Christmas Classics PERSON OF THE DAY: Pope Gregory the Great

September 3rd, 2013

Today is the Feast Day of Pope Gregory I, or Saint Gregory the Great (590-604 A.D.). He was born in a wealthy Patrician family, chose a solitary monastic life as a Benedictine monk after finding personal discontent as a public official, and then ultimately was elected as pope, the first monk to be elevated as pontiff. He is buried in St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome.

Gregory the Great was an important figure in the world of Western Music, one heavily influenced by church liturgy. His monastic life had brought him close to that music, providing him with the knowledge that it was highly unorganized. Although he bemoaned his elevation as pope, preferring instead the world of monastic piety and contemplation, Gregory took on the monumental task to codify and bring a sense of order to the literally thousands of church liturgical texts, most of them written in Latin.

Gregorian chant, i.e., Western chant or plainchant, was named after him because of his papal efforts to organize these large stores of church music. There is no definitive proof, however, that Gregorian chant stems from the late sixth century or at any time during Gregory’s fourteen-year rule as pope.  The earliest manuscript found containing Gregorian chant dates from the ninth century and comes from the Frankish Empire.

What is not subject to question is Gregory’s desire to bring order and conformity to Church liturgy from the vast stores of sacred texts. His strong interest in music was supposedly demonstrated by his active collection of a rather large repertory of Roman chants, which may have numbered three thousand pieces at the time, and at his papal behest Roman chant would eventually spread throughout the continent and supersede all other chants in usage. Also, at his behest, monastic groups were formed to serve basilicas, the ancient churches of Rome accorded special ceremonial rites by the pope. These groups formulated chant based on verses from Psalms of the Old Testament, but there is no musical evidence to verify these chants as being Gregorian. One reason for this lack of evidence was that notation was still unknown.

One of the most important developments in the history of Western music, influenced by the ancient Greeks, who had practiced naming different music pitches with letters a thousand years earlier, notation evolved as a mnemonic device for singers who were already familiar with melody and words.

Notation quickly enhanced the growth of Gregorian chant, which by the eighth century was in competition with, or descendant of, other chants from the ancient Church, including Ambrosian, from the early Christian Church and named after St. Ambrose, the bishop of Milan; Mozarabic, from Spanish rites; Gallican, from ancient Gaul (France); Byzantine, from the Eastern Church; and Old Roman, from the earliest days of empire. There were other chants, of course, that existed then, as they have throughout all history, which served the impulses of primitive sects besides the more established religions of Eastern and Western societies.

By the ninth century the appearance of neumes provided for a measurement of pitch in music. It was also an age when Gregorian chant was maturing as a distinct entity largely as a result of the supersession and acceptance of Roman chant by Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire.

With the introduction of the musical staff and other notational devices during the 900-1050 period, it was possible to notate the relative pitch. By the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Gregorian chant was a thoroughly entrenched part of church liturgy throughout all Christian Europe. It was also during this time span when Gregorian chant enjoyed its greatest prestige.

There are two critical points about Gregorian chant worth noting: 1) it was sung unaccompanied by any musical instrument; and 2) it was an integral aspect of High Mass (or Solemn Mass), and other designated Church ceremonies or services, particularly the Divine Office.

For much of the late stages of first millennium and early High Medieval Era, the music heard in Christian churches during Advent and Christmas was likely to be Gregorian chant and sung in Latin. Vernacular carols would not become a part of Christmas celebrations until the 13th century.

In recent years Gregorian chant has become more familiar. Recordings of it are available and even popular, not so much as a counterweight to the incessant noise of the age but as soothing contemplative music whose early development was hugely influenced by Gregory the Great.

Pope Gregory the Great

Pope Gregory the Great