Gregorian Chant

It might seem strange that music as seemingly innocuous as that used in Christian worship should become a site for conflict, but this was the case in the eighth and ninth centuries when the Carolingian dynasty used the alleged deficiencies of the clergy in the performance of the liturgy to justify its takeover of the Frankish state and the extension of its authority over the Church. As major of the palace and later as king of the Franks, Pippin III/I (d. 768) declared the variant traditions of liturgical performance that had evolved in diverse ecclesiastical establishments throughout the Frankish world inauthentic in so far as they differed from those of ‘their true source’, the Church of Rome. By posing as the purveyors of ‘Roman truth’ in an activity that was so central to every Christian’s experience of the faith the dynasty asserted a certain moral supremacy which entitled them to supervise the affairs of the Church—and to identify those among the élite who were appropriate to fill its senior posts. The papacy, for its part, went along with these pretensions in the hope that the Carolingians would constrain the Lombard lords who were encroaching on its lands in central Italy. Thus, Walahfrid Stabo, looking back from the 830s, says that Pope Stephen II, when he came north over the Alps in 753/4 to seek justice agains the Lombards and to anoint Pippin king, brought with him to Frankia, at Pippin’s request, clerics armed with ‘the more perfect knowledge of plainchant; from that time onwards its use was validated far and wide’ (Libellus de exordio, pp. 168–9).

firebeastThis project was later taken up and continued by Pippin’s son Charlemagne, who warned the clergy in the Admonitio generalis of 789 that they should ‘fully learn Roman chant and correctly celebrate the night and day offices, as our father of blessed memory, King Pippin, decreed when he abandoned the Gallican [chant] for the sake of unity with the Apostolic Chair and pacific concord within the holy Church of God’ (§ 80, ed. Boretius, p. 61). In reality much of what came to be recognised as authentic Roman chant was probably worked out and defined in Frankia, at important ecclesiastical centres such as Liège, Metz and Aachen; but in the ninth century the papacy embraced this idea of its supremacy in the matter of plainchant, nurturing the myth that it was Pope Gregory the Great (590–604) who was responsible for creating and defining the chant repertory of the Roman Church, hence the name ‘Gregorian Chant’. It was claimed that the Holy Spirit—in the form of a dove sitting on Gregory’s shoulder—dictated the entire corpus into the papal ear. One witness to this myth is the following poem in hexameter verse, which dates from the late eighth-century:

