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The MHS Review 399 VOL. 12, NO.3 • 1988

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David M. Greene


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A chap whom I met a couple of years ago called the other night to say that he had moved recently to my area and was seek­ing suitable employ. In the course of our talk, he inquired if I still wrote for MHS. Hearing that I (after a fashion) did, he apologized for having let his membership lapse. It was the third such apology I had had in a week. Well, I regret, of course, that we can't stimulate everyone to stay on board, but frankly I like to be reminded that there's an active turnover. It tells me that I can, after a suitable interval, risk repeating myself. Since we put out a Gregorian record only every so often, I judge that the required interval has passed.

For those who don't know, Gregorian chant is the official music of worship in the Roman Catholic Church. It is said to be very old, and takes its name from the sainted Pope Gregory (or Gregorius) the First, who died in 604 A.D. after a 14-year tenure of office. Gregorius was apparent­ly gregarious: at least he was a great philan­thropist and social reformer, promoted monasticism (which helped keep people off the streets and curbed their natural tendency to overpopulation), and did much to Christianize the barbarians in western Europe, on the grounds that a universal faith would help keep them from massacring everyone in sight.

Pope Gregory made important reforms in the Mass, and in that connection he allegedly composed the music that bears his name, according to hoary tradition. But when more rational minds found this unlikely, it was said that he codified the music current in the Roman Church of his day, or at least ordered that done. Whatever may be his contribution, the fact is that no music has come down to us from any period earlier than 200 years after Gregory's death, and a good deal of the body of chant was composed even later than that.

By the 19th century the tradition was hopelessly corrupt. The revival was the work of a French priest, Dom Prosper Gueranger. Determined to restore the Dominican order in France, where it had been dissolved during the Revolution, he bought an ancient abandoned monastery at Solesmes, near Le Mans, and made it a going concern, devoted to study and research. His approach to the purification of plainchant was based on the collation of medieval manuscripts from far-flung areas.

The most active spirit in this work was Dom Joseph Pothier, under whose direc­torship (after he had left Solesmes for another post) the Vatican published the first four official collections between 1905 and 1912. But after WWll Solesmes got the go-ahead to produce a critical edition of the Graduale Romanum. The chants on this record--10 from the Proper of the Mass (i.e. chants for specific occasions) and the entire choral part of the office for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception-are drawn from the 1974 edition.

There are certain basic characteristics of chant. It is entirely melodic: all members of the choir sing the same unharmonized tune. Such tunes are not diatonic but modal, i.e. they do not subscribe to the rules of major and minor, but are based on a series of scales that may be duplicated by playing the "white" keys on the piano from any note up to its octave and back. (In this way the Dorian mode runs from D up to the next D and back. Gregorian melodies generally cover no more than an octave, may be quite florid, and tend [ on the printed page] to "arch.")

I cannot comment on the effectiveness of Gregorian chant as an implement of worship. Considered as music, it has its passionate admirers. And, indeed, it has a sort of unearthly purity about it, and gives a peaceful sense.

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