Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo

By plain chant we understand the church music of the early Middle Ages, before the advent of polyphony. Having grown up gradually in the service of Christian worship, it remained the exclusive music of the Church till the ninth century, when polyphony made its first modest appearance. For centuries again it held a place of honour, being, on the one hand, cultivated side by side with the new music, and serving, on the other hand, as the foundation on which its rival was built. By the time vocal polyphony reached its culminating point, in the sixteenth century, plain chant had lost greatly in the estimation of men, and it was more and more neglected during the following centuries. But all along the Church officially looked upon it as her own music, and as particularly suited for her services, and at last, in our own days, a revival has come which seems destined to restore plain chant to its ancient position of glory. The name, cantus planus, was first used by theorists of the twelfth or thirteenth century to distinguish the old music from the musica mensurata or mensurabilis, music using notes of different time value in strict mathematical proportion, which began to be developed about that time. The earliest name we meet is cantilena romana (the Roman chant ), probably used to designate one form of the chant having its origin in Rome from others, such as the Ambrosian chant ( see GREGORIAN CHANT ). It is also commonly called Gregorian chant , being attributed in some way to St. Gregory I.


Although there is not much known about the church music of the first three centuries, and although it is clear that the time of the persecutions was not favourable to a development of solemn Liturgy, there are plenty of allusions in the writings of contemporary authors to show that the early Christians used to sing both in private and when assembled for public worship. We also know that they not only took their texts from the psalms and canticles of the Bible , but also composed new things. The latter were generally called hymns, whether they were in imitation of the Hebrew or of the classical Greek poetic forms. There seem to have been from the beginning, or at least very early, two forms of singing, the responsorial and the antiphonal. The responsorial was solo singing in which the congregation joined with a kind of refrain. The antiphonal consisted in the alternation of two choirs. It is probable that even in this early period the two methods caused that differentiation in the style of musical composition which we observe throughout the later history of plain chant, the choral compositions being of a simple kind, the solo compositions more elaborate, using a more extended compass of melodies and longer groups of notes on single syllables. One thing stands out very clearly in this period, namely, the exclusion of musical instruments from Christian worship. The main reason for this exclusion was perhaps the associations of musical instruments arising from their pagan use. A similar reason may have militated in the West, at least, against metrical hymns, for we learn that St. Ambrose was the first to introduce these into public worship in Western churches. In Rome they do not seem to have been admitted before the twelfth century. (See, however, an article by Max Springer in "Gregorianische Rundschau", Graz, 1910, nos. 5 and 6.)

In the fourth century church music developed considerably, particularly in the monasteries of Syria and Egypt. Here there seems to have been introduced about this time what is now generally called antiphon, i.e., a short melodic composition sung in connexion with the antiphonal rendering of a psalm. This antiphon, it seems, was repeated after every verse of the psalm, the two choir sides uniting in it. In the Western Church where formerly the responsorial method seems to have been used alone, the antiphonal method was introduced by St. Ambrose. He first used it in Milan in 386, and it was adopted soon afterwards in nearly all the Western churches. Another importation from the Eastern to the Western Church in this century was the Alleluia chant. This was a peculiar kind of responsorial singing in which an Alleluia formed the responsorium or refrain. This Alleluia, which from the beginning appears to have been a long, melismatic composition, was heard by St. Jerome in Bethlehem, and at his instance was adopted in Rome by Pope Damasus (368-84). At first its use there appears to have been confined to Easter Sunday, but soon it was extended to the whole of Paschal time, and eventually, by St. Gregory, to all the year excepting the period of Septuagesima.

