Church Music Association of America

Gregorian Chant as a Paradigm of Sacred Music

Sacred Music Spring 2006, Volume 133, No. 1, pp. 5-14

by William Mahrt

We could all agree that the liturgy should be beautiful, yet this is a question that rarely receives much attention, and this lack of attention has meant that some important aspects of the role of music have been forgotten. But what constitutes the beauty of the liturgy? What, even, do we mean by “beauty” in the context of the liturgy? The scholastics gave complementary definitions of beauty, “those things which when seen please,”1 and “splendor formae.”2 The first describes what happens when beauty is apprehended—delight; the second gets at what it is that delights us—showing forth in a clear and radiant way the very nature of the thing. In the liturgy, music has a fundamental role in showing forth its nature, a role which traditional liturgical documents support.

One of the most fundamental papal documents about sacred music is the Motu proprio of St. Pius X, Tra le sollecitudini of November 22, 1903. It contains formulations which have been the basis of papal statements ever since. In it, St. Pius gives three characteristics of sacred music; these are often summarized as holiness, beauty, and universality, but their specific wording is instructive. His statement is usually translated “Sacred music must, therefore, possess in the highest degree the qualities which characterize the liturgy. In particular it must possess holiness and beauty of form: from these two qualities a third will spontaneously arise—universality.”3 Yet this is not quite an accurate translation, for the original Italian reads “bontà delle forme,” very literally, “excellence of forms” in the plural (“bonitate formarum” in the Latin text).4 The plural is later evoked in a more explicit statement: “Each part of the Mass and the Office must keep, even in the music, that form and character which it has from tradition, and which is very well expressed in Gregorian chant. Therefore introits, graduals, antiphons, psalms, hymns, the Gloria in excelsis, etc, will be composed each in their own way.”5All three of St. Pius’s qualities are intimately related to the music of the liturgy.

Holiness: Music is an intrinsic part of the projection of the sacredness of the liturgy. “Sacred” means being set aside for a particular purpose, in the liturgy the establishment of its unique purposes, “the glorification of God and the edification and sanctification of the faithful.” It does this in two important ways: By setting the texts of the liturgy to singing, even the prayers and lessons, it provides the entire liturgy an elevated tone of voice that conveys its special character, presenting its texts “as on a platter of gold,” in the words of Fr. Jungmann. 6 The sense of the sacred is also conveyed by the fact that the music does not resemble anything from the everyday world, but conveys the clear impression that what is taking place belongs to its own special realm.

Universality: Gregorian chant is universal in two different ways. By being a sacred musical language, it is supra national, accessible to those of any culture equally. But its traditional place in the sacred liturgy has always insured that the members of the Church grew up hearing this sacred musical language so that it was received naturally as a part of the liturgy.

Bontà delle forme: The sense of St. Pius’s text surely admits a principal role for the beautiful in general. Indeed, the beauty of music is a crucial element in the “edification and sanctification of the faithful.” Beauty is the glue that holds the truth and goodness to their tasks; to paraphrase Hans Urs von Balthasar, without beauty, the truth does not persuade, goodness does not compel.7 Beauty is that which synthesizes diverse elements into a unity, and that is the general function of music in the liturgy, to draw together a diverse succession of actions into a coherent whole. Likewise, the beauty of music is capable of serving a range of sacred expressions, praise, lamentation, exaltation, and so forth. Still, I propose that St. Pius’s wording has a more precise sense: the differentiation of forms is an essential part of the beauty of liturgical music; each chant has its own musical and textual form as it functions as an introit, gradual, and the like, and its liturgical beauty, its splendor formae, includes distinguishing that part from the others, while at the same time it projects a significant feature of that part itself.

