that are summarized as one figure. The line that goes up, down, and up again corresponds to the ascent and descent of the voice. These signs, called neumes, seem to fit much better with how people intuitively understand melodies: Not as a collection of individual points, but as individual movements.

And so it is perhaps unsurprising that these signs are older than the idea of putting them on lines. Their name, “neumes,” means “winks” in German. They served as a mnemonic device that could be used to recall a familiar melody if one could not quite remember it, or if there were disputes about its specific course.

The oldest unlined neumes – they are called a-diastematic neumes because no concrete intervals of notes can be taken from them, only the direction – were written down in the famous manuscripts from St. Gall from the 10th century:

St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 374: Gradual and lectionary with epistles and Gospels (

As much as this musical notation seems rudimentary from today’s perspective, historically even it stands out for its effort. Such an extensive undertaking to record a music in writing was a novelty both in time and geographically. The question of why it came about leads us back to the legend of the origin of the Gregorian chant, which we took a look at at the beginning: According to the current state of research, it is assumed that Gregory the Great, who could not have composed the chant that already existed before him, had it standardized. Sent singers had to make sure that everywhere the chants were sung correctly according to the Roman style. Notations helped to settle disputes as to how a passage should sound, whether someone had left something out or added something superfluous, and so on. In the late centuries, despite all attempts at standardization, the tradition of the chorales again developed differently in different places.

Before the first writing in adiastematic neumes, the chorale was sung by heart, and even when the neumes existed, it was still necessary to spread the chants orally and to keep the melodies fundamentally in memory, which can only be helped by the signs. This seems to be an almost unbelievable achievement. One would like to marvel at the enormous powers of memory that people must have possessed. The way in which the various chants were preserved without written aids, however, one does not necessarily have to imagine that hundreds of pieces had to be memorized and stored like telephone numbers. Rather, the chanting practice seems to have developed from what was originally a more or less improvisational process. The starting point of singing for worship was the texts. For how a particular text was sung in a particular situation, fixed patterns gradually formed, closely related to ritual circumstances and meta-semantic relationships. For those who grew up in the culture, it was therefore just as implicitly clear how to sing “Puer natus est nobis” (A boy is born to us) on Christmas Eve, how customs and traditions run automatically on various occasions.


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In the 11th century, even the neumes were unsatisfactory for efficiently learning and retaining the multitude of chants. For what one could not do on the basis of these neumes was to learn a completely unknown melody. In order to make this possible, Guido of Arezzo invented the notation on lines around the year 1024. By aligning the neumes to lines and spaces, it was possible to determine the relationship of the individual pitches to each other. If necessary, the tones could be checked by means of an instrument: The various possible distances between pitches, called intervals, could be expressed by ratios into which one divided a sounding string.

With another simple idea, Guido of Arezzo promoted the rapid spread of the novel pedagogical system: he used the hymn “Ut queant laxis”, sung on the feast day of the Nativity of John the Baptist, as a tool to recall the position of the pitches in relation to each other: Indeed, each verse of this hymn begins one tone higher. In this way, one can imagine the sequence in a simple way, as it were, like a ladder. Guido took the initial syllables of the verses as singing syllables with which one could practice a melody. This is connected with the fact that in the French language the syllables ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la are still used today as names for the keys from C to A, and in the Romance languages very similar names are used for the different tones.


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The invention of notation on lines, together with the associated pedagogical system, was groundbreaking and had a significant influence on Western music history. Many complex, polyphonic developments would not have been possible without the ability to write down the individual voices in such a way that their tonal reproduction was clear. But the breakthrough of this notation also raised many questions: The system required unambiguous pitches to be defined. Did the fixed system reproduce what was originally sung, and could the definition of fixed pitches capture all the subtleties that occurred in vocal practice? Critical remarks by 11th century singers and considerations of music history may indicate that Guido’s system could not accurately capture melodic progressions. When chants were no longer learned primarily through the instruction of a master, original characteristics of the chorale must have been lost as a result.

The notation on lines, which from the 11th century more and more ensured the transmission of the repertoire, has another disadvantage: it does not provide information about the rhythm. Especially in square notation, the shaping of the individual note no longer has any special meaning. This led many who were concerned with the restoration of the chorale in the 19th and 20th centuries on the wrong track, that every note should be sung the same and of the same length – thus cementing the so-called equalistic way of singing, which bears much of the blame for the usual boring impression of this music.

In the course of the Middle Ages, the actual choral singing lost more and more to new phenomena such as composed polyphony. As a result, the subtleties in the performance of this music received less attention. The oldest non-lined neumes had subtleties that were missing in later manuscripts, including all lined ones. Since their rediscovery at the beginning of the 20th century, these ancient sources offer the study of the chorale entirely new clues to the restitution of rhythm. For these neumes, which do not indicate any concrete pitches, reflect all the more moments of composition: what was sung more swayingly was written more roundly; and where the melodies pile up, one wrote more angularly. Or letters like c for “celeriter” (fast) or t for “tenete” (hold) were used. These neumes help to approximate the rhythmic design of the chants.

St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 359: Cantatorium (

How the various aspects of the ancient neume script can be interpreted in detail is a matter of continuing debate in research. There were and are different interpretative schools. Very well known and influential is the semiological direction of Gregorian studies, which goes back to the Benedictine monk Eugène Cardine. While it may be debatable what the rhythmic design of the chants might have been in detail, it is clear that the study of the ancient sources testifies to the fact that many subtleties were observed in Gregorian chant. While the question of exactly how much faster fast notes may have been than slow ones is likely to remain unresolved, the information does help to increase understanding of the chants’ construction and structure. The rhythm is shown in exciting interplay with the development of the melodic stream.

In addition to the areas listed so far in which the study of Gregorian chant practice is exciting – intonation, rhythm, melodics, and the interplay with cultural/liturgical practice and semantic understanding – two others deserve mention: Voice color and vocal technique, and polyphony and performance technique. In most cases, chants are heard with a very clear, at worst colorless, tone, and the notion of strictly monophonic singing without instruments is common. However, written and pictorial evidence from the past suggests that both instruments and simple polyphonic singing, as well as chanting techniques unknown in later Europe, accompanied Gregorian music very early on.

In all these facets, Gregorian chant can be discovered as a fascinating mirror; as a significant pivotal point in the exciting history of the development of music in Europe in general and how it is related to (church) politics, identity, transmission of knowledge, and much more.

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