In the fifth century antiphony was adopted for the Mass, some psalms being sung antiphonally at the beginning of the Mass, during the oblations, and during the distribution of Holy Communion . Thus all the types of the choral chants had been established and from that time forward there was a continuous development, which reached something like finality in the time of St. Gregory the Great. During this period of development some important changes took place. One of these was the shortening of the Gradual. This was originally a psalm sung responsorially. It had a place in the Mass from the very beginning. The alternation of readings from scripture with responsorial singing is one of the fundamental features of the Liturgy. As we have the responses after the lessons of Matins, so we find the Gradual responses after the lessons of Mass, during the singing of which all sat down and listened. They were thus distinguished from those Mass chants that merely accompanied other functions. As the refrain was originally sung by the people, it must have been of a simple kind. But it appears that in the second half of the fifth century, or, at latest, in the first half of the sixth century, the refrain was taken over by the schola, the body of trained singers. Hand in hand with this went a greater elaboration of the melody, both of the psalm verses and of the refrain itself, probably in imitation of the Alleluia.

This elaboration then brought about a shortening of the text, until, by the middle of the sixth century, we have only one verse left. There remained, however, the repetition of the response proper after the verse. This repetition gradually ceased only from the twelfth century forward, until its omission was sanctioned generally for the Roman usage by the Missal of the Council of Trent. The repetition of the refrain is maintained in the Alleluia chant, except when a second Alleluia chant follows, from the Saturday after Easter to the end of Paschal time. The Tract, which takes the place of the Alleluia chant during the period of Septuagesima, has presented some difficulty to liturgists. Prof. Wagner (Introduction to the Gregorian Melodies, i, 78, 86) holds that the name is a translation of the Greek term eìrmós, which means a melodic type to be applied to several texts, and he thinks that the Tracts are really Graduals of the older form, before the melody was made more elaborate and the text shortened. The Tracts, then, would represent the form in which the Gradual verses were sung in the fourth and fifth centuries. Of the antiphonal Mass chants the Introit and Communion retained their form till the eighth century, when the psalm began to be shortened. Nowadays the Introit has only one verse, usually the first of the psalm, and the Doxology, after which the Antiphon is repeated. The Communion has lost psalm and repetition completely, only the requiem Mass preserving a trace of the original custom. But the Offertory underwent a considerable change before St. Gregory ; the psalm verses, instead of being sung antiphonally by the choir, were given over to the soloist and accordingly received rich melodic treatment like the Gradual verses. The antiphon itself also participated to some extent in this melodic enrichment. The Offertory verses were united in the late Middle Ages , and now only the Offertory of the requiem Mass shows one verse with a partial repetition of the antiphon.

After the time of St. Gregory musical composition suddenly began to flag. For the new feasts that were introduced, either existing chants were adopted or new texts were fitted with existing melodies. Only about twenty-four new melodies appear to have been composed in the seventh century; at least we cannot prove that they existed before the year 600. After the seventh century, composition of the class of chants we have discussed ceased completely, with the exception of some Alleluias which did not gain general acceptance till the fifteenth century, when a new Alleluia was composed for the Visitation and some new chants for the Mass of the Holy Name (see "The Sarum Gradual and the Gregorian Antiphonale Missarum" by W. H. Frere, London, 1895, pp. 20, 30). It was different, however, with another class of Mass chants comprised under the name of "Ordinarium Missæ". Of these the Kyrie, Gloria, and Sanctus were in the Gregorian Liturgy, and are of very ancient origin. The Agnus Dei appears to have been instituted by Sergius I (687-701) and the Credo appears in the Roman Liturgy about the year 800, but only to diappear again, until it was finally adopted for special occasions by Benedict VIII (1012-24). All these chants, however, were originally assigned, not to the schola, but to the clergy and people. Accordingly their melodies were very simple, as those of the Credo are still. Later on they were assigned to the choir, and then the singers began to compose more elaborate melodies. The chants now found in our books assigned to Feria may be taken as the older forms.

