Earlier this month (September 3) the Church celebrated the feast day of Pope St. Gregory the Great, who reigned in the late 500’s. Gregory was a Doctor of the Church: an authoritative teacher and prolific writer. As Pope, he was an evangelizer of Northern Europe, and he shaped and reformed the Roman liturgy as well as the offices of Bishop and the Papacy itself. As an organizer in a time of political chaos, he become the de facto mayor of Rome. As a philanthropist, he created charitable foundations to feed the poor; there were often homeless persons at his dinner table.

In a sense, we can thank Gregory for our language. He sent St. Augustine (of Canterbury, not Hippo) as a missionary to the fierce Anglo-Saxons, remarking that the “Angles”, could become more like “Angels” as Christians. He was right, and Augustine became the very first Archbishop of Canterbury. A vast amount of English is spoken today the world over (including right here). This is in the historical context of the tribe of Anglo-Saxon war-lords maturing over time, under the formation of Christianity, into pious and educated statesmen exemplified by Alfred the Great. We who use English every day owe a debt of gratitude to Alfred, Augustine, and Gregory.

Gregory made some simplifications and adjustments to the Mass, setting the position of the Lord’s Prayer where it is today (after the Eucharistic Prayer), instead of after the Fraction (breaking of the host). But it is the tradition of musical liturgy, an ancient and living tradition, that bears his name most famously: Gregorian Chant. When we sing the “old fashioned” Ave Maria or Salve Regina, we are singing in that tradition. When we listen to an album of monks chanting, there’s a good chance it is in that tradition.

In its root meaning, chant is just a words produced by mouth, with a musical character. The related words cantus, canticle, cantor, cantillation (and sea chantey) keep this meaning in various settings. In any religion based on a book (think Jews, Christians, Muslims), chant has a natural role to play. In chant, there is always a focus on words to be spoken in community, and received with the understanding. The musical character of the chant elevates the mere words, by making the words more emphatic, beautiful, and accessible to the heart as well as the mind. Chant binds people together in their hearts and in their minds.

Music itself is a powerful cultural force, and not all combinations of words and music turn out to be chant. In chant, the music serves the words and not vice versa. Pure instrumental music doesn’t count as chant, nor do nonsense songs (“sha na na”), since there is nothing for the mind to think about in either.

Classical operas and oratorios, and much popular music, are not chant either, because they are “art-forward”: The music is at least as important as the words, and the words sometimes have to stand by while the music draws attention to itself with some fancy flourish or hook. Any highly complex mix of words and music, with either technically difficult melodies and rhythms, or erudite poetry, shouldn’t count as chant, since it isn’t something we participate in, so much as gawk at in wonder. Such productions can sometimes provide spiritual experiences (I think of Handel’s Messiah), but they are specialized and professionally musical in a way mere chant does not aspire to be.

This is not to say that chant cannot be difficult or professional, but (once again) in chant there is an order of priority: The music serves the words, and the words serve the community. In regular chant, if the words are silent, the whole thing goes silent. Some popular songs, like ballads, actually would work as speech without music, and in those cases the music truly does support the words; I suppose such a song could be thought of as a chant, especially if it is also not too difficult for an ordinary person to sing.

One way to emphasize the ordinariness of chant is to call it “plainchant” (cantus planus in Latin). It has just enough music to dress up the words. It is metrically “free”: there is no special rhythm other than the rhythms of speech. (Nearly all other music is bound to particular rhythms; I think a connection to a rigid meter and time, all by itself, makes it harder for any music to communicate timelessness.) Plainchant is also typically free of the extra musical details of accompaniment, harmony, or polyphony.

The experienced listener will perceive that chant, as actually practiced, is not always one hundred percent plain. Within the Gregorian tradition one may possibly run into harmonizations, or vocal or instrumental accompaniment. This is all to the good; it is in fact how many forms of classical European music started. Sing the Hours makes modest use of such techniques, as long as the music serves the words, and not vice versa. Whether such chant may be called “plainchant” is an interesting question; though I will defer to experts, I do suspect that the plain-ness of plainchant is a relative rather than an absolute term.

This plainchant has been practiced in one form or another by Christians since Christianity started. It is of course built on top of previous traditions, both Greek and Jewish, since the first Christians were Jews living in larger culture built by the Greeks and Romans. The older Jewish tradition of chant goes back at least to the Babylonian captivity (where the Pharisees came from). There is no reason to doubt that this Babylonian tradition connects even further back to the temple worship of Solomon and the psalms of David. Thus, when an ancient Christian or medieval monk or modern Catholic sings a responsorial psalm in church, he or she is, in a distant but real sense, singing along with David himself, and with the worshipers of the Living God in all the millennia between. And with Gregory the Great.