Pope John Paul II has expressed this intimate connection between music and liturgical actions in his Chirograph on the Centenary of the Motu Proprio:

Liturgical music must meet the specific prerequisites of the Liturgy: full adherence to the text it presents, synchronization with the time and moment in the Liturgy for which it is intended, appropriately reflecting the gestures proposed by the rite. The various moments in the Liturgy require a musical expression of their own. From time to time this must fittingly bring out the nature proper to a specific rite, now proclaiming God’s marvels, now expressing praise, supplication or even sorrow for the experience of human suffering which, however, faith opens to the prospect of Christian hope.8

The intimate relation of music and liturgy in Gregorian chant was proposed as a model by St. Pius X; to this end he articulated a specific rule: “the more closely a Church composition approaches Gregorian Chant in movement, inspiration, and feeling, the more holy and liturgical it becomes; and the more it deviates from this supreme model, the less worthy it is of the temple.”9 This establishes Gregorian chant as a paradigm of sacred music—a model to which all other sacred music is to be compared. I shall attempt to demonstrate how this is so in the following.

It is sometimes said by well-meaning commentators that Gregorian chant is the ideal setting of its text; nothing could be farther from the mark, for each Gregorian genre shows a distinctly different manner of setting the text—each Gregorian chant is an ideal adaptation of its text to its specific liturgical purpose. This variety of text setting can be described in terms of two specific musical characteristics: syllabic density and melodic placement. By syllabic density, I mean how many notes occur on a syllable. This can be distinguished by four categories: 1) recitative—several syllables to a single pitch, as in a psalm tone; 2) syllabic—each syllable receives a single discrete note; 3) neumatic—several syllables receive a group of notes, two, or three, or sometimes a few more, a neume; and 4) melismatic—some individual syllables receive a long series of notes, a melisma. These differences correspond to the different ways the music is important to the delivery of the text. For example, recitative—the reiteration of many syllables on a single pitch—is important when texts are to be delivered for their own sake, as in the psalms in the divine office or the lessons at Mass. On the other hand a melismatic style—many notes to certain few syllables—is important when the text is the basis for an effect of reflection and meditation, such as at the gradual of the Mass.

By melodic placement, I mean where important pitches or melismas fall in the text. Take for example two settings of the following psalm verse (Ps. 91:12):10

The first is the melody to which this verse might be sung as part of the singing of the whole psalm in the divine office. Aside from the recitative delivery of most of the text, the music makes an inflection on the last accented syllable of each half-line of the text, its cadence; the final cadence includes a preparatory inflection of two syllables before the accent. This takes account of what is intrinsic to the text; it articulates the bi-partite structure of the psalm text and allows for a fluid performance of a whole psalm without significant delay. The second melody is a setting of the same text as it is used as a versicle and response in the divine office. Here, the text serves a secondary purpose: its function is articulation—at the conclusion of a major section of the office, it functions like a musical semicolon or period. Now the melodic activity is added to the final unaccented syllable of the text; its function is decorative, and the slight prolongation of the unimportant syllable quietly emphasizes its decorative function. In the first melody, the melodic inflection underlines a significant aspect of the text—its cadence accent; in the second, the melisma is added to the text only when the text has been completely stated. This end-melisma is an important aspect of Gregorian music and can be seen in a number of different contexts below. Thus the music can underline the rhythm of the text by projecting its pattern of accented and unaccented syllables, or it can depart from the text by placing melismas upon the final unaccented syllables of words; the use of one or the other of these is a significant point of differentiation of the styles and thus of the liturgical function of Gregorian music.

Recitative is the style of the singing of the lessons for the Mass. This allows these texts to be projected clearly in a natural speech rhythm free from the exaggerated emphases sometimes heard from inexperienced readers; it projects the sacred character of the text and, through characteristic melodic patterns, differentiates the three kinds of lesson. These melodies consist of a reciting tone, with a cadence for the middle of a sentence and one for the end.11

