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Exploring Music: Gregorian Chant Liturgy for Good Friday

The MHS Review 379 Vol. 11, NO. 1 • 1987

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David M. Greene


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Pope Gregory I, who lived from ca. 540 to 604 A.D., was, often through no conscious effort of his own, really deserving of the sobri­quet '' the Great.'' Living as he did at the beginning of the Dark Ages, he recognized that the barbarians were there to stay and had to be Christianized if the Church and western civilization were to sur­vive. For a while he played foot­sie with the tyrannical Emperor Phocas, but when he got com­pletely out of focus, Gregory began working on the Lombard king Agilulf, and on the Merov­ingian qu􀀌en Brunichildis (who may have some link with the Nibelung heroine Brunnhilda). It was Brunichildis who paved the way for Gregory to send St. Augustine (of Canterbury) on a converting mission to England. It was Gregory who also conceived of the Church as a landlord (though he intended that its real estate should be used as capital to finance good works) and dream­ed of Rome as the center of an Augustinian religious utopia.

Gregory almost certainly had something to do with the ultimate promulgation of the liturgical chant called after him. (It never, by the way, was accepted everywhere, places like Milan and even parts of Rome adhering to other kinds of chant.) We are now pretty certain that Gregory never collected it or edited it, much less composed it, though in the eighth century he was credited with the authorship of an antiphonary and as early as the ninth it was asserted that he had founded the papal choir and taught music there. He also suffered from what may have been a stomach ulcer and from ar­thritis, and decreed that if he was canonized (as he was) there would be no worshiping at his shrine.

Actually, what we now call Gregorian developed mostly in the eight or so centuries after Gregory. Such a thing as the Good Friday liturgy, however much it depends on Gregory's reforms of the Mass, is not a composition but a collection. In fact, to judge from the liner notes, parts of the St. John Passion (if not all) date from the 16th century, and other selections come from Gallican and Mozarabic Chant. And of course what one hears is the result of research and theory of the last hundred years or so. Finally, however much one enjoys this sort of thing on record, I find it hard to forget that it is meant to be participated in in the dramatic setting of a church service (which con­tains the seeds of all deama).

Review of Gregorian Chant: Liturgy for Good Friday

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