One might expect plainchant to be a Latin thing only, and therefore accessible today only to a few scholars, churchmen, and zealots. But nothing I have said about chant ties it to Latin, other than the fact that the Latin-speaking church (and also the Greek-speaking church) embraced it and developed it further. As Europe matured into its modern form, while Latin-based chant continued, chant was also applied to the vernacular languages. Many of the old carols we enjoy at Christmas are just modified chant.

So the practices which we call “Gregorian” precede Gregory by many centuries, and they also continued to live and grow after Gregory. It’s not even clear exactly what Gregory did for chant, in his day, other than encourage better practices of chant in the course of an improved liturgy. Some historians speculate that a later Pope Gregory, not the first one, is the real hero of Gregorian chant. It is a bit like the Psalms of David in the Bible, those particular ones ascribed to composers who lived long after David: They are “of David”, in the sense that they are the results of the “school of David” of teaching and tradition.

What is clear is that the “Gregorian school” of liturgical music developed after Gregory. The school developed a musical notation still in use today, though it “looks old”, with four staff lines and those square “neumes”. This notation grew from predecessors which probably go back to ancient Greece, but the added precision of the staff lines made it cutting edge notational technology a thousand years ago. Gregorian notation gave birth to today’s five-line musical notation with its round notes: It is this notation that every modern musician takes for granted. Again, in this sense we (at least we musicians) are all Gregorians.

Plainchant is still growing in the present day. Solesmes Abbey in France publishes and updates authoritative liturgical music and hymns in this tradition, for modern use. In the internet age, many industrious practitioners like the Gregorian score database and Corpus Christi Watershed are ensuring that excellent forms of Catholic plainchant are available to everyone everywhere. And at Sing the Hours we are doing our bit as well.

There is one more sense in which we are all Gregorians, and that is courtesy of Pope (not Saint) Gregory the thirteenth, who ruled a thousand years after our musical Gregory. This latter Gregory was an intellectual and political powerhouse, with a long list of achievements. In October 1582, after consultation with top astronomers, Gregory proposed and enforced key improvements to the so-called Julian calendar, the system of months, days, and years which was set up by Julius Caesar in 46 B.C. After 1600 years the Julian calendar was showing its age, to the point where equinoxes and other seasonal events were scheduled ten days earlier than astronomers said they should. (By today, the error in scheduling would have been up to about 12 or 13 days.) Being Pope, Gregory XIII was able to dictate that, as a one-time correction, Thursday 4 October 1582 was followed by Friday 15 October 1582. Landlords loved it, renters cried foul, and Protestant countries refused to take it up for another century or two. But in the end, the Gregorian calendar is the system we all use today for commerce, government, and everyday life.

In the promotion of English culture, with music and liturgy, with the calendar: The various popes Gregory have been busy on our behalf. As a general observation, although these popes get some credit, none of these achievements were single-handed. We must not think that either the Gregorian calendar or Gregorian chant was the crackpot idea of some outdated monk. Indeed, both calendar and chant are the results of thousands (not hundreds) of years of slow and careful development in multiple ancient and medieval cultures.

It’s useful to bear these things in mind when reading what Vatican II says about chant:

116. Ecclesia cantum gregorianum agnoscit ut liturgiae romanae proprium: qui ideo in actionibus liturgicis, ceteris paribus, principem locum obtineat.

This paragraph is from Sacrosanctum Consilium, with emphasis added. We quote it first in Latin because that is the actual language of the Council. Here are some official translations of the original Latin.

116. The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services.

116. La Chiesa riconosce il canto gregoriano come canto proprio della liturgia romana; perciò nelle azioni liturgiche, a parità di condizioni, gli si riservi il posto principale.

116. L’Église reconnaît dans le chant grégorien le chant propre de la liturgie romaine ; c’est donc lui qui, dans les actions liturgiques, toutes choses égales d’ailleurs, doit occuper la première place.

It says that Gregorian chant is to be placed first among all the musical choices of the Catholic Church, for the purposes of its liturgy (the standard Roman one). This is not a misprint; it is not a monk’s fantasy smuggled into the Council. Nor is it a respectful, insincere nod to an obsolete functionary, like a retired monsignor nobody really listens to anymore. (The weird one-off translator’s choice “pride of place” suggests such a monsignor, I think.) Rather, Vatican II gives simple and powerful acknowledgement of the Church’s living and active debt to plainchant in its developed Gregorian form. That form is the peerless tradition of religious song which has Gregory’s name attached, but which reaches back to David and Solomon, and is timeless in its connection to human nature.

In every age there is always some form of “modern music”, but there is also chant. Modern music passes away with each new version of modernity. But not chant. Because it serves the basic needs of human worship, chant does not die or retire, and it will live and grow as long as humans themselves live and grow.