The name of Pope St Gregory the Great (died 604) has been associated with monastic chant for well over a thousand years. Early manuscripts of the chant around the 9th century often depict Gregory writing down the melodies at the dictation of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove perched on his shoulder. As the words of Holy Scripture were inspired by the Holy Spirit so perhaps monastic piety instinctively saw the chant which expresses those words as likewise inspired. Specialised studies deal with the dating of various elements of the chant. Suffice it to say here that some may well be much earlier than Gregory while there was continual development in the 400 or so years after his death. However it is clear he fostered the place of the chant in the sacred liturgy and indeed may well have contributed actual compositions.
During the liturgy the Gregorian chant brings the words of Scripture to life. The texts are very frequently from the Psalter even for the great Christian festivals of Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. The chant follows in the tradition of Jewish and early Christian music. St Augustine’s heart was swayed by the beauty of the melodies he heard in church and he has left us that poignant reflection “cantare amantis est” – to sing is the mark of the one who loves. This is why Gregorian chant is at the heart of monk’s life of prayer and adoration. The divine words of Scripture are savoured in a unique way as mind and heart are lifted up to God.
There was a continuous tradition of chant in the monasteries and cathedrals of Europe during the Middle Ages. However, by the time of the Renaissance new musical forms were evolving and the earlier tradition of the chant became compromised. We begin to enter the early stages of modern music with its metrical character which made it difficult to understand the ancient chant with its free verbal rhythm. When Dom Guéranger restored monastic life at Solesmes in 1833, his community were obliged to use the existing choir books which contained a very debased presentation of the chant. In order to restore the ancient beauty and integrity of the chant he realised it was necessary to collect and critically examine the evidence from the earlier medieval manuscripts dispersed throughout Western Europe. The purpose of this was not mere academic scholarship. Rather it was imperative to provide the monk with the best possible musical text and interpretation to foster his life of prayer and worship. So began that fruitful labour of the restoration of Gregorian chant which continues down to this day.
Music is something which touches the fine point of the soul enabling the expression of what cannot always be confined to mere words. Why do we sing the chant? Certainly not just for the sake of a performance. We sing because we love. Aquinas called it an exultation of the mind dwelling on the things of eternity. The Divine Word has been implanted in our hearts which bursts forth in the affection of Love which is the Holy Spirit. It is to be one with the choirs of angels as they sing the new song of the redeemed around the throne of the Lamb.
Songs of Mercy
Gregorian Chant sung by the Monks of Quarr Abbey