LESSONS ON
GREGORIAN CHANT
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History
Characteristics
Notation
The Rhythm
Latin pronuntiation

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CHARACTERISTICS OF
GREGORIAN CHANT


From its birth, the Christian music was a sung prayer, which had to be realized not in a purely material way, but with devotion, or as Saint Paul was saying: "singing to God in your heart". Text is the reason for being of Gregorian Chant. Actually the singing of the text is based on the principle of which —according to Saint Augustine— "who sings, prays twice". The Gregorian Chant will never be understood without the text which has priority on the melody and is the one that gives sense to this last. Therefore, on having to interpret the Gregorian Chant, the singers must understand very well the sense of the text. In consequence, any type of operatic voice in which the splendor of the interpreters is tried to be showed must be avoided.

  • It is a vocal music, which means that it is sung a capella without accompaniment of instruments.
  • It is sung to the unison —only one note simultaneously— which means that all the singers enliven the same melody. This way of singing is named Monody. Many authors affirm that the singing of mixed choir should not be admitted since they consider that two voices sing in octave. Nevertheless, bearing in mind that both men and women and children must have equal opportunity to take part in the Liturgy, they recommend that in order to follow this principle of Monody, the chant be interpreted in alternating form.
  • It is sung with free rhythm, according to the development of the literary text and not by measured schemes, as might be those of a march, a dance, a symphony (see the section in which the Rhythm is treated detailedly).
  • It is a modal music written in scales of very particular sounds, which serve to wake up varied feelings, like withdrawal, happiness, sadness, serenity (See the section of Modes).
  • Its melody is syllabic if every syllable of the text corresponds to a sound and is melismatic when to a syllable several sounds correspond. There are melismas that contain more than 50 of them for only one syllable.
  • The text is in Latin, language of the Roman Empire spread over Europe (the romances languages did not exist). These texts were taken of the Psalms and of other Ancient Testament books; some of them were taken from the Gospels and others were of own, generally anonymous inspiration. Nevertheless some liturgical pieces exist in Greek language: Kyrie eleison, Agios o Theos (Liturgy of Good Friday)...
  • The Gregorian Chant is written on a stave of four lines, in contrast to the stave of the current music. The notes have different names: square point (punctum quadratum) or virgas if they appear individually, or neumes if they turn out to be grouped; they have equal value for its duration with the exception of: those that have an horizontal epicema, the previous note to the quilisma and the second note of the Salicus which duration extends lightly more with a sense of expressiveness, and the notes that have a point after them which has the duration of a simple note. (This will be explained in detail in the "Notation" chapter).


The Stage of Gregorian Chant

As it was said previously, the Gregorian Chant was born to be interpreted inside the Liturgy of the Church. Therefore the Liturgy is the natural environment for Gregorian chant.

1. The Mass: In the celebration of the Eucharist two principal groups of pieces exist:

a) The Ordinary: It is composed by texts that are repeated in all the Masses.

  • Kyrie Eleison
  • Gloria in excelsis Deo
  • Creed
  • Sanctus and Benedictus
  • Agnus Dei


b) The Proprium: It is constituted by pieces that are sung according to the liturgical time or according to the feast that is celebrated.

  • Introit: chant of entrance to initiate the celebration
  • Gradual, Hallelujah or Tract after the readings
  • Offertory to accompany the procession of the gifts
  • Communion


c) In addition to these two groups of pieces, there are others that are sung as recitatives with some inflections (cantillatio): such are the prayers, the readings, the preface and the Eucharistic prayer, Our Father. These are pieces that for its simplicity could be executed by the celebrant or by persons who have no special skills for the singing.

2. The Divine Office: In the monasteries, the monks did (and still they do) a break in his works and were meeting regularly at certain hours of the day to do their prayer.

  • Matins: Or watching in the night. The office of matins consists of a hymn, psalms, readings, scriptural and patristic, and canticles suitable to the spirit of the midnight hour when one awaits the arrival of the Bridegroom (Mt 25:6; Mk 13:35)
  • Lauds: It is celebrated at daybreak when the sun is dispelling the night and the new day is born. The Church has always considered the sun to be a symbol of Christ rising from the dead. This prayer is called Lauds because it is a laudatory liturgy of praise in the early morning light.
  • Terce: 9 AM. A Latin term for third hour, is prayed at mid-morning. Traditionally it is dedicated to the coming of the Holy Spirit which took place at mid-morning in the account found in the Acts of the Apostles.
  • Sext: 12 M. Another of the little hours, is Latin for the sixth hour. It takes place at midday when the sun is at its apex and one has become a bit weary and mindfulness is all but impossible. It is a time for earnest prayer to resist temptation, to keep from being overcome by the demands and pressures of life.
  • None: 3 PM. Refers to the ninth hour, roughly mid-afternoon, and is the third of the little hours. It is a time to pray for perseverance, to pray for the strength to continue bearing fruit as one reaches one's prime and needs to keep going.
  • Vespers: 6 PM. Celebrated at day's end, takes on the character of evening. The day is almost over, our work is done. There are appropriate hymns, psalms, readings and canticles for celebrating this vesper hour.
  • Complines: Comes from the Latin which means to complete. It is the last common prayer before retiring for the night. It marks the completion of our day and heralds life's end. (1)

The repertoire of chants for the Divine Office consists of:

  • The singing of the psalms
  • Simple recitatives —cantillatio— of readings and prayers.
  • Antiphons of invitatorio
  • Hymns
  • Antiphons sung before and after the psalms.
  • Responsories
  • Te Deum
  • Chants of the Old and of the New Testament (Benedictus, Magnificat, Nunc Dimittis)

3.-Other chants:

  • Tropes: Texts inserted to official prayers
  • Some melodies adorned with changed melismas that were added to the Hallelujah.
  • Sequences: as for example the Sequence of Easter, Sequence of deceased...
  • Processional chants: Procession of Palms, Procession to the Tomb, Procession with the Holy sacrament, etc.

(1) The abbey of the Genesee. Site on Internet. http://www.geneseeabbey.org, July 07, 2002

 

 


 

 

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