University of Florida Online Master's in Music
Advertise on ChoralNet 
ChoralNet logo
The mission of the ACDA is to inspire excellence in choral music through education, performance, composition, and advocacy.

Gregorian Chant: Primer

Date: Fri, 2 Aug 1991 22:55:57 GMT
From: Donald J Casadonte
Subject: Tutorial on Gregorian Chant I: Necessary background


Gregorian chant was a music designed to be sung in very specific settings,
and in order to understand Chant it is necessary to understand at least the
outlines of these settings. Gregorian chant was the principle music used in
worship services for the first thousand years of Christianity. These
worship settings may be divided into two general classes of liturgy: the
Mass (the celebration of the Lord's supper), and the Divine Officies
(structured readings of Psalms and other sacred texts). In this tutorial we
shall give an introduction to the structure and history of these two
liturgical classes, and attempt to show how chant functioned in both.


Although the precise history of the early Christian church is uncertain, it
is likely, given its development from Judaism, that a considerable portion
of its worship rituals were derived from the Jewish synagogue services.
The synagogue service of the early Christian era was divided into readings
from the Scriptures, a sermon, the singing of psalms, the saying of
prayers, and the singing of songs of praise. There were generally two
readings: one from the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old
Testament), and the other from the Prophets. In the Jewish Temple services,
the psalms were said with some degree of temporal organization (centain
psalms were linked to certain days. The particular habit of saying
specific psalms in some sort of temporal order will be continued more
specifically in the Divine Offices, which we shall examine later).

This tradition of temporally organizing certain aspects of the worship may
have been carried on in early Christianity, eventually providing the
impetus to create a seasonal organization to the worship services. What is
certain is that by the time Chant developed into full maturity, the worship
services for the Church had become seasonally organized according to the
principle events in the life of Christ. We shall return to this in a

The early Church services were divided into two parts: the first part was
meant for neophytes (so-called *Catachumens*, or learners) and unbelievers,
as well as believers and had a pedagogical role as well as a liturgical
one; it was modeled on the remnents of the synagogue rituals (the
*Synaxis*). The second part was reserved for the faithful (the *Eucharist*
or *Lord's Supper*), and was of purely Christian origin. A basic
organization (borrowed from Seay [1]) of this embyronic service was:

Synaxis [usually conducted in a synagogue]
1. A greeting chanted by the elder, responded to by the congregation.
2. The reading of three scripture passages in cantillation [singing to
standard formulae,D.C.], separated by the singing of psalms in a
responsorial manner. Originally, the first first reading was from the
Pentateuch, and the second from the Prophets as before, but readings from
the New Testament were gradually substituted for the latter. The third
reading, a Christian addition to the [two] Jewish original, was always from
the New Testament. The choice of psalms depended on the content of these
3. A sermon, or sermons, preached by certain preists and the bishop.
4. Dismissal of those present who were not full-fledged Christians.

Eucharist [usually conducted in private homes]
1. Prayers of the faithful.
2. Offerings of various kinds placed on the altar, followed by prayers
over the gifts by the clergy.
3. Communion, the breaking of the bread and the distribution of the bread
and wine, followed by a psalm.
4. A final prayer and dismissal.

Of necessity, due to the persecution of Christians in the early Christian
era (until the time of Constantine, ca. 313), most of the rites had to be
simple and brief. After the acceptance of Christianity by Constantine (the
Edict of Milan, 313 A.D.) the liturgy began to expand and many urban
centers developed their own refinements from the embryonic rite. It is
beyond the scope of this tutorial to explain the dissemination of the
liturgy in the various cultures and languages of the early Church, forming
the different rites such as the Roman, Ambrosian, Mozarabic, Celtic, Sarum,
and Gallican (although in the embryonic rite, Greek had been a common
unifying language). In time Latin of the Roman rite became the standard
language for all of the liturgies (mostly due to the influence of
Charlemagne during the *Carolingian Renaissance*). The older name
*Eucharista* became replaced by the term Missa [or Mass], taken from the
last line of the closing benediction: Ite, Missa Est [ is finished].