Gregorius praesul, meritis et nomine dignus,
Unde genus ducit, summum conscendit honorem.
Renovavit monumenta patrum iuniorque priorum
Munere caelesti fretus sapiens ornabat.
Bishop Gregory, illustrious in merits and name,
rose through his noble birth to the highest honour.
He renewed the works of the Fathers of old and, being younger,
relying on heaven’s grace, adorned them wisely.
Tum conposuit scolae cantorum huncque libellum,
Qui reciproca deo modoletur carmina Christo,
Quando sacer sacraque libans libamina vatis.
Dulcibus antiphonae pulsent concentibus aures
Classibus et geminis psalmorum concrepet oda,
Then he compiled this little book for the papal school of singers,
that they might chant antiphonal songs for Christ, their God,
when the holy priest, as celebrant, offers the holy sacrifice.
Then let the antiphons strike the ears with their sweet harmonies,
and the melody of the psalms sound out from the double choir;
Hymnistae crebro vox articulata resultet,
Ut celsum quatiat clamoso carmine culmen.
Fratres, concordi laudemus voce tonantem
Cantibus at crabris conclamet turba suorum.
Hymnos ac psalmos et responsoria festis
Let the precentor’s dedicated voice often ring out,
to shake the roof’s high vault with clamoring song
Brethren, with harmonious voice let us praise the Thunderer,
and let his people often join in with their songs.
We shall bring forth hymns, psaims and responsories
Congrua promemus subter testudine templi,
Psalterii melos fantes modolamine crebro,
Atque decem fidibus nitamus tendere liram,
Ut psalmista monet bisquinis psallere fibris;
Hec claro argenta clare fabricata nitescit.
fitting the feasts, beneath the temple’s arch,
voicing the psalterís music with frequent melody,
striving to tune the ten-stringed lyre,
jubilating on twice five strings, as the Psalmist bids [Psalm 33:2];
this lyre, wrought with bright silver, brightly shines.
Talibus ornabat donis opuscula Christi
Gregorius felix, caelesti munere dives,
Quem munerosa dei ditarat gratia summi.
Hic opibus fulsit magnis et honoribus actus,
Hunc etiam duplicis decorans sapientia legis,
With such gifts blissful Gregory, rich in heaven’s grace,
adorned the heritage of Christ,
he whom the highest God’s precious favour had endowed.
He was resplendent, spurred by great wealth and honours,
graced by Wisdom’s twofold law [love of God and neighbour],
Ut populum domini magno moderamine rexit.
En felix domini famulus pro munere tanto,
Qui noscis rivo venarum corda rigare,
Dum sacra comis late praecordia verbis
Luciferisque simul mandatorumque maniplis,
he ruled, guiding his people greatly as the people of the Lord.
You servant of the lord, blissful in such great grace,
who know how to irrigate hearts with the coursing streams,
while far and wide you make breasts holy by your words
and by the luminous sheaves of your commands—
Ut variis florum fragis saturare solebas
Prata, virum et fragiles animos accendere biblis,
Ut homines pacem dlscant servare per orbem
Angelicam in terris passim cum foedere firmo,
Quam Christus castis, tractim sperantibus arcem
you were wont to flood the fields as with varied scents
of flowers, and kindle men’s frail minds with books,
that men may learn to keep angelic peace
everywhere in the world, with firm compact,
the peace Christ freely promised to the chasteófair citadel
Perpetuis ac iugiter praecepta sequentibus, ultro
Sedibus in celsis pulchram promisit habendam
Salve, fortunate pater semperque beatus,
Atque memor nostri pollens per saecla magister!
for those who follow his teachings and hope perpetually:
they shall dwell in it set upon thrones on high.
Hail, fortunate father, forever blessed—
master mighty through the ages, remember us!

This poem was subsequently set to music and used in the liturgy for Gregory’s cult (see below). The legend was elaborated in later works, such as the monumental life of Pope Gregory which John the Deacon (d. 880) wrote for Pope John VIII (872–82). In this work John describes how Charlemagne acknowledged the supremacy of the Roman ‘source’:

The sweetness of this [Roman] chant, which the Germans, Gauls and other European peoples might creditably have learned and accurately transmitted, they were unable to conserve intact. This was due both to frivolity of spirit for they mixed in music of their own with the Roman chants; and also to a natural barbarousness of their alpine constitutions. Their brilliant, thunderous voices would not correctly render the [Roman] musical sweetness. The unrefined roughness of those bibulous [northerners’] throats, when dealing with the nuanced and reiterated pitches of a mellow [Roman] chant, would give the sounds of a certain vocal harshness, like the noisy, confusing racket of a cart upon steps. Thus the music that was supposed to caress the hearers’ spirits instead irritates and considerably distresses....
   Our patrician Charles, king of the Franks, when at Rome was distressed at the difference between Roman and Gallic chanting. The Gauls impudently claimed that our [Roman] musicians corrupted the chant with popular songs; our musicians countered by exhibiting what was obviously an authentic antiphoner.
   Charlemagne is said to have asked then, ‘Between a stream and its source, which has the purer water?’ He prudently answered them when they said ‘the source!’, ‘We, who until now have drunk impure water from the stream, must henceforth return to the original flow of the perpetual font’.

Though the authority of Roman norms was widely accepted, the notion of their supremacy in these matters did not go unchallenged. In, for example, his Gesta Karoli magni, a work composed in the early 880s, Notker of St Gallen cast some of the blame for the Franks’ alleged failure to learn the ‘true’ art of chanting upon the Romans:

At this point I must tell a story. It is one which, due to the great dissimilarity between our chants and the Romans’ chants, people nowadays may find hard to believe... but I choose to rely on the chance that our forebears were truthful... Charlemagne... was troubled by the fact that all his provinces, cities, and even smaller places continued to differ in their manner of divine worship, and particularly in their plainchant melodies. He therefore asked Pope Stephen of blessed memory... to send him some monks who were highly skilled in divine song. The Pope, who was greatly pleased... dispatched to him in Francia... a dozen monks well trained in chanting—the same number as there were apostles...
   When the time came for these monks to set out from Rome, being, like all Greeks and Romans, greatly envious of the glory of the Franks, they plotted among themselves to see how they could vary the ways of singing and so prevent the Franks in the kingdom and territory of Charlemagne from ever achieving uniformity. When they reported to Charlemagne they were received with honour, and they were apportioned out to a number of very famous places. Each in his own appointed locality began to chant with as much variation and as incorrectly as he knew how, and did all he could to teach others to do the same.
   Charlemagne... discovered in time that the monks he had sent to the other cities were all singing differently. He reported this to Pope Leo of holy memory, who had succeeded Stephen. And Leo recalled the monks to Rome and punished them with exile or life imprisonment. ‘If I send you more’, he said to the illustrious Charlemagne, ‘they will be just as blindly envious as the first ones, and they will cheat you again. This is how I will satisfy your wish. Let me have two of the smartest monks in your own entourage, doing it in a way that will not let my people notice they are yours. With God’s help they will acquire the proficiency in this art which you are looking for’. Charlemagne did as he was told. In a short time the two were perfectly trained and Leo sent them back. One of them Charlemagne kept with him. At the request of his son, Drogo, bishop of Metz, he sent the other one to the church there. That monk became the most influential in Metz, and the effect of his teaching soon spread throughout all the land of the Franks, so that in our time church singing is called Metz chant... The holy emperor also ordered the second cantor, Peter by name, to spend some short time at the monastery of St Gall. There he took care that church singing was taught and learnt according to the Roman manner (trs. Levy, pp. 188–9 / Thorpe, pp. 102–4).

Notice how this story validates Saint-Gall’s claims to being a source of genuine and authentic Roman chant, an issue of some importance to Notker (d. 912), who was himself responsible for composing the music for many sequences and hymns.

Pieces and Manuscripts for Discussion

  1. Gregorius praesul, ‘Bishop Gregory’. John the Deacon’s poem about how Gregory the Great compiled a book of chants for the schola cantorum in Rome was itself set to music and used as a ‘trope’, presumably in the liturgy for his feast. Two early music ensembles, Sequentia and Dialogos, have made a brilliant recording on their joint-CD, ‘Chant Wars: The Carolingian Globalisation of Medieval Chant’ (DHM 82876666492). They take their version of the words (reproduced above) from Lucca, Biblioteca capitolare, MS 490, fol. 232v, a copy dating from between 787 and 816. The music has been ‘reconstructed’ by K. Livljanic from Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, fonds lat. 776 (‘the Gaillac Gradual’), where the poem is one of the opening items in the book (fol. 4v). The polyphonic elements have, as they put it, been ‘improvised in the style of Carolingian music masters’.
       BnF 776, it should be noted, is one of a number of important liturgical books with notation that survive from southern France. Produced in the mid eleventh century, it was used at the Abbaye Saint-Michel de Gaillac near Albi. Its exact origins are obscure, but the editors of the recent facsimile have identified connections to the musical traditions of the Abbaye Saint-Pierre de Moissac: see N. Albarosa, H. Rumphorst and A. Turco (eds.), Gaillac: Il cod. Paris Bibliothèque nationale de France lat. 776, sec.XI Graduale, Codices Gregoriani 3 (Padova, 2002).
  2. Natus ante saecula, ‘Born before the World’. This sequence was sung in the Christmas liturgy at St Gallen. The text and notation are to be found in a manuscript dating from around 930, which was possibly copied by a monk named Salomon: St Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 381. This is a small, modestly decorated, book, probably intended for practical use. It has four main sections: one comprising versicles, the second hymns, the third tropes and the fourth sequences. The collection of sequences on pages 325–498 is clearly attributed in its rubrics to Notker (d. 912). Natus ante saecula appears on pages 333–5. There is an excellent recording by Sequentia and Dialogos on ‘Chant Wars: The Carolingian Globalisation of Medieval Chant’ (DHM 82876666492).
  3. Laus tibi Christe, ‘Praise to you, O Christ’. This sequence was performed at St Gallen during the liturgy for the Feast of the Holy Innocents (29 December). It is also to be found among the sequences attributed to Notker in St Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 381. It appears on pp. 352–4. There is a fine recording on a different CD, this time from Dominique Vellard and the Ensemble Gilles Binchois, ‘Musique et poésie à Saint-Gall: Séquences et tropes du IXe siècle’ (Schola Cantorum Basiliensis / Harmondi Mundi 905239), recently re-issued as ‘Music and Poetry in St Gallen’ (Glossa GCD922503).

