Gregorian chant is, just like reading
from Torah or Koran and just like recitation from Iliad and Odyssey, essentially
sung poetry. That is to say, poetry which is housed in all those texts and
stories which associate individual man with that which surpasses him, which
is beyond time and space, which is inexpressible; call it the unnamable, the
eternal, the absolute, Atman, Brahman, Allah, God or if you like Nothingness.
The most important differences lie in
the language and the book. No Hebrew, Greek or Arabic, but Latin, the
language of the Roman Empire. No Torah, Greek classics or Koran, but –
especially – the Psalms, those beautiful Jewish texts from the first
millennium before our western era. Only one subject is in there: the link
between man and God.
Psalm 50(49), vers 5
The Gregorian repertory was recorded
for the first time under Pepin the Short and Charlemagne, as a means of power
to achieve unity in the carolingian empire. In order to impart more prestige
to the repertory it was ascribed to pope Gregory the Great (c 540 – 604), who
possibly figured in arranging the songtexts, but presumably had nothing to do
with the actual music. Since the Carolingians the repertory has been copied
continually, so that hundreds of manuscripts from the 9th up to and including
the 12th century have yet been preserved, comprising some 10.000 songs.
Gregory the Great (Trier, Vienna and
Saint Gall, 9th and 10th century)
By those manuscripts the music had been
fixed for the greater part, but musical notation was not unequivocal and
therefore continuously in development until, in the 19th century, nothing was
left to chance any more. Musical notation has had a hardly to be
overestimated influence on the further course of western music history. It
also has made possible new musical developments like polyphony and harmony,
which grew dominant in the renaissance to such a degree that even Gregorian
chant was drastically revised.
Cantatorium of Saint Gall (early 10th
The vital origin of Gregorian chant
precedes many schisms. That between Roman Catholics and Protestants in the
16th century, to begin with. Next that between western and eastern
Christians, which seems to be definite since the 11th century. Moreover – not
unimportant – that between Christians and Muslims. This last one is less
strange considering that Islam was regarded as an Arian form of Christianity
at its rise in the 7th century.
(Neo)-Medicea (between 1615 and 1901)
The most important schism however is perhaps
that between musical notation and oral tradition (i.e.: letter and spirit).
Gregorian chant has come into being between Constantine the Great (273 – 337)
and Charlemagne (742 – 814). That means that it had an oral tradition of at
least four centuries. It is important to state that the musical traditions of
the Orient essentially have remained oral traditions up to nowadays. Add to
this that Constantine removed the centre of culture to Constantinople as
early as 330. In spite of the graves of Peter and Paul in Rome it remained so
until it passed into Turkish hands and finally (only as a result of the
Ataturk nationalism in the 20th century) was called Istanbul. Tuesday the
29th of May 1453 is the turning point in that flowing transition of the cultural
centre of the West into that of the East.
It is not strange therefore that what
one can read in the oldest western manuscripts makes very greatly think of
that which one can hear even this very day with the best Islamitic singers.
In a comparable way one can also find again much of Christianity of the dark
middle ages in the lay-out of the mosque and the posture during praying.
It would be great if Gregorian chant
could contribute to the rapprochement of the various world religions as also
to that of religious and non-religious. However, that is only possible if it
is considered as that what it is: sung poetry.
Reinier van der Lof)