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8.578007-08 - ULTIMATE CHANT - Music of Ethereal Beauty

Ultimate Chant – Music of Ethereal Beauty


The sound of unaccompanied chant has moved, inspired and given solace to those seeking the sublime. In our increasingly busy and secularized world, people continue to return to chant, regardless of their religious beliefs, for the peace and calm that this eternal music offers.

The Sound of Gregorian chant is the oldest music we have in the Western world. There was music long before, of course. The walls of Jericho were brought down by trumpets, Orpheus played the lyre and the Romans used the organ to provide suitable background music while Christians were fed to the lions. But exactly what that music was we don’t know. It was not until music was first written down in about the year 600 that we begin to have any idea of what it sounded like, and even then, there’s some dispute. Early notation, in the form of signs or neumes written above the words, simply tells us whether one note was pitched higher or lower than its preceding note. They were reminders to singers who already knew the tune. We have no idea of relative values, of pitch, of time, of key. Indeed, there were not then the major or minor keys as we understand them. Instead, in those early days there were modes, the most famous of which is probably the Phrygian mode.

The idea of using lines, the lines of the stave in the form of a ladder, was certainly in use by the middle of the ninth century but with one line representing one pitch rather than, as now, every other pitch. It was Guido of Arezzo in about 1030 who suggested that adjacent pitches should be represented on adjacent lines, and spaces between the lines. He also built on earlier practice by suggesting that there should be a red line for F and a yellow line for C or that a letter should be put at the beginning of one of the lines, a C or an F. These letters form the basis of the modern clef used today. The system of writing music on lines clarified in this way meant that anyone could sing at sight music so written.

But first let us go back to the year 800 AD, for it was then that the history of Western music really starts. In that year Charlemagne became the Holy Roman Emperor. Vast tracts of Europe were united for the first time and Christian culture became the guiding force of Western civilisation. In art, architecture, literature, philosophy, music and intellectual life, Christianity was to provide the inspiration, so it’s appropriate that the history of Western music should begin with the church.

Church music in the ninth century consisted, as it had done since the earliest days of Christianity, of plainsong or plainchant. This was based on the chants of the Jewish lectors, and was used for parts of the Christian liturgy, especially psalms, largely because the chanted word carried further and could be more easily understood than the spoken word. Chanting also helped raise the words onto a higher, more spiritual plane, and so those parts of the Mass which were chanted became a special part of Christian ritual.

As Christianity spread throughout Europe in the fourth century, each new region produced its own variety of chant. There were originally five main forms of plainchant, similar, in a way, to local dialects. In France there was the Gallican rite, in Spain the Visigothic rite, in Celtic regions the Celtic, in Milan the Ambrosian rite, and in Rome the Roman. There were also subdivisions with important churches such as those in Milan, Metz and Toledo developing their own style, while in Salisbury, the Sarum rite was renowned. There was so much music around that it was thought necessary it should be edited and codified. In the sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great decided to reform the Roman school, probably by blending the Roman and Gallican styles, although exactly what he did is not clear. When, in 800, Charlemagne tried to restore cultural unity to the former Roman Empire, it was this rite, known after its founder as Gregorian chant, that became the standard form.

From The History of Classical Music by Richard Fawkes
Naxos AudioBooks: NA414012

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