Friday, October 20, 2006

The Alleged Gregorian Legend

In the literature on Gregorian chant, a phrase keeps appearing: "The Gregorian Legend." What is and is not legend, however, is a very complicated question, as I'm discovering.

This issue came up in the debate for the stable version of the Wikipedia entry on Gregorian Chant. The early versions seemed to dismiss Gregory's role entirely, in the way that a snotty skeptic might say the following at a cocktail party: "You know, it is a complete myth that Gregory had anything to do with what we call Gregorian chant. That music was imposed on the world by imperial edict centuries following Gregory, and his name was only attached to it as a way of enhancing its prestige—or at least, that's the opinion of the best scholarship."

At which point you toss the contents of your martini at him.

The final release of the entry toned it all down, and now attributes a high role to Gregory to "traditionalists" who believe everything in the old Catholic Encyclopedia.

What is the source of all the anxiety on this question? Part of it derives from the scholarly impulse to trust evidence over tradition, and that's fine as far as it goes. But there is also a lot of old-fashioned iconoclasm at work too. Apparently the series of medieval paintings with the Holy Spirit dictating to Pope St. Gregory I (540-604) has annoyed scholars for the last hundred years, and the debate has raged in journals and books all this time.

Really, there are two separate questions. First, did the Holy Spirit dictate the chants in total to Pope Gregory such that he can be considered the sole author? If anyone ever proposed such a thing (I find no evidence that anyone did), the answer is clearly no. So far as I can tell, this is the claim that the phrase "Gregorian Legend" refers to, and not the second and more important issue: to what extent and in what respect was Gregory involved in encouraging the use of chant, adding chants into the liturgy, edited cycles of chants for the year, compiling chants for use, and otherwise systematizing and spreading chant? On the second issue, the modern experts seem to have a wide range of opinions and their conclusions are cautious and incomplete.

Even the experts usually cited as having refuted the Legend seem to leave open a large role for Gregory (Apel and Hiley in particular). For my part, I have no idea where to come down on this question. Part of me is very willing to believe that his role has been exaggerated in art and legend, and that the fullness of chant as we know it extends backward from his time and forwards for another 800 years or so. On the other hand, tradition is sometimes wiser than scholarship, and it wouldn't surprise me if the truth were that Gregory's role was so large as to wholly justify the phrase "Gregorian Chant."

So I offer here an excerpt from a book (it's a scan and it probably contains typos, and I haven't bothered to recreate all italics) that doesn't seem to have been completely mined by either Apel or Hiley. Nor were all the references cited here discussed in either volume, though the book was cited by Apel in another connection. The book is A New School of Gregorian Chant by Rev. Dom Johner O.S.B. (NY: Ratisbon and Rome, 1925), pp. 182-184.

What Evidence have we in Proof of St. Gregory's Work of Organisation in Connection with the Chant of the Church? [Footnote: Cf. Morin 0. S. B.: Les veritables Origins du Chant Grