The History of Chant

The History of Chant

The sacred universe into which Gregorian chant introduces us is the world of prayer— or, if you prefer, of union with God, which is the ultimate goal of prayer. —Dom Jacques Hourlier

What is Chant? What is this thing called “plainsong,” or as it is sometimes referred to, “plainchant,” or “Gregorian chant,” or simply “the chant”?

In a nutshell, the chant is the unique music of Western Christianity and our closest living link with the church of the first centuries. In a broader context, it is truly the foundation of all our Western music. “The chant grew originally out of the music of the Jewish ritual. The first Christians, themselves Jews, . . . brought into their worship the ancient Jewish custom of chanting aloud the books of the Bible. The melodies they used brought out the meaning of the words, made the text audible to a large gathering of people, and added beauty and dignity to the reading. In particular, the chanting of the psalms was to become the firm basis for all future Christian worship.” Indeed, “the practice of singing psalms in the name of the Lord is observed everywhere,” wrote Eusebius, the great church historian of the early fourth century.

In pagan Rome, Christians were persecuted and often martyred, so they were forced to meet clandestinely in house churches and in the catacombs in order to pray together. A major aspect of their worship was the singing of psalms and other Scriptures. As Christianity spread among Gentiles, groups began to develop regular times throughout the day to assemble for prayer. This was one way of following the New Testament injunction to “pray continually” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).

During the following centuries, the practice of gathering for prayer several times a day continued—at first secretly during the periods of persecution, and then openly after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century.

In the Eastern part of the Roman Empire, Greek was the primary language. In the West, it was natural for the ancient prayers to be sung in Latin. As these times of prayer evolved, they came to be known as the Liturgy of the Hours, or the Divine Office. “Liturgy” comes from a Greek word for a public duty or service undertaken by a citizen. “Office” comes from a Latin word meaning “duty”—therefore “Divine Office” simply means “Sacred Duty.” The terms “Divine” and “Office” recognize the Christian’s sacred duty to pray continually.

Excerpted from The Song of Prayer: A Practical Guide to Learning Gregorian Chant

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