Two new forms of Mass music were added in the ninth century, the Sequences and the Tropes or Proses. Both had their origin in St. Gall. Notker gave rise to the Sequences, which were originally meant to supply words for the longissimæ melodiæ sung on the final syllable of the Alleluia. These "very long melodies" do not seem to have been the melismata which we find in the Gregorian Chant, and which in St. Gall were not longer than elsewhere, but special melodies probably imported about that time from Greece (Wagner, op. cit., I, 222). Later on new melodies were invented for the Sequences. What Notker did for the Alleluia, his contemporary Tuotilo did for other chants fo the Mass, especially the Kyrie, which by this time had got some elaborate melodies. The Kyrie melodies were, in the subsequent centuries, generally known by the initial words of the Tropes composed for them, and this practice has been adopted in the new Vatican edition of the "Kyriale". Sequences and Tropes became soon the favourite forms of expression of medieval piety, and innumerable compositions of ther kind are to be met with in the medieval service books, until the Missal of the Council of Trent reduced the Sequences to four (a fifth, the Stabat Mater, being added in 1727) and abolished the Tropes altogether. As regards the Office, Gevaert (La Mélopée Antique) holds that one whole class of antiphons, namely those taken from the "Gesta Martyrum", belong to the seventh century. But he points out also that no new melodic type is found amongst them. So here again we find the ceasing of melodic invention after St. Gregory. The responses of the Office received many changes and additions after St. Gregory, especially in Gaul about the ninth century, when the old Roman method of repeating the whole response proper after the verses was replaced by a repetition of merely the second half of the response. This Gallican method eventually found its way into the Roman use and is the common one now. But as the changes affected only the verses, which have fixed formulæ easily applied to different texts, the musical question was not much touched.

St. Gregory compiled the Liturgy and the music for the local Roman use. He had no idea of extending it to the other Churches, but the authority of his name and of the Roman See, as well as the intrinsic value of the work itself, caused his Liturgy and chant to be adopted gradually by practically the whole Western Church . During his own lifetime they were introduced into England and from there, by the early missionaries, into Germany (Wagner, "Einführung", II, p. 88). They conquered Gaul mainly through the efforts of Pepin and Charlemagne, and about the same time they began to make their way into Northern Italy, where the Milanese, or Ambrosian, Liturgy had a firm hold, and into Spain, although it took centuries before they became universal in these regions. While the schola founded by St. Gregory kept the tradition pure in Rome, they also sent out singers to foreign parts from time to time to check the tradition there, and copies of the authentic choir books kept in Rome helped to secure uniformity of the melodies. Thus it came about that the manuscript in neumatic notation (see N EUM ) from the ninth century forward, and those in staff notation from the eleventh to the fourteenth century, present a wonderful uniformity. Only a few slight changes seem to have been introduced. The most important of these was the change of the reciting note of the 3rd and 8th modes from b to c, which seems to have taken place in the ninth century. A few other slight changes are due to the notions of theorists during the ninth and following centuries.

These notions included two things: (1) the tone system, which comprised a double octave of natural tones, from A to a' with G added below, and allowing only one chromatic note, namely b flat instead of the second b ; and (2) eight modes theory. As some of the Gregorian melodies did not well fit in with this theoretic system, exhibiting, if ranged according to the mode theory, other chromatic notes, such as e flat, f sharp, and a lower B flat, some theorists declared them to be wrong, and advocated their emendation. Fortunately the singers, and the scribes who noted the traditional melodies in staff notation, did not all share this view. But the difficulties of expressing the melodies in the accepted tone system, with b flat as the only chromatic note, sometimes forced them to adopt curious expedients and slight changes. But as the scribes did not all resort to the same method, their differences enable us, as a rule, to restore the original version. Another slgiht change regards some melodic ornaments entailing tone steps smaller than a semi-tone. The older chant contained a good number of these, especially in the more elaborate melodies. In the staff notation, which was based essentially on a diatonic system, these ornamental notes could not be expressed, and, for the small step, either a semitone or a repetition of the same note had to be substituted. Simultaneously these non-diatonic intervals must have disappeared from the practical rendering, but the transition was so gradual that nobody seems to have been conscious of a change, for no writer alludes to it. Wagner (op. cit., II, passim ), who holds that these ornaments are of Oriental origin though they formed a genuine part of the sixth-century melodies, sees in their disappearance the complete latinization of the plain chant.

