A Short History of Long-Haired Music: Gregorian Chant


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Was there music before Bach? Ummm, of course there was. Composers just didn't put their names on their compositions before, say the Renaissance—the biggest game-changer in history as far as the arts are concerned. The bright sun of the high Renaissance was beating down on papal Rome when Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, arguably the greatest of the wig-wearers was penning masses for splendor-loving pontiffs.

Around him, artists were celebrating the victory of the senses: sculptors were exploring the sensual contours of the human body. Painters were transforming their peasant mistresses into the Mother of God. Architects were masking the Gothic face of the cities with gracious temples and colonnades, and philosophers were dreaming of Plato, that prince of pagan poets (how’s that for alliteration, eh?).

In the midst of all these busy sensualists ostensibly re-creating the classic past, but in reality creating the modern world, Palestrina was busy putting the finishing touches to the Gothic edifice of medieval music. So let’s press pause there for a moment and rewind a bit to medieval times before we come back to Mr. Palestrina, whose music was an exceedingly complicated affair by comparison. Like every other art, it had developed slowly from meager beginnings. From the ritual grunts of earl man, it had evolved into an adjunct of the Greek drama.

From a strictly pragmatic point of view, music blossoms at that moment in the 4th century when Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, decided to regulate the singing for the services in his diocese. The Ambrosian chant—the first thoroughly recognizable ancestor of music as we know it today —is the leanest and most solemn adaptation of the Greek modes, the ancestors of our modern scales. This somber singing can still be heard in certain Milanese churches, but today we are more familiar with the elaboration of St. Ambrose's system known as the Gregorian chant, which pretty much superseded the older musical service at about the beginning of the 17th century.

Some think that St. Gregory, the greatest Pope of the early Middle Ages, sponsored, or even devised, the innovation. Less romantic historians believe that he was too busy with barbarians,
heretics, and plague to bother with ideas about music.

For 1,000 years, the music of the Church was rigidly melodic: that is, it attained its ends without the use of harmony as we conceive it today. The troubadours and minnesingers accepted unquestioningly this purely horizontal tradition of music, and lavished their imagination on the melody and words instead. So let's hear the words now by finishing this little post with a sample of Gregorian chant. I’ve chosen "Ave Maria."

[Be sure to tune in next Wednesday for Part 3]

If you missed last week's installment, check out A Short History of Long-Haired Music archives here.