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The first time that I sang Gregorian Chant I was 9 years old. The choir practiced it daily and after a couple of weeks I was hooked ... and Iíve been hooked ever since. Itís exciting, itís spiritual, itís wonderful.
Our choir was preparing for a big service in Westminster Cathedral when I joined. The new Archbishop of Westminster was making his first entrance as a Cardinal and the occasion was doubly thrilling to us boys because the BBC was broadcasting the service and none of us had ever been on the radio before! The piece was Te Deum laudamus - the great song of praise and thanks. We practiced and practiced and eventually got the chant sounding really great. It was a terrific experience and Iíve loved Gregorian Chant ever since.
Gregorian Chant is alive and well and still enchanting singers and listeners alike, as it has done for the last 1500 years. Singing plainchant is the best way to rescue it from the oblivion of history books and to understand much of the music of our civilisation.
What is it about plainchant that speaks to you? Do you think you could even learn to sing it?
Let's start at the beginning ...
Where does it come from?
The history of Gregorian Chant begins before the birth of Christ. Chant is based upon the songs sung in the synagogues and Middle Eastern countries. Itís fascinating to know that some of todayís chants are based upon the actual songs which Jesus sang when he was living in Jerusalem.
Gregorian Chant was adopted by the Christian Church in about the 6th Century and it quickly became an essential part of Christian worship. It was named after Pope Gregory the Great who unified all the chants into one collection. This soon became an essential part of monastic worship and monks would write new chants and take them from monastery to monastery.
Eventually there was sufficient Gregorian Chant for all the services Ė approximately nine a day, seven days a week and even more on great feast days. In the early days the chant wasn't copied into books. It had to be memorised and it would take monks many years to learn all the different songs. Eventually they worked out a way to write music down, and words and notes were copied into one large book which all the choir monks would gather round and sing from.
After many centuries plainchant became very complex, and people would even sing bawdy lyrics to the chants. By the way, the name "plainchant" doesn't mean the music is boring! Quite the reverse - it's from the old French "plein chant" meaning "full singing".
Many different styles of performance came into being and it wasn't until the 19th century that the monks, like Gregory the Great, began to seek a single method of performance which reflected what was known about early methods of chant singing.
There's a famous monastery in France at Solesmes, and its monks became responsible for the restoration of Gregorian Chant as you hear it today - on CDs and radio. They worked out a very artistic method of singing it and a new method of writing it down. They then produced books which contained the fruits of their scholarship. Their theories were adopted by monasteries throughout the world.
Unfortunately Gregorian Chant has now largely fallen into disuse in the Catholic church because of widespread change in the services.
Why do you like Gregorian Chant?
It's a beautiful form of music - peaceful, meditative, almost new age in effect - and it's a great antidote to the hustle and bustle of contemporary living. Many people like it because it gives a glimpse into something beyond this world. These are the qualities which make it so popular. I remember going into an up-market restaurant and hearing Gregorian Chant as background music. I asked my local priest, "Why can't I hear chant in church? Why do I have to go to a restaurant to hear it?"!
I never cease to be amazed at the popularity of Gregorian Chant Ė it seems to be particularly suited to the present age when people seek the spiritual, and desire contact with a world beyond their own.
Can you sing Gregorian Chant?
Yes, you can. It's not difficult once you get the hang of it. You don't have to be a great singer with a wonderful voice. You need to seek out a choir which sings plainsong Ė perhaps at a local church - or a choir which sings mediaeval music. Start by listening to the many CDs of the chant - try some of the recordings from Solesmes.
You can still buy books of the chant Ė they are called Graduale Romanum or Liber Usualis Ė from a Christian Bookshop and see if you can discover what is being sung on the CDs. Any Catholic Priest should be able to help you find your way around the books. They may look complicated, but they aren't.
Most of all, listen to as much chant as possible and steep yourself in its words and music. You will get endless enjoyment from its mystery and beauty.
We'll be talking more about Gregorian Chant - its influence on Western music, and how it can improve the sound your Church Choir makes.
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