A rather serious, though fortunately a singular interference of theory with tradition is found in the form of the chant the Cistercians arranged for themselves in the twelfth century (Wagner, op. cit., II, p. 286). St. Bernard, who had been deputed to secure uniform books for the order, took as his adviser one Guido, Abbot of Cherlieu, a man of very strong theoretical views. One of the things to which he held firmly was the rule that the compass of a melody should not exceed the octave laid down for each mode by more than one note above and below. This rule is broken by many Gregorian melodies. But Guido had no scruple in applying the pruning knife, and sixty-three Graduals and a few other melodies had to undergo considerable alteration. Another systematic change affected the Alleluia verse. The long melisma regularly found on the final syllable of this verse was considered extravagant, and was shortened considerably. Similarly a few repetitions of melodic phrases in a melismatic group were cut out, and finally the idea that the fundamental note of the mode should begin and end every piece caused a few changes in some intonations and in the endings of the Introit psalmody. Less violent changes are found in the chant of the Dominicans, fixed in the thirteenth century (Wagner, op. cit., p. 305). The main variations from the general tradition are the shortening of the melisma on the final syllable of the Alleluia verse and the omission of the repetition of some melodic phrases.

From the fourteenth century forward the tradition begins to go down. The growing interest taken in polyphony caused the plain chant to be neglected. The books were written carelessly; the forms of the neums, so important for the rhythm, began to be disregarded, and shortenings of melismata became more general. No radical changes, however, are found until we come to the end of the sixteenth century. The reform of Missal and Breviary, intiated by the Council of Trent, gave rise to renewed attention to the liturgical chant. But as the understanding of its peculiar language had disappeared, the results were disastrous. Palestrina was one of the men who tried their hands, but he did not carry his work through (see P. R. Molitor, "Die Nach-Tridentinische Choral Reform", 2 vols., Leipzig, 1901-2). Early in the seventeenth century, however, Raimondi, the head of the Medicean printing establishment, took up again the idea of publishing a new Gradual. He commissioned two musicians of name, Felice Anerio and Francesco Suriano, to revise the melodies. This they did in an incredibly short time, less than a year, and with a similarly incredible recklessness, and in 1614 and 1615 the Medicean Gradual appeared. This book has considerable importance, because in the second half of the nineteenth century, the Congregation of Rites, believing it to contain the true chant of St. Gregory, had it republished as the official chant book of the Church, which position it held from 1870 to 1904. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries various other attempts were made to reform the Gregorian chant. They were well intentioned, no doubt, but only emphasized the downward course things were taking. The practice of singing became worse and worse, and what had been the glory of centuries fell into general contempt (see P. R. Molitor, "Reform-Choral", Freiburg, 1901).

