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Early Western Chant

  •  The Early Period
  •  The Fourth and Fifth Centuries
  •  The Fall of Rome to Charlemagne
  •  Other Rites

    The Early Period

    Three periods of church history will serve to outline early Western chant. From apostolic times to the Edict of Toleration (AD 313), Christians suffered persecution, though not continuously. Elaborate public worship was certainly impossible, and liturgy must have been simple and informal. We have only fragmentary references to liturgy from this period and almost none to chant. The common language of the Roman Empire at that time was Greek, the language of the New Testament writings. We know that Greek was the language of Christian worship in Rome until 250 or later, and the change to Latin occurred only gradually after that time. The theological writings that survive from this period are precious, and many have been published in translation in the Ante-Nicene Fathers collection.

    The Latin language was first used liturgically (and the inspired writings were also translated) in the Roman province of Africa, an area broader than modern Tunisia, inhabited by the indigenous Berber people. The Church there was plagued with various heresies. In the fifth century the Arian Vandals (one of the Teutonic tribes that invaded the Roman Empire in that century) overran the land. Later the conquest and destruction of the Vandal people led to a period of Byzantine rule, but the Muslim conquest toward the end of the seventh century destroyed the Church in North Africa, leaving no trace.

    In this early period of Latin worship, some texts were written, notably the Gloria in excelsis Deo and the Te Deum. These new texts, Gallican rather than Roman and constructed in the style of psalms, were called psalmi idiotici. The Gloria was used in morning prayer before it was added to the Mass. Such hymns (other than these two) were replaced in the fourth century by the singing of psalms and canticles from the Bible, a way of safeguarding the orthodoxy, or doctrinal correctness, of worship.


    The Fourth and Fifth Centuries

    From the Edict of Toleration to the fall of Rome in 476, Christianity flourished. In Rome basilicas were built or adapted within decades. Public worship flourished, with the celebration of divine worship copied in some respects from the style of the imperial court. The Council of Nicaea (325), held near Constantinople, was the first ecumenical council, defining the doctrine of the Holy Trinity against the Arians. This was the golden age of the Fathers of the Church, their writings published as the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (notably St. Ambrose, St. Augustine and St. Jerome). We can recover many details of liturgical celebration from the writings of this time, but still very little about the chant.

    While the early history of chant remains a matter of speculation in the absence of hard evidence, it is possible to recognize the antique musical style of certain chants and suggest they may have survived from the early centuries (certainly the fourth century) of the Western Church. These include the psalm tones used in the office, the lesson tones of the Mass, the Gloria in excelsis Deo (Gloria XV in modern editions), the Sanctus and Agnus Dei (Sanctus XVIII and Agnus Dei XVIII) and the Te Deum. The celebrant's tones for the collect, Preface and Pater noster should be added to the list.

    Already in this early period, the celebration of the Eucharistic sacrifice of the Mass began to take notice of the mysteries of faith that were commemorated, such as the birth of Christ, His resurrection and the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. This was prominent in Jerusalem during the fourth century, when pilgrimage to the Holy Land became common. The "birth" (that is, birth into eternal life) of the martyrs was also remembered on their anniversaries. Because the date of Easter occurred on the Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox (a dating that was not universally adopted till the eighth century), the principal doctrinal mysteries were celebrated on a temporal cycle of movable feasts. The sanctoral cycle included all feasts that had determinate dates of the month, including Christmas. The way these two cycles of dates coincide constitutes one of the most interesting aspects of the celebration of Christian liturgy.

    Particularly in the West, it was necessary to compose prayers and to choose chant texts from the Bible appropriate to each feast day (the day celebrating the mystery or saint). A manuscript still preserved in Verona called the Leonine Sacramentary is a collection of such prayers (not chant texts) of the Mass. While it takes its name from Pope Leo the Great (440-61), it was compiled more than 150 years later, an example of the practice of collecting the best liturgical prayer texts for permanent future use. The next oldest such manuscript is the Gelasian Sacramentary, named for Pope Gelasius (492-96). Though compiled near Paris about 740 and now preserved in the Vatican Library, this copied a Roman model that was as much as a century older.

    The provision of texts and music to be sung on these feasts proceeded more slowly. It is a commonplace to say that we must not think that a piece of music is as old as its text or that the text is as old as its feast. But rather, we must merely be careful not to assume that a piece of music composed for a text has come down unchanged to the era of notation that can be read. Proper chants for some of the oldest feasts, such as Christmas and Easter, betray archaic qualities in both texts and music. The construction of a set of proper chants for the entire year will be described under Old Roman chant.

    Many scholars of recent years have discussed the transmission of chant from its origin to the invention of notation. The first notation was meant to remind a singer of a melody that he knew, indicating nuances of rhythm. These neumes were invented in the ninth century (if not late in the eighth). By the eleventh century, staff notation was developed to teach the melodies that were no longer known, but this notation did not preserve the nuances of rhythm. This subject will be explained under Gregorian chant.

    While we have little information about the melodies that were sung in the early church, we are told how they were often sung. Two methods of singing psalms or other chants are responsorial and antiphonal. In responsorial singing, the soloist (or choir) sings a series of verses, each one followed by a response from the choir (or congregation). In antiphonal singing, the verses are sung alternately by soloist and choir, or by choir and congregation, or by two halves of a group of singers.


    The Fall of Rome to Charlemagne

    From the fall of Rome to the rise of Charlemagne (768), western Europe was in turmoil. The collapse of Roman civil order and the incursions of the Teutonic tribes resulted in chaos. In many places the bishop was the only recognized authority remaining in place. The rise of monasticism — men or women withdrawing from the world to live together in prayer, study and work — should not be surprising in this context. Monasticism was brought to the West from the Egyptian desert, St. Martin of Tours (died 397) being an early founder (the present monastery of Ligugé is the site of his dwelling, founded about 360). St. Benedict (480-546) founded Monte Cassino about 529; his rule became the predominant form of monastic life in the West. Most important for us, it specified the order of daily prayer that we call the Divine Office.

    In cathedrals (every city had one) and collegiate churches (basilicas and certain other churches), a group of canons assumed the obligation of singing the hours of daily prayer. (A collegiate church is simply a church that has such a college, i.e., group, attached to it.) This was called the cathedral or secular office, secular clergy being distinguished from monks. The cathedral office was built around morning and evening prayer, certain appropriate psalms assigned for each.

    In monasteries, the entire group of monks assumed a similar obligation, but the structure of the daily hours was somewhat different. The monastic office was inspired by the continuous prayer of the Egyptian hermits, marked by recitation of the psalms from memory. Later St. Benedict structured the Office to encompass the entire 150 psalms in the course of the week, distributed through seven "hours" of prayer. In some places (Rome and Britain especially), the cathedral office was sung by a group of monks attached to it. Partly for this reason, the cathedral office eventually became similar to the monastic office, though even in modern times there are some slight differences. But up to 1970 the weekly singing of the 150 psalms had been basically the same for 1500 years.

    The psalms were complemented with antiphons, responsories and hymns. A number of hymns are attributed to St. Ambrose and his imitators. In Gaul under Frankish rule, a number of poets furnished texts for hymns. Notably, Venantius Fortunatus (c.530-c.609), bishop of Poitiers, wrote Vexilla regis prodeunt and Pange lingua gloriosi lauream certaminis, both prominently used in Holy Week, as well as the Easter processional hymn Salve festa dies.

    In this period liturgical forms developed locally within a broad pattern of similarity. Looking from east to west, north of the Mediterranean, different liturgical texts and chants were composed in Benevento (southern Italy), Rome, Milan (northern Italy), Gaul and Spain. Vestiges of liturgical forms and even some texts survive from this period, and the later development of each of these types of chant is dealt with separately, concluding with the treatment of Gregorian chant.


    Other Rites

    Some other rites may be discussed briefly here. The Celtic rite, probably not unlike the Gallican rite, was used in Roman Britain. When St. Augustine of Canterbury arrived from Rome in 597 to convert the Anglo-Saxons, he brought the Roman rite. By 664 the remaining Christian Celts and the Christianized invaders were ready to be reconciled. At the Synod of Whitby, the two churches united, resolving differences about the liturgical rites and the date of Easter (both in favor of Roman practice). There are almost no sources of liturgy or chant of the Celtic rite. The Bangor antiphoner is a manuscript of chant texts without notation dating from about 690 and brought to Italy. One hymn, Sancti, venite, has been matched to a melody found in a later source. Celtic rites endured in Scotland until the eleventh century and in Ireland until the twelfth century.

    The term Anglo-Saxon chant is a misnomer. As soon as the Angles and Saxons were converted, they followed the Roman rite that St. Augustine brought. The term Frankish chant is also a misnomer. As soon as the Franks were converted, they began to use the Gallican rite.

    The term Sarum chant does not refer to a distinct rite. Until the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century, it was normal for most countries and many dioceses to have their own liturgical use. A use is not a separate rite; it is distinguished mainly by its calendar, which includes numerous local saints, and by the slight variations in text and chant that invariably occurred in manuscript transmission. By the thirteenth century the use of Sarum (the Salisbury diocese) had been adopted all over England. In the nineteenth century, the Anglo-Catholic movement in the Church of England singled out the chants of the Sarum use (published in 1528 and 1532) as their liturgical heritage.


    Fr. Jerome F. Weber