Musical Focus: Gregorian Chants

"Chant: n. a simple melody to which a psalm may be sung, esp. in choir…v. to sing a chant…” (Webster)

Chants were the music of the church during the Middle Ages. There were, in fact, a number of "chant” traditions. Gregorian Chants became the most common and enduring form. These are the chants that were organized by Pope Gregory the Great (540-604.) They were sung in unison, without any accompaniment. Their melodies were built on a number of musical scales, two of which approximate our modern major and minor scales. The use of these chants during Europe’s "Dark Ages” helped preserve them and provided a foundation for Western music. The early Christian Chants probably had their origins in older Hebrew and Greek chants. Pope Gregory established the Sistine Choir to train monks. The music spread throughout papal Europe. This effort at standardization was not entirely successful, however, as a number of churches in Italy and Spain maintained independent chant traditions. Between 1500 and 1700 a method of musical notation was developed to preserve the Gregorian chant tradition. Still, experimentation and creativity could not be suppressed. By 1600 the chants were being modified with complex harmonies and counterpoint. This creativity continued to evolve in the missions of the "New World” where Native American musical traditions were welcomed by some missionaries and integrated into the local chant tradition. Percussion, syncopation, and fast tempos made for some rather "jazzy” chants. After a period of decline in popularity the traditional chants were revived by the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo De Silos through their very popular CDs.

California History during the Period of the Chants
  • Cabrillo explored San Diego bay
  • Drake sailed the California coast
  • Viscaino mapped California’s coast and urged Spain to colonize California
  • California Missions project began

Five Recommended CDs
1. Gregorian Chant: The Ecclesiastical Year in Gregorian Chant, Sony.
2. Gregorian Chant, by Archiv.
3. Psallite! A Renaissance Christmas, Chanticleer Records. This CD is very exciting and has some compositions that reflect the musical dialog that took place in the missions.
4. Salve Festa Dies: Gregorian Chants for the Seasons of the Year, Female voices, Naxos
5. Armada, Music from the courts of Philip II and Elizabeth I. Secular music from the 1500’s for comparison with the Sacred nature of the chants, Virgin Classics

Lesson Opportunities
Chants were most often experienced by my students as peaceful. However, some students perceived them to be sad or serious. They can be introduced to the students at the beginning of the day or after recess, thereby providing a quiet moment. The students were able to recognize their "sacred” mood, that they were sung in a church by a small number of participants, that they are relatively short in length, that they are old, and that there are no instruments. They were also able to notice that they are sung in Latin (tradition), and that music can be beautiful in a "foreign” language. In South America they were also sung in Spanish and Portuguese. Students also appreciated that without the musical scales that were memorialized in these early musical traditions modern music would not have such a great foundation. These chants can be contrasted with Native American tribal music, Hebrew chant traditions, and Russian chant traditions. Some of the Russian chant traditions also interacted with the Native American musical traditions in Northern California, Oregon, and Washington.