For prophecies, the middle cadence descends a half step; the final cadence, a fifth. The descending cadences recall the slightly negative character of prophecy. The descent of a fifth imitates the call of a trumpet and suits the prophecy. The middle cadence, being only a half step, rings over in a live acoustic and projects a slight harshness, also a suitable character for a prophecy. The tone for an epistle has quite a different character, one that reflects the hortatory tone of epistles, especially those of St. Paul. Its formulae are based upon the last two accented syllables, thus reflecting the pattern of a formal Latin cadence, and this is the basis of its rhetorical effect, suited to that of the epistle. The Gospel tone is surprisingly simple, having only an inflection for the end of a sentence. This inflection is independent of the accent of the text, falling on the fourth last syllable of the line, and its motion is ascending. The simplicity of this tone projects well the simplicity of the Gospel, and its independence from accent gives the rising cadence an element of elevation that perfectly suits its text. The succession of these three lection tones creates a sense of progression, the first whose cadences fall, the second, whose cadences rise more than they fall, and the third, whose cadences unambiguously rise, privileging the gospel as the culmination of the sequence of the lessons.

The tones for the prayers of the Mass set three quite different kinds of prayer: the collects, the preface, and the Lord’s Prayer, and they do this by differentiating these three types in importance, progressing from a simple recitative style for the collects to a completely syllabic melody for the Lord’s Prayer.

The collects are bipartite texts with a close logical connection between the two clauses, following a general pattern, O God, who . . . , grant that . . . , with the petition relating to the attribute addressed in the first clause. This connection is expressed in the melodies, which at the cadence in the middle bring the tone around to the second clause. The ancient solemn tone makes use of a whole step formula, while the more modern festal tone uses a minor third inflection. Together, these two tones comprise the principal pitches of all the prayer melodies: G-a and a-b-c. The preface is a much more rhetorical prayer and more extended than the collects; its melody is also more rhetorical; while it is recitative in its projection of its texts, its cadences make use of neumes to create greater emphasis and motion at the cadences. The fact that the melody uses the same pitches as the collects makes it easy for the listener, without having to reflect upon it, to realize that this prayer has a continuity with those which went before, and yet, because its melody is more elaborate, that this prayer is more important. The Lord’s Prayer makes use of the same vocabulary of pitches as the previous prayers; but this is a completely discrete melody, not just a recitation formula; it is almost entirely syllabic in its setting. Again, the common repertory of pitches makes the comparison evident: this, the most developed of the three prayer melodies, comes as a culmination of all of these prayers, that prayer taught by Our Lord himself, occurring upon the completion of the Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass.

The genre with the simplest syllabic style is that of the psalm antiphon in the divine office; one such antiphon sets the same Ps. 91:12 as illustrated above.15
The extensive repertory of psalm antiphons16 represents a remarkable solution to a musico-liturgical problem. The problem is: what kind of music suits the singing of all hundred fifty psalms in a week? The historical answer is the Gregorian psalm tone: eight very simple recitative tones to which all the psalms are sung.17 The simplicity of these tones means that the efficient singing of the psalms is not hindered by the need to pay much attention to the melodies; rather, they serve as a neutral medium for the elevated delivery of these texts by a community singing in common, answering back and forth antiphonally. Their bipartite structure neatly provides for the characteristic parallelismus membrorum of the typical psalm verse,18 and their gentle rise and fall with a silent pause in the middle implies a motion of the soul upwards. The very neutral character of these melodies, though, suggests why there are antiphons to be sung before and after the performance of the whole psalm. These antiphons complement the neutral psalm tones by providing an interesting melody with a characteristic musical expression; what is lacking in melodic interest in the psalm tone is made up for by the antiphons. The antiphons themselves are for the most part quite modest melodies; in their proper place in the divine office, however, the musical complementarity they create is a unique feature of these offices.19

The differences between Psalm antiphons and Mass propers can be seen by comparing this antiphon with four different Mass proper chants, each of which sets that same text. The introit Justus ut palma differs remarkably from the psalm antiphon:20

In the psalm antiphon, the purely syllabic style is exceeded only upon a few accented syllables, which thus receive a two-note neume; in the introit, the neumatic style prevails, some of the accented syllables receiving five or six notes, many receiving more than one. The music of the chant extends the performance of the text substantially, and upon reflection, one must conclude that something more solemn and important is happening at this point in the liturgy than during the psalm antiphon. Indeed, the introit chant accompanies the entrance of the ministers into the church, their approach to the altar as the place of the Mass, the central liturgical act of the day, and the marking of the altar as a sacred place by incensing it. This processional act consists of purposeful motions, and the music itself projects a sense of motion. The neumatic style is best suited to this: the accentuation of the text is heightened by neumatic motion, but the text moves continually through its syllables, at a solemn, but motion-filled pace. The overall contour of the melody projects a sense of motion as well, particularly at “sicut cedrus Libani multiplicabitur,” where the melody rises from its lowest note to an octave higher upon the focal accent of the phrase, “ca-” of “multiplicabitur.” Seeing these two settings of “Justus ut palma” in juxtaposition makes it clear that their musical styles are quite distinct and serve very different liturgical purposes.

The offertory chant based upon the same text shows yet a further distinction of liturgical and musical style:21

Now the first syllable receives a melisma of twelve notes, and immediately the listener is alerted to a difference: this is a more extended chant even than the introit. Moreover, the last (unaccented) syllable of “palma” receives a melisma of sixteen notes. Here the principle of end-melisma is seen, and the chant departs slightly from its simple function of projecting the accent of the text; rather, the musical expression of the moment takes on a life of its own, the music departing ever so slightly from its text. In these circumstances, the expression is a more purely musical one. The differences between the introit and the offertory liturgically are two: the offertory precedes the more solemn part of the liturgy, and the motion at this point is much less than at the introit. True, the altar is incensed again, but if there is any procession, it is one of considerably less motion than at the introit. Rather, the mood at this point is one of greater reflection and introspection in preparation for the more solemn moments immediately to come. This more melismatic style perfectly reflects the mixture of processional motion with reflective anticipation characteristic of the offertory.

The truly melismatic chants, however, are the gradual and the alleluia. These serve a quite different purpose, complementing the singing of the lessons. The gradual on “Justus ut palma” shows a very different relation between melismas and the rest of the chant:22

Here several syllables follow in a row in recitation until the accented syllable “ré-” is reached, which then receives a melisma of eleven notes; these could have been distributed so that each syllable received a couple of notes; rather, the melisma is saved for the accent of the word “shall flourish.” Likewise, “Libani” receives a longer melisma upon its final unaccented note—a perfect example of end melisma. The rest of the chant proceeds likewise: the final melisma of the respond is thirty-one notes long; melismas in the verse are up to thirty-seven notes long. In this very different melismatic style, the purpose must also be very different. My own observation about the gradual is that with the singing of these chants under optimal conditions, all ambient noise in the church ceases, no rustling, no coughing; a pin-dropping silence witnesses to the fact that the attention of the entire congregation is upon listening to the music, and the effect of listening to it is one that elicits a kind of meditation: all distractions are set aside, the person is at repose, but thoroughly attentive. I have seen this effect only with melismatic chants, and I infer that this is an essential part of its liturgical purpose: this attentive repose elicited by the chants is a perfect preparation to hearing the lessons. When the lessons are sung, the continuity between the melismatic chants and the recitative lessons is established, and their complementarity is evident.

The alleluia is the quintessential melismatic chant. In fact, the word alleluia has as part of its music a jubilus, a long melisma sung on the last syllable of “Alleluia.” In the case of the alleluia that has the verse “Justus ut palma,” this melisma is fifty-one notes long. In the verse itself, there is one central melisma, on “cedrus”:23

With this melisma, it becomes very clear that the point of the music is not simply to set forth the text, but, as patristic commentators on the alleluia called it, “jubilare sine verbis,” to jubilate, or to sing a melisma, without words, to depart momentarily from the word in purely musical jubilation.24 There is never any question about the presence of the text; it is always there in its syllable, but I suspect that the composer has pushed the envelope to just before the breaking point—the melisma is long enough that the listener is almost ready to have forgotten what the word was. This extended melismatic writing serves two functions: first, it extends the purely musical aspect of the piece even farther than the gradual did; second, this, in turn, makes its purpose absolutely unambiguous: a more modestly melismatic chant might have been mistaken to have been just for the projection of its text, but here the melisma has been developed to the extent that one must acknowledge the alternate purpose—the alleluia is a meditation chant, whose melismatic style elicits an attentive repose that provides an effective, purposeful reflection on the lesson that has just been heard and a preparation for the hearing of the gospel which follows. Moreover, the progression from gradual to alleluia creates an increase of intensity that effectively underlines the sense of climax of which the singing of the gospel is the peak.

When it comes to the Ordinary of the Mass, a different principle obtains. Here the degree of elaboration characterizes the solemnity of the day. Melodies for the Ordinary allow some choice, there being eighteen sets of such melodies plus some optional alternatives ad lib. These sets of melodies are arranged in a generally hierarchical order, beginning with the most solemn. As a rule, the higher the degree of the feast, the more elaborate the chants for it. If the congregation sings the Ordinary, then they are afforded a sophisticated manner of participation: they are asked to sing more elaborate chants on higher feast days, and this enhances their role by making them participants in the substantive expression of the solemnity of the day.

The range of syllabic density demonstrated above suggests a further reflection upon the sacred character of the chant. If the normal pace of the delivery of the text is that of the chanting of a psalm to a psalm tone, then the somewhat slower pace of the Mass propers represents a slowing down of the time of the psalm. When it comes to the gradual and alleluia, the pace of the psalm text is considerably slowed down; this is a pace one can experience readily, since it is placed in direct juxtaposition with the lessons, which are sung at a recitative pace, just like the psalms of the office. In the case of the gradual and alleluia, this slowing down of the sacred text approaches at times a kind of stasis, and this stasis is as close as we may come to a sense of the suspension of the passage of time. In turn, this sense of the suspension of the passage of time is an intimation of the experience of eternity. In the contemplative state, things are viewed sub specie æternitatis, outside the passage of time; the liturgy provides this glimpse of eternity as a context for the hearing of the words of the sacred scripture.

Music thus contributes several things to the ordering of the liturgy: 1) it provides an elevated tone of voice that takes the texts out of the everyday and confirms them as sacred; 2) it differentiates each part of the liturgy from the other by musical styles that suit the very character of that part, allowing each to be perceived in its own liturgical functionality; 3) by distinguishing each part from the other, it clarifies the bontà delle forme, the excellence of the forms, contributing to the splendor formæ of the whole liturgy, its beauty; 4) this, in turn, when seen, pleases; it adds delight to prayer; and 5) it places the liturgy in the context of the transcendent and the eternal; this can only be through the use of music of the highest artistic quality and of uncompromised sacred character. It can only be through the use of music that is not mere utility music. Cardinal Ratzinger spoke of utility music:

A Church which only makes use of “utility” music has fallen for what is, in fact, useless. . . . For her mission is a far higher one. As the Old Testament speaks of the Temple, the Church is to be the place of “glory,” and as such, too, the place where mankind’s cry of distress is brought to the ear of God. The Church must not settle down with what is merely comfortable and serviceable at the parish level, she must arouse the voice of the cosmos and, by glorifying the Creator, elicit the glory of the cosmos itself, making it also glorious, beautiful, habitable, and beloved.25

Thus, the intimate relation of musical styles to liturgical function, whether in lessons or prayers, proper chants or ordinary, is a most purposeful use of music in showing forth in a clear and radiant way the nature of the liturgical actions themselves; it is the most fundamental projection of the beauty of the liturgy. The other arts, architecture, painting, vestments, and the arts of movement each contribute to and support the beauty of the liturgy, but still the art of music is “greater even than that of any other art,” because it “forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy,”26 because it is so intimately bound to the sacred action, defining and differentiating the various parts in character, motion, and importance.


William Mahrt is Associate Professor of Music at Stanford University, President of the Church Music Assocation of America, and editor of Sacred Music. Email: mahrt@stanford@edu. Membership dues for the Church Music Association of America are $30 per year.

1 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologica, tr. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New York: Benziger, 1947), Pt. 1, Q5, Art. 4, Reply Obj. 1; Vol I, p. 26.

2 St. Albert the Great, De pulchro et bono, I, 2c; cf. Umberto Eco, The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas, tr. Hugh Bredin (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988), pp. 45, 234; and Jacques Maritain, Art and Scholasticism, tr. J. F. Scanlon (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1947), p. 20.

3 St. Pius X, Tra le sollecitudini, ¶2, in Papal Teachings: The Liturgy, selected and arranged by the Benedictine Monks of Solesmes, translated by the Daughters of St. Paul (Boston: St. Paul Editions, 1962), pp. 179–80.

4 Acta sanctae sedis, 36 (1903), pp. 332ff.

5 Tra le sollecitudini, ¶10,p. 183.

6 Josef Andreas Jungmann, S.J., The Mass of the Roman Rite, tr. Francis A. Brunner, 2 vols. (New York: Benziger, 1951, 1955), Vol. I, p. 409.

7 Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, Vol. I: Seeing the Form, tr. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, ed. Joseph Fessio, S.J., & John Riches (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1982), p. 19.

8 John Paul, II, Chirograph for the Centenary of the Motu Proprio “Tra le Sollecitudini” on Sacred Music, November 22, 2003, ¶5

9 Tra le sollecitudini, ¶3, p. 180.

10 These melodies on this text were first discussed in Peter Wagner, Gregorianische Formenlehre: Eine choralische Stilkunde, Einführung in die Gregorianischen Melodien: Ein Handbuch der Choralwissenschaft, vol. 3 (Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1921; reprint, Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1970), pp. 7–13.

11 For the details of singing these lesson tones, see Liber Usualis (Tournai: Desclée, 1962), pp. 102–107.

12. For the detals of singing these prayer tones, see Liber, pp. 98-102
13. Missale Romanum, edito typica tertia (Vatican City: Typis Vaticanis, 2002), p. 156.
14. Missale Romanum, p. 597.

15 Antiphonaire monastique, XIIe siècle, Codex 601 de la Bibliothèque caplitulaire de Lucques, Paléographie musicale, IX (Solesmes: Abbaye Saint-Pierre, 1906; reprint, Berne: Herbert Lang & Cie., 1974), p. 524 [481].

16 The Roman antiphonaryfor the day hours contains 1256 antiphons; the night office, 483; Antiphonale sacrosanctæ Romanæ ecclesiæ pro diurnis horis (Tournai: Desclée, 1949) and Nocturnale Romanum: Antiphonale sacrosanctæ Romanæ ecclesiæ pro nocturnis horis (Cologne: Hartker Verlag, 2002).

17 For example, the eighth tone shown above for Ps. 91:12. For the system of psalm tones, see Liber, pp. 112–118 and pp. 128–220.

18 Cf. Erich Werner, “Psalm, I:3,” in New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie (New York: Macmillan, 1980), Vol. 15, p. 321; Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry (New York: Basic Books, 1985).

19 The intimate relation between musical style and liturgical function suggests that these psalm tones are not suitable for the responsorial psalm of the Mass, a topic I will return to in a later article.

20 Liber, 1204.

21 Liber, 1193.

22 Liber, 1201.

23 Liber, 1207.

24 Cf. Walter Wiora, “Jubilare sine verbis,” in In memoriam Jacques Handschin, ed. Higini Anglès et al.(Strassburg: P.H. Heitz, 1962), pp. 32–65.

25 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, “On the Theological Basis of Church Music,” in The Feast of Faith, pp. 113–126 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), p. 124.

26 Constitution on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, ¶112, International Committee on English in the Liturgy, Documents on the Liturgy, 1963–1979: Conciliar, Papal, and Curial Texts (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1982), p. 23.

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