Relevant Primary Sources

  • Notker Balbulus, Gesta Caroli magni, trs. L. Thorpe, Two Lives of Charlemagne: Einhard and Notker the Stammerer (Harmondsworth, 1969), esp. pp. 102–4. MSDC.
  • Notker Balbulus, Liber Ymnorum, ed. and trs. Calvin Bower, Henry Bradshaw Society 121–2, 2 vols. (London, 2016). Provides a full edition of Notker’s dedicatory preface, followed by 49 sequences. Each sequence is presented with two musical notations (‘Carolingian’, in neumes, and pitched on staves), followed by translations and commentary.
  • Walahfrid Strabo, Libellus de exordiis et incrementis quarundam in observationibus ecclesiasticis rerum: A Translation and Liturgical Commentary, ed. and trs. A. L. Harting-Correa, Mittellateinische Studien und Texte 19 (Leiden, 1996). Reprints the standard edition of Walahfrid’s ‘Little Book on the Origins and Developments of Some Aspects of the Liturgy’, a liturgical handbook written c.840–42, but with a facing page translation and with extensive annotation. This work is remarkable for its evolutionary perspective on liturgical matters and for its citation of its sources.


  • Bruno, M., ‘In Quest for Chant Primeval’, Choir and Organ, 14:2 (2006), 42–44. Online at Academic Search Complete. An interview with Benjamin Bagby and Katarina Livljanic, the creators of Chant Wars.
  • Bullough, D. A., and A. L. Harting-Corre‚, ‘Texts, Chant, and the Chapel of Louis the Pious’, in P. Godman and R. Collins (eds), Charlemagne’s Heir: New Perspectives on the Reign of Louis the Pious (814-840) (Oxford, 1990), pp. 489–508; rpt in D. A. Bullough, Carolingian Renewal: Sources and Heritage (Manchester, 1991), pp. 241–71. MSD.I.
  • Crocker, R., ‘Medieval Chant’, in R. Crocker and D. Hiley (eds), The New Oxford History of Music, vol. 2, Early Medieval Music up to 1300 (2nd edn, Oxford, 1990), pp. 225–309. VV8.
  • Crocker, R., The Early Medieval Sequence (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA, 1977). Oversize VXE8.B. Edits and discusses Natus ante saecula at pp. 234–8 and Laus tibi Christe at pp. 296–8.
  • Heinzer, F., Gold in the Sanctuary: Reassessing Notker of St Gall’s Liber Ymnorum, Studies and Texts 228 (Toronto, 2022).
  • Levy, K., ‘A New Look to Old Roman Chant’, Early Music History, 19 (2000), 81–104; and ibid., 20 (2001), 178–87. JSTOR.
  • Levy, K., ‘Latin Chant Outside the Roman Tradition’, in R. Crocker and D. Hiley (eds), The New Oxford History of Music, vol. 2, Early Medieval Music up to 1300 (2nd edn, Oxford, 1990), pp. 69–110. VV8.
  • Levy, K., and P. Jeffery (eds.), The Study of Medieval Chant: Paths and Bridges, East and West. In Honor of Kenneth Levy (Woodbridge, 2001).
  • Rankin, S., ‘Ego itaque Notker scripsi’, Revue Bénédictine, 101 (1991), 268–98.

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