The Parish Church of St George the Martyr, Waterlooville


Festival Edition 2013

Gregorian and other chants

One evening, whilst in Caen, Rod entered the Abbaye aux Hommes (built by William the Conquerer as a penance). Far off, in the chancel there were groups of men either side of the altar - Decani and Cantori. They were chanting antiphonally a form of monophonic music called Plainsong. On another occasion Rod was in the New Territories of Hong Kong and entered a Buddhist monastery. In an inner sanctum he noticed the monks therein, dressed in their robes, chanting antiphonally from their holy book. It was striking in the similarity of this musical activity, geographically so far away from each other. Both appeared to be ancient forms.

Plainsong, otherwise called Plainchant (cantus planus) uses no instrumental accompaniment. It started in the basic form we now know when Pope Gregory I compiled different forms of chant into one collection - called Gregorian Chant. Initially there was no convenient means of writing the chant down. In the 12th century the chants began to be notated using a four-line stave and square or diamond shaped notes called neumes. The scales consisted of six notes which melded well with each other sequentially. The metre was freely interpreted and the chanting always produced a reverently sonorous effect. Most of the traditional chants were in Latin. Each note gave rise to a modal scale, each of which appeared to be of differing emotional moods. Later, one or more additional voices became added to the chant and polyphony was introduced.

Gregorian type chants can still be heard at many church services - in the Psalms, Canticles and in the Antiphons starting ‘O Lord, open Thou our lips’. Although not regarded as Plainsong, the Eastern Orthodox church has similar sung liturgy. Particularly beautiful is the sung Lord’s Prayer of the Russian Church. In mediaeval times, the poet, scientist and mystic, Hildegarde of Bingen composed sung chants for female voices. This has been released on CD entitled ‘A Feather on the Breath of God’. In modern times, the 20th century composers Respighi and Durufle made use of plainsong passages in their works, as also did Arvo Pärt in the 21st century.

Rod Dawson