From the beginning of the nineteenth century dates a revival of the interest taken in plain chant. Men began to study the question seriously, and while some saw salvation in further "reforms", others insisted on a return to the past. It took a whole century to bring about a complete restoration. France has the honour of having done the principal work in this great undertaking (see P. R. Molitor, "Restauration des Gregorianischen Chorales im 19. Jahrhundert" in "Historisch- politische Blätter", CXXXV, nos. 9-11). One of the bet attempts was a Gradual edited about 1851 by a commission for the Diocese of Reims and Cambrai, and published by Lecoffre. Being founded on limited critical material, it was not perfect; but the worst feature was that the editors had not the courage to go the whole way. The final solution of the difficult question was to come from the Benedictine monastery of Solesmes. Guéranger, the restorer of the Liturgy, also conceived the idea of restoring the liturgical chant. About 1860 he ordered two of his monks, Dom Jausions and Dom Pothier, to make a thorough examination of the codices and to compile a Gradual for the monastery. After twelve years of close work, the Gradual was in the main completed, but another eleven years elapsed before Dom Pothier, who on the death of Dom Jausions had become sole editor, published his "Liber Gradualis". It was the first attempt to return absolutely to the version of the manuscripts, and though capable of improvements in details solved the question substantially. This return to the version of the manuscripts was illustrated happily by the adoption of the note forms of the thirteenth century, which show clearly the groupings of the neums so important for the rhythm. Since that date the work of investigating the manuscripts was continued by the Solesmes monks, who formed a regular school of critical research under Dom Mocquereau, Dom Pothier's successor. A most valuable outcome of their studies is the "Paléographie Musicale", which has appeared, since 1889, in quarterly volumes, giving photographic reproductions of the principal manuscripts of plain chant, together with scientific dissertations on the subject. In 1903 they published the "Liber Usualis", an extract from the Gradual and antiphonary, in which they embodied some melodic improvements and valuable rhythmical directions.

A new epoch in the history of plain chant was inaugurated by Pius X. By his Motu Proprio on church music (22 Nov., 1903) he ordered the return to the traditional chant of the Church and accordingly the Congregation of Rites, by a decree of 8 Jan., 1904, withdrawing the former decrees in favour of the Ratisbon (Medicean) edition, commanded that the traditional form of plain chant be introduced into all churches as soon as possible. In order to facilitate this introduction, Pius X, by a Motu Proprio of 25 April, 1904, established a commission to prepare an edition of plain chant which was to be brought out by the Vatican printing press and which all publishers should get permission to reprint. Unfortunately differences of opinion arose between the majority of the members of the commission, including the Solesmes Benedictines, and its president, Dom Joseph Pothier, with the result that the pope gave the whole control of the work to Dom Pothier. The consequence was that magnificent manuscript material which the Solesmes monks, expelled from France, had accumulated in their new home on the Isle of Wight, first at Appuldurcombe afterwards at Quarr Abbey, remained unused. The Vatican edition, however, though it is not all that modern scholarship could have made it, is a great improvement on Dom Pothier's earlier editions and represents fairly well the reading of the best manuscripts


The theory of the plain chant tone system and modes is as yet somewhat obscure. We have already remarked that the current medieval theory laid down for the tone system a heptatonic diatonic scale of about two octaves with the addition of b flat in the higher octave. In this system four notes, d, e, f, and g, were taken as fundamental notes (tonics) of modes. Each of these modes was subdivided according to the compass, one class, called authentic, having the normal compass, from the fundamental note to the octave, the other, called plagal, from a fourth below the fundamental note to a fifth above. Thus there result eight modes. These, of course, are to be understood as differing not in absolute pitch, as their theoretical demonstration and also the notation might suggest, but in their internal construction. The notation, therefore, refers merely to relative pitch, as does, e.g., the tonic sol-fa notation. Not being hampered by instrumental accompaniment, singers and scribes did not bother about a system of transposition, which in ancient Greek music, for instance, was felt necessary at an early period.

The theoretical distinction between authentic and plagal modes is not borne out by an analysis of the existing melodies and thier traditional classification (see Fr. Krasuski, "Ueber den Ambitus der gregorianischen Messgesänge", Freiburg, 1903). Melodies of the fourth mode having a constant b flat fall in badly with the theoretic conception of a fourth mode having b natural as its normal note, and some antiphon melodies of that mode, although they use no b flat but have a as their highest note, e.g., the Easter Sunday Introit, are out of joint with the psalmody of that mode. It would, therefore, seem certain that the eight mode theory was, as a ready made system, imposed on the existing stock of plain chant melodies. Historically the first mention of the theory occurs in the writings of Alcuin (d. 804), but the "Paléographie Musicale" (IV, p. 204) points out that the existence of cadences in the Introit psalmody based on the literary cursus planus tends to show that an eight mode theory was current already in St. Gregory'stime. From the tenth century forward the four modes are also known by the Greek terms, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, and Mixolydian, the plagals being indicated by the prefix Hypo. But in the ancient Greek theory these names were applied to the scales e-e, d-d, c-c, b-b respectively. The transformation of the theory seems to have come to pass, by a complicated and somewhat obscure process, in Byzantine music (see Riemann, "Handbuch der Musikgeschichte", I, §31). The growth of the melodies themselves may have taken place partly on the basis of Hebrew (Syrian) elements, partly under the influence of the varying Greek or Byzantine theories.


Practically, the most important question of plain chant theory is that of the rhythm. Here again opinions are divided. The so-called equalists or oratorists hold that the rhythm of plain chant is the rhythm of ordinary prose Latin; that the time value of all the notes is the same except in as far as their connexion with the different syllables makes slight differences. They hold, however, the prolongation of final notes, mora ultimæ vocis, not only at the end of sentences and phrases but also at the minor divisions of neum groups on one syllable. In the Vatican edition the latter are indicated by vacant spaces after the notes. The measuralists, on the other hand, with Dechevrens as their principal representative, hold that the notes of plain chant are subject to strict measurement. They distinguish three values corresponding to the modern quavers, crotchets, and minims. They have in their favour numerous expressions of medieval theorists and the manifold rhythmical indications in the manuscripts, especially those of the St. Gall School (see N EUM ). But their rhythmical translations of the manuscript readings do not give a satisfactory result, which they admit themselves by modifying them for practical purposes. Moreover, their interpretation of the manuscript indications does not seem correct, as has been shown by Baralli in the "Rassegna Gregoriana", 1905-8. We may mention here also the theory of Riemann (Handbuch der Musikgeschichte, I, viii), who holds that plain chant has a regular rhythm based on the accents of the texts and forming two-bar phrases of four accents. He transcribes the antiphon "Apud Dominum" in this way:

This looks quite plausible. But he has to admit that this antiphon suits his purposes particularly, and when he comes to more complicated pieces the result is altogether impossible, and for the long final neumata of Graduals he has even to suppose that they were sung on an added Alleluia, a supposition which has no historical foundation. Possibly the melodies of Office antiphons, as they came from Syria, had originally some such rhythm, as Riemann states. But in the process of adaptation to various Latin texts and under the influence of psalmodic singing they must have lost it at an early period. A kind of intermediate position, between the oratorists and the mensuralists is taken up by the school of Dom Mocquereau. With the mensuralists they state various time values ranging from the normal duration of the short note, which is that of a syllable in ordinary recitation, to the doubling of that duration. Their system is based on the agreement of the rhythmical indications in the manuscripts of St. Gall and Metz, and recently Dom Beyssac has pointed out a third class of rhythmical notation, which he calls that of Chartres ("Revue Grégorienne", 1911, no. 1). Moreover, they find their theories supported by certain proceedings in a large number of other manuscripts, as has been shown in the case of the "Quilisma" by Dom Mocquereau in the "Rassegna Gregoriana", 1906, nos. 6-7. Their general theory of rhythm, according to which it consists in the succession of arsis and thesis, i.e., one part leading forward and a second part marking a point of arrival and of provisional or final rest, is substantially the same as Riemann's (see his "System der musikalischen Rhythmik und Metrik", Leipzig, 1903), and is becoming more and more accepted. But their special feature, which consists in placing the word accent by preference on the arsis, has not found much favour with musicians generally.