In order to show how the Mass expanded from the embryonic fourth century
form to its form in the eleventh century, it will help to have a bit of
terminology relating to the final Mass form at our disposal. There are
parts of the Mass which do not change from Mass said on one day to the
next. These parts are called *ordinary* (as in common or every-day) and
these parts are always said in the same way regardless of other
circumstances. Then, there are parts of the rite which have a certain
amount of structural or contextual stability (i.e., the rite has a certain
general intention), but allow more flexibility in the exact words, and so
often words appropriate to a specific day are said, keeping the original
intention or mood. For instance, a simple "thank you" may be said very
briefly to one's mother on most days of the year, but tend to become a bit
more elaborate on Thanksgiving or Mother's Day. Those parts of the Mass
which have a specific intention but tailor the words to honor a specific
occasion, such as the honoring of a saint, are called the *proper* of the
Mass, since the exact words (if not the sentiments) are proper for a
specific day or circumstance.

With these definitions in Mind, let us restate the embryonic Mass using
some of the specific names for the parts of the prayers which developed at
that time, and then show how the service expanded in its final form

Fore-Mass/Mass of the Catachumens
1. Introductory greeting
2. Lesson 1: the Prophets
3. Responsorial Psalm
4. Lesson 2: Epistle {usually a reading from the Acts of the Apostles}
5. Responsorial Psalm
6. Lesson 3: Gospel
7. Sermon
8. Prayer
9. Dismissal of Catachumens

Sacrifice-Mass/Communion (Eucharist) of the Faithful
1. The offering of gifts Offertory
2. Prayer over the gifts Secret
3. Eucharistic prayers of praise {Preface (changeable)
and consecration Sanctus (fixed)
Canon (fixed) }
4. Communion rites
5. Psalm accompanying communion {Communion}
of the faithful
6. Prayer {Postcommunion}
7. Dismissal of the faithful {Ite, Missa Est}

LATIN MASS [Fore-Mass:1-9, Eucharist: 10-18]

Ordinary Proper Unsung
1. Introit
2. Kyrie eleison
3. Gloria in excelsis Deo
4. Collect*(P)
5. Epistle*(P)
6. Gradual
7. Alleluia or Tract
8. Sequence at Easter
9. Gospel*(P)
10. Credo
11. Offertory rites:
Prayers and Psalm 25
(Little canon)
12. Preface*(P)
13. Sanctus-Benedictus
14. Canon (O)
elevation of
the host
15. Agnus Dei
16. Communion
17. Post-communion(P)
18. Ite, Missa Est(O)
19. Benedicamus Domino

In this outline, the structure relative to the embryonic Mass is:

Entrance Ceremonies
Service of Readings

Offertory rites
Eucharistic Prayers
Communion cycle

O=ordinary, P=proper, *=if unsung, stated to a reciting tone, not merely

The next step in understanding the structure of the Mass is to explain the
contents of the ordinary, since they never change, and then attempt to
explain the intricacies of the proper portion of the Mass by explaining the
Church year, and the individual days assigned in it for the veneration of
saints. When this is done, it should be possible to locate any given Mass
chant in its proper place in the confines of the Mass.

The Ordinary of the Mass is constituted basically of those elements of
the Mass which are fixed and stable, rarely changing from one Mass to the
next (although they were elaborated on and extended in later chant by a
process known as *Troping*, of which we shall have more to say later). A
person attending a Mass on any given day would hear the same words spoken
or sung for the portions of the Ordinary as he or she would have heard the
day before, or the week before. Thus, they form a system of fixed "mental
pegs" in the proceedings of the Mass.

Since the words are sometimes difficult to locate for the Ordinary
portions of the Roman Mass as they eventually became codified in the
eleventh century (unless one happens to own a latin *Missale*, i.e., a book
which contains the texts of the Mass, or a *Graduale*, which contains the
chanted text), we shall list below the text of the Ordinary of the Mass and
supply a free translation. Obviously, prior to the codification of the Mass
in the eleventh century there was somewhat free adaptation, partial
quotation, variant quotation, etc. of the relatively fixed wording which
will be listed below. Beyond the twelfth century one could expect to hear
the text pretty much as listed below. This, then, is the same text that
both St.Thomas Aquinas, living in the thirteenth century (d. 1274), and
Josquin des Prez, living in the sixteenth century (d. 1521) would have

[ A translation of the Ordinary of the Mass can be found on the
Choralist Resource Site in the directory /repertory/texts/ under the
filename: masstxt.txt ]

These were the words most often used for the "Mass settings" of composers
until the late twentieth century, when the vernacular came into common
usage. In chant settings, these texts were sung in ways which reflect
their length, generally speaking. The Gloria and Credo tended to be very
simple with each stress receiving a pitch. The Kyrie, Sanctus, and Agnus
Dei were often set in many notes per word stress.


The Proper parts of the Mass were elements of the Mass, each of which
had a general "idea" to it, but the exact expression was allowed to be
varied from occasion to occasion. A crude nonliturgical example would be a
"canned" commencement speech. The speaker would change the words slightly
to honor the students and the particular situations of the university he
happened to be delivering the address at on that particular day.

If, for example, in the Mass, you were the priest, and at the
beginning needed to get from the back of the church (by the steps usually)
to the front of the church to where the altar were, you might chant an
entrance song, called an *Introit* while you were processing to the front.
Let us say that the idea of the entrance song were to give glory to God.
Then, on the solemn feast of Christmas, one might chant words to the
effect: Let us give glory to God in the birth of His Son,this night...If
the day were, say, January 6th, the feast of the Epihany, one might,
instead, chant: Let us give thanks to God in the witness of the Magi...

The above is not to be construed to be the content of the real
Introits which were used, but merely a fictitious illustration. How were
the "topics" of the Proper portions (the portions proper for a specific
day) determined? Usually these topics were chosen in reference to one of
two concurrently running yearly cycles. The first, known as the *Proper of
Time* (Proprium de Tempore), was a yearly cycling through the major events
in the life of Christ. The second cycle, known as the *Proper of Saints*
(Proprium Sanctorum), involved a yearly, repetitious listing of "birthdays"
of the Saints of the Church (in monastic settings, a "birthday" was often
thought to be the day the saint entered into Heaven, and thus the day of
his or her death on earth). Generally, since both of these two cycles were
running concurrently, honoring God each in its way, it was not uncommon
that they should overlap, and occasionally a birthday of a saint would
occur on the same day as a day specifically set aside to honor an event in
the life of Christ.

In this case, there was an elaborate ranking system to let the priest
or abbot know which of the possible celebrations were of most importance in
the eyes of the Church. Of the greatest single importance was the *Solemn
Feast*. Sundays, being acommemoration of the resurrection, are always a
solemn feast in the Church calendar. Likewise, Christmas, which does not
necessarily fall on a Sunday (bieng determined by astronomical calendar
date) is also a solemn feast. If a saint's birthday happened to fall on a
sunday, the Priest was obligated to celebrate the Resurrection rather than
the birthday of the saint (the exception being in monastic orders, where
the birthday of the founding saint is counted as a solemn feast *within the
order* so that *they* may chose to celebrate either one of the two possible
celebrations for that day).

Proceeding in order of importance, there is the solemn feast, the
feast, the memorial, the optional memorial, the commemoration, the ordinary
(which may be replaced by a votive celebration). This last ranking
deserves some commentary. The term *ordinary* used here is not to be
confused with the Ordinary (capital letters) of the Mass. Both refer to
or mean, "common" or undifferentiated, but in the case of celebration
rankings, this refers to a day on which there is no specific thing to
commemorate, i.e., the day is unclaimed or unassigned. It is an "ordinary"
day. When such a day occurs, the priest or abbot, at his discretion may
elect (votive=to chose) to celebrate an optional Mass of celebration, or
simply use the Mass assigned for the day.

To help keep the calendar ordering clear, let us look for a moment at
the two overlapping cycles. The Proper of Saints generally uses fixed
days. In modern calendars, August 28 is the feast of St. Augustine. It is
always his feast day. The point here is that the date remains the same,
but the day may vary. This year, 1991, it occured on a Wednesday. Last
year, it was on a Tuesday, etc. I will not attempt to list the Proper of
Saints used during the flowering days of chant, partially because I don't
have those dates available at the moment, and partially because the idea in
any event should be obvious.

The Proper of Time, the yearly cyclic re-living by the Church of, the
immersion of the Church into, the life of Christ, is organized into three
basic sections: Christmas, Easter, and "Ordinary Time". The Church
calendar is divided into three major sections: Christmas, Easter, and
Ordinary Time. Each of these three sections has a period of *preparation*,
the actual *event*, and a period of *elaboration*.

Christmas time actually begins with the four Sundays before Christmas.
As such, this means that Christmas time may begin anywhere from November 27
to December 3. This pre-Christmas season is called *Advent*, and the weeks
are numbers, :The first week of Advent, the second week...," etc." Then,
December 25 is the *event*-i.e., Christmas(preceeded by Christmas Eve on
December 24, or more properly, vespers on Dec. 25 to vespers on Dec.
24...more on this concept later).

After the *event*, the week following Christmas (called
*Christmastide*) is correctly considered an extension of Christmas, and is
celebrated using much of the same material as on Christmas day (i.e.,
similar Proper portions). January 1 in the old calendar was the Feast of
the Circumcision ( i.e., the Presentation at the temple). January 6 is the
Feast of the Epiphany. Both of these are fixed dates, and it should be
noted that indeed this week after Christmas, and following days to the
Epiphany, as well, suggests that there used to be a connection between the
proper of saints, with its fixed date scheme, and the proper of time, with
its fixed day scheme, because there are no less than five major feasts in
the proper of time which are listed according to *dates* within this
period, and not merely fixed by days. Some of these include: the Feast of
the Holy Innocents, The Feast of John the Baptist, the Feast of St. Steven
(I believe), etc.

The period after the Feast of the Epiphany falls into Ordinary (or
undifferentiated) time, and has no set theme. This period may be one to six
weeks in length, because of the astronomically based reckoning of the next
major division (Easter).

Easter is determined to be (I seem to have forgotten this method for
arriving at the exact date, but my best recollection is) the first Sunday
after the full moon following the vernal equinox (Mar.21). Since the lunar
cycle is approximately 28 days, this gives a four week spread in the
possible dates.

The period of *preparation*, called *Lent* is reckoned from the date
of easter, and may occur anywhere from Jan.-18- Feb 22. for its start. The
first day of Lent is always on a Wednesday, and is called *Ash
Wednesday*(drawn from the point in the Mass ceremony (Proper to this day
alone) where ashes, reminiscent of the custom of dressing in sackcloth and
sitting in ashes, such as done by the king of Ninevah at the preaching of
Jonah, are placed on the foreheads of the congregation in the Sign of the
Cross while the words, "Remember, oh man, thou art dust, and unto dust thou
shalt return", are said). Then, in reference to the forty days in which
Jonah was in the belly of the whale, and the forty days of fasting by Jesus
in the desert before He began His public ministry, the Church sets aside
next forty days (Lent), as a period of fasting, prayer, and prayer. The
first Sunday of the Lenten period( after Ash Wednesday) is called,
appropriately, Quadragesima (meaning 40 days, in latin), although, properly
there are 46 days until Easter, but the six Sundays, which are not counted
as days of fast are not included in the penitential days. The three
Sundays before Ash Wednesday, interestingly, are named Septuagesima,
Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima, in reference to the first Sunday after Lent
begin (i.e., the 70th, 60th, 50th days although, of course, this is only

There are then the second through fourth Sundays of Lent, each of
which having a more or less specific theme. Then, two weeks before Easter
is Passion Sunday, and the Sunday prior to Easter, commemorating the Entry
into Jeruselem, is called Palm Sunday in reference to the laying of palm
branches into the path of the ass leading Jesus into Jeruselem.

This week (called *Holy Week*), including Palm Sunday, begins the most
solemn week of the Church year leading up to the *Sacred Triduum*, which
are the three days (triduum, in latin) of Maundy (Holy) Thursday, Good
Friday, and Holy Saturday. Lent technically ends at Vespers of Maundy
Thursday, and the Scared Triduum begins. Mass is not said on Good Friday
(as it is a celebration of the Resurrrection), but a special Mass, the Mass
of the Presanctified is said, instead, using the Host which was consecrated
the day before.

