Compelling Musical-Theological-Historical Elements of Gregorian Chant
Text-Painting, Implied Instrumentation, Dance Rhythms, Polytextuality/Tropes & Musical-Historical Pedagogy
As usual, these topics have been treated of extensively by people far more knowledgeable, experienced and qualified than I. This piece is not meant to be exhaustive - just a quick look at some of my favorite moments in some of my favorite Gregorian chants.
The idea that Gregorian chant does not involve any text-painting seems at this point to have been sufficiently debunked by medieval musicologists. In fact, the art of text-painting seems to have originated in Gregorian chant. Countless examples present themselves everywhere a person looks. Such text painting is not only present in the proper chants (Introit/Gradual/Alleluia/Offertory/Communion) of the Mass, but also the Mass Ordinary cycle (Kyrie/Gloria/Credo/Sanctus/Agnus Dei). See here for a chart showing the manner in which some of the most common words in Gregorian chant are musically text-painted. Indeed, the ecclesiastical Latin vocabulary is rather small in the first place, but that may be a different article for a different time!
Countless other words come to mind, such as:
“gloria” - melismas reflect God’s glory
“generationem” - long melisma reflects generations of people
“in” - melisma reflects all that God contains in Himself
“resurrectionem” - ascending melodies reflect the Resurrection
“viderunt” - melismas reflect all that a person is “seeing”
“creavit” - melismas reflect God’s work of “creating”
“incurva” - melody literally seems to “bow down”
“pertubetur” (disturbed) and “crucifixus” (crucified) - ominous melodies
“surgere” - ascending melodies reflect “arising”
“venire” - melodic ascent reflects “coming”
“sanguis” (blood) and “aqua” (water) - musical melismas symbolize fluid
But I have to conclude my chart somewhere!
In this article (and this one, and even this one), I reflected on the level of control and intentionality that composers in the Western high art musical tradition had for each moment in their work. As we see from the manner in which nearly every word in a Gregorian chant is text-painted, care for every moment of this music is exhibited. See here for a more in-depth analysis of text-painting in Gregorian chant and the manner in which abstract concepts versus objects/actions are word-painted.
In my chart linked above, I mentioned a long melisma on “Alleluia” - the Alleluia melisma is known as the jubilus (indeed reflecting jubilation). The medieval sequence was born out of setting the jubilus to its own text. (Similarly, long melismas in monophonic Gregorian chant were “harmonized” beginning in the 13th century, giving birth to the early medieval motet - see here.)
In the liturgy, the Sequence always followed the Alleluia. While the other propers (Introit/Gradual/Alleluia/Offertory/Communion) were Scriptural, the Sequence was different in that it was a piece of non-biblical poetry. Very sadly, the 16th-century Council of Trent removed almost all of the sequences from the liturgy, keeping only four: Dies Irae from the Requiem Mass, Victimae Paschali Laudes for Easter, Veni Sancte Spiritus for Pentecost and Lauda Sion Salvatorem for Corpus Christi. It is true that some (or perhaps even many) of the sequences did not consist of great poetry. However, some (see here and here) were some quite lovely sequences.
I would love to see the TLM (Traditional Latin Mass) restore the use of more sequences. I am reminded of the All Saints Ordinariate Mass that I sang this post November, where we sang the psalm-tone Alleluia (in order to be inclusive of many of our young choristers), instead of the full, original, melismatic Palmer-Burgess one. We had abundant liturgical time to fill up, so I sang the “Spouse of Christ” sequence in The English Hymnal (Palmer’s English adaptation of the medieval “Sponsa Christi”). In addition to places like these, perhaps “defunct” medieval sequences can be sung as “ad libitum” music at Offertory or Communion.
(A brief note on Trent: while I lament the loss of local medieval uses, especially English ones [such as those of Hereford or York], I think we should also remember that these rites were very similar to one another, and that the Council really did just codify what was already widespread, standard liturgical practice. Besides, Trent also did permit any use older than 200 years to continue. It appears that different, local uses of the Roman Rite [Such as the Use of Sarum, based out of Salisbury, England] fell out of favor at least partially due to the convenience of the codified, Tridentine, Roman Missal.)
There are also moments in which Gregorian chant implies other sounds. For example, in the opening, ascending perfect 5th of the Christmas Day introit “Puer Natus”, the music is imitating a trumpet. This subject needs further investigation.
In my linked articles above (and this article, and even this one), I discussed the stylistic and rhythmic similarities between 16th century secular madrigals and sacred polyphony. I also discussed the successful appropriation of secular musical materials by the great composers of the Western liturgical music canon, such as dance rhythms. As we see in, for example, the opening movement of Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers (a rhythmic version of the versicle/response “Deus in adjutorium meum intende/ “Domine ad adjuvandum me festina”), much medieval Gregorian chant in the Renaissance Baroque era was being sung in these dance rhythms. In the 19th century, the Abbey of Solesmes did the hard work of releasing typical editions of that chant in square notation and restoring the free rhythm style of singing Gregorian chant. Although Gregorian chant is in a very mystical-sounding free rhythm, I propose that it in all of its rhythmic groupings of 2’s and 3’s are intrinsically dance rhythms. Indeed, all music is grouped into 2’s and 3’s, and so are all dances. All music is dance. I understand that this is a gratuitous claim that needs much more investigation, explanation, research and citation, but I seek to make the claim here anyway.
POLYTEXTUALITY & TROPES
There is a very soft spot in my medievalist heart for 13th-century medieval sacred motets that combined both Latin sacred text and vernacular song, such as this or this. In my humble opinion, this reflects a fantastic, synergistic integration between secular and sacred in a pre-modern world in which the two were organically and naturally integrated. I for one would love to see this music sung again in the Traditional Latin Mass (and Novus Ordo!). Interestingly, the Low Mass with Hymns, which technically permits vernacular hymns at Mass, could be a place for the singing of this repertoire (perhaps at Offertory or Communion?), since the Sung/Mass rubrically requires that all music be sung in Latin.
There were also polytextual, all-Latin motets, which involved two or even three different Latin texts going at the same time (at least 1 of them sacred, the other[s] secular). The all-Latin nature of this music offends liturgical sensibilities less and could be used as “ad libitum” music at Offertory and Communion in the Traditional Latin Sung/High Mass (or Novus Ordo Mass)!
Here, one recalls the fabulous medieval musical-liturgical practice of adding tropes - additional text set to music - to chants. These tropes were inserted into the middle of chants, such as propers (like introits).. The troped Kyrie is a particular favorite of mine. Interestingly, the Novus Ordo brings this practice back with its Form C penitential rite (“you were sent to heal the contrite of heart” is a trope). Since other texts are permitted by the Novus Ordo to be used as tropes, one wonders if medieval troped Kyrie’s could technically be sung according to the new rite’s rubrics?
Not everyone knows that our modern “do re mi” solfege system derives from the Gregorian “Ut queant laxis” for the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist (June 24). See here for an explanation of how.
(P.S. Why is John the Baptist’s birthday celebrated on June 24th? We know that Elizabeth was 6 months pregnant with John when Mary visited here, and we know that Mary visited Elizabeth on March 25th [the Feast of the Annunciation]. June 24th is nearly 3 months after March 25th, which makes a 9-month pregnancy. These figures were so important to the early Church that we can be quite sure that they remembered these dates correctly. March 25th is exactly 9 months before Jesus’ birthday [December 25th]. For an explanation of how we know Jesus was born on that day, see here.)
Burkholder, J. Peter, and Claude V. Palisca. Norton Anthology of Western Music. New
York: W.W. Norton, 2006. Print.