Plain chant has a large variety of forms produced by the different purposes of the pieces and by the varying conditions of rendering. A main distinction is that between responsorial and antiphonal chants. The responsorial are primarily solo chants and hence elaborate and difficult; the antiphonal are choral or congregational chants and hence simple and easy. Responsorial are the Graduals, Alleluia verses, and Tracts of the Mass, and the rsponses of the Office antiphons and their psalmody. The Mass antiphons, especially the Introit and Communion, are a kind of idealized antiphon type, preserving the general simplicity of antiphons, but being slightly more elaborated in accordance with their being assigned from the beginning to a trained body of singers. The Offertories approach more closely to the responsorial style, which is accounted for by the fact that their verses were at an early period assigned to soloists, as explained above. Another distinction is that between psalmodic and what we may call hymnodic melodies. The psalmody is founded on the nature of the Hebrew poetry, the psalm form, and is characterized by recitation on a unison with the addition of melodic formulæ at the beginning and at the end of each member of a psalm verse. This type is most clearly recognized in the Office psalm tones, where only the melodic formula at the beginning of the second part of the verse is wanting. A slightly more ornamental form is found in the Introit psalmody, and a yet richer form in the verses of the Office responses. But the form can also still be recognized in the responsorial forms of the Mass and the body of the Office responses (see Pal. Mus., III). Of a psalmodic nature are various older chants, such as the tones for the prayers, the Preface, some of the earlier compositions of the Ordinary of the Mass, etc. The hymnodic chants, on the other hand, show a free development of melody; though there may be occasionally a little recitation on a monotone, it is not employed methodically. They are more like hymn tunes or folk songs. This style is used for the antiphons, both of the Office and of the Mass. Some of these show pretty regular melodic phrases, often four in number, corresponding like the lines of a hymn stanza, as, e.g. the "Apud Dominum" quoted above. But oftentimes the correspondence of the melodic phrases, which is always of great importance, is of a freer kind.

A marked feature in plain chant is the use of the same melody for various texts. This is quite typical for the ordinary psalmody in which the same formula, the "psalm tone", is used for all the verses of a psalm, just as in a hymn or a folk song the same melody is used for the various stanzas. But it is also used for the more complicated psalmodic forms. Graduals, Tracts, etc., though oftentimes with considerable liberty. Again we find it in the case of the Office antiphons. In all these cases great art is shown in adapting the melodic type to the rhythmical structure of the new texts, and oftentimes it can be observed that care is taken to bring out the sentiments of the words. On the other hand it seems that for the Mass antiphons each text had originally its own melody. The present Gradual, indeed, shows some instances where a melody of one Mass antiphon has been adapted to another of the same kind, but they are all of comparatively late date (seventh century and after). Among the earliest examples are the Offertory, "Posuisti" (Common of a Martyr Non-Pontiff), taken from the Offertory of Easter Monday, "Angelus Domini", and the Introit, "Salve sancta Parens", modelled on "Ecce advenit" of the Epiphany. The adaptation of a melodic type to different texts seems to have been a characteristic feature of antique composition, which looked primarily for beauty of form and paid less attention to the distinctive representation of sentiment. In the Mass antiphons, therefore, we may, in a sense, see the birth of modern music, which aims at individual expression.


There is little need to insist on the æsthetic beauty of plain chant. Melodies, that have outlived a thousand years and are at the present day attracting the attention of so many artists and scholars, need no apology. It must be kept in mind, of course, that since the language of plain chant is somewhat remote from the musical language of to-day, some little familiarity with its idiom is required to appreciate its beauty. Its tonality, its rhythm, as it is generally understood, the artistic reserve of its utterance, all cause some difficulty and demand a willing ear. Again it must be insisted that an adequate performance is necessary to reveal the beauty of plain chant. Here, however, a great difference of standard is required for the various classes of melodies. While the simplest forms are quite fit for congregational use, and forms like the Introits and Communions are within the range of average choirs, the most elaborate forms, like the Graduals, require for their adequate performance highly trained choirs, and soloists that are artists. As to the liturgical fitness of plain chant it may be said without hesitation that no other kind of music can rival it. Having grown up with the Liturgy itself and having influenced its development to a large extent, it is most suitable for its requirements. The general expression of the Gregorian melodies is in an eminent degree that of liturgical prayer. Its very remoteness from modern musical language is perhaps an additional element to make the chant suitable for the purpose of religious music, which above all things should be separated from all mundane associations. Then the various forms of plain chant are all particularly appropriate to their several objects. For the singing of the psalms in the Office, for instance, no other art form yet invented can be compared with the Gregorian tones. The Falsi Bordoni of the sixteenth century are doubtless very fine, but their continuous use would soon become tedious, while the Anglican chants are but a poor substitute for the everlasting vigour of the plain chant formulæ. No attempt even has been made to supply a substitute for the antiphons that accompany this singing of the psalms. At the Mass, the Ordinary, even in the most elaborate forms of the later Middle Ages, reflects the character of congregational singing. The Introit, Offertory, and Communion are each wonderfully adapted to the particular ceremonies they accompany, and the Graduals display the splendour of their elaborate art at the time when all are expected to listen, and no ceremony interferes with the full effect of the music.

The revival of religious life about the middle of the nineteenth century gave the impetus for a renewed cultivation of plain chant. The extended use and perfected rendering of plain chant, so ardently desired by Pope Pius X, will in its turn not only raise the level of religious music, and enhance the dignity of Divine worship, but also intensify the spiritual life of the Christian community.

More Encyclopedia

The Catholic Encyclopedia is the most comprehensive resource on Catholic teaching, history, and information ever gathered in all of human history. This easy-to-search online version was originally printed between 1907 and 1912 in fifteen hard copy volumes.

Catholic Encyclopedia

Designed to present its readers with the full body of Catholic teaching, the Encyclopedia contains not only precise statements of what the Church has defined, but also an impartial record of different views of acknowledged authority on all disputed questions, national, political or factional. In the determination of the truth the most recent and acknowledged scientific methods are employed, and the results of the latest research in theology, philosophy, history, apologetics, archaeology, and other sciences are given careful consideration.

No one who is interested in human history, past and present, can ignore the Catholic Church, either as an institution which has been the central figure in the civilized world for nearly two thousand years, decisively affecting its destinies, religious, literary, scientific, social and political, or as an existing power whose influence and activity extend to every part of the globe. In the past century the Church has grown both extensively and intensively among English-speaking peoples. Their living interests demand that they should have the means of informing themselves about this vast institution, which, whether they are Catholics or not, affects their fortunes and their destiny.

Copyright © Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company New York, NY. Volume 1: 1907; Volume 2: 1907; Volume 3: 1908; Volume 4: 1908; Volume 5: 1909; Volume 6: 1909; Volume 7: 1910; Volume 8: 1910; Volume 9: 1910; Volume 10: 1911; Volume 11: - 1911; Volume 12: - 1911; Volume 13: - 1912; Volume 14: 1912; Volume 15: 1912

Catholic Online Catholic Encyclopedia Digital version Compiled and Copyright © Catholic Online


Newsletter Sign Up icon

Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and special offers

Subscribe to Catholic OnlineYouTube Channel

the FEED
by Catholic Online

  • Can you answer these four challenging questions about Lent?
  • Take this thought provoking Stations of the Cross survey
  • Daily Readings for Wednesday, February 10, 2016
  • Palm Sunday HD Video
  • 10 important things to consider during Lent
  • St. Scholastica: Saint of the Day for Wednesday, February 10, 2016
  • Stations of the Cross - Fourth Station: Jesus meets his mother HD Video

Daily Readings

Reading 1, First Kings 8:22-23, 27-30
22 Then, in the presence of the whole assembly of Israel, Solomon stood ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 84:3, 4, 5, 10, 11
3 Even the sparrow has found a home, the swallow a nest to place its ... Read More

Gospel, Mark 7:1-13
1 The Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem ... Read More

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for February 9th, 2016 Image

St. Apollonia
February 9: St. Apollonia, who died in the year 249, was ... Read More