The *event*, Easter, is preceeded by the Easter Vigil, the night
before. The week following Easter is, in analogy with Christmas, known as
Eastertide. The *prolongation* includes,the Sunday following Easter, known
as Low Sunday, two through five Sundays after Easter, Ascension Thursday,
40 days after Easter, the Sunday after the Ascension, Pentecost, fifty days
after Easter, and the week after Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, the first
Sunday after Pentecost, and the Feast of Corpus Christi (Body of Christ),
the Thursday after Trinity Sunday.

Then begins *Ordinary Time*, which is a period of undifferentiated
Sundays which contain individually specified lesoons from the life of
Christ. There may be 23-28 of these, depending upon how the calendar
falls, and these lead back to the beginning of Advent.

Thus, a typical calendar year would resemble (see Hoppin, Medieval

*Nativity Section or Christmas Cycle*

4 Sundays

Christmas Eve

Feast of the Circumcision
Feast of the Epiphany

*Ordinary Time*
1-6 weeks

*Easter Section or Cycle*

3 Sundays before (Septuagesima, etc.)
Lent: Ash Wednesday
Qudruagesima, etc.
2-4 Sundays
Passion Sunday
Palm Sunday
Holy Week

Easter Vigil
Easter Week

Low Sunday
2-5 Sundays
Acsension Thursday
Sunday after Acsension
Pentecost Week
Trinity Sunday
Corpus Christi

*Ordinary Time*
23-28- weeks

Using both the Proper of Time (also known as the Church calendar
which we have been discussing, see how painless that was to learn!) and the
Proper of Saints, it is possible to locate any of the specific prayers
which neede to be said for the Mass of that day (The Proper).

Before moving onto the Proper, it may be helpful to have a bit of
extra terminology. There are several different types of Masses:

Missa solemnis: the Solemn, or High Mass, in which everything is sung with
a deacon chanting the Gospel, and the subdeacon the Epistle.

Missa cantata: the sung Mass without the deacon and subdeacon.

Missa lecta: the Low Mass, i.e., the Mass without singing.

Missa pro defunctis: The Requiem or Burial Mass. The Gloria and Credo is
omitted. The Alleluia is replaced by a Tract followed by the Dies irae
(Day of Fire), and a special Agnus Dei is said.

Votive Mass: A Mass of private devotion (see above).

Missa pro Sponso et Sponsa: the Nuptual Mass

Mass of the Presanctified: see above.
*Also, some terminology*:

Ferial (feria): a weekday with no festival (c.f. ordinary in the Proper of
Saints). Originally, Sunday was known as Feria I, Monday, feria II, etc.

Octave: eight days following, and including a feast.

Ember: a day of fasting and prayer (e.g. lenten fridays)

Rogation: three days before Ascension Thurday

Vigil: Evening of a Feast c.f. Eve

Eve: vespers to vespers before a celebration

Now, the Proper is determined for whatever takes precidence in the Proper
of Time or the Proper of Saints for that day, as we have seen. I will
summarize the function of the Proper parts.

This was an entering song, sung as the Celebrant (bishop or priest)
made his way from the steps outside of the church into the church proper,
down the aisle, and up to the altar.

On a typical Sunday, there is a reading from the Old Testament, a
reading from the new Testament (the Epistle), and then the Gospel reading.
The Gradual and Alleluia are prayers which separate these three readings:

OT Grad NT All (Sequence) Gospel

The Gradual was usually psalm-based. The Alleluia (from the Hebrew,
meaning, "Praise, Ye, Jehovah") was followed by a commentary, called a
Sequence, which developed somewhat late (the earliest recorded example is
the ninth century), usually on the Gospel text. During Lent the Alleluia
is never said, but a penitential prayer, called the *Tract* is substituted.

Music sung while gifts were brought to the altar. In the pre-
Christian times, this would have been the presentation of the fatted calf.
Here, the Host, to become the body of Christ (the Lamb of God) is
substituted, as well as offerings of the fruits of labor from the

Music sung en masse by the congregation during the reception of the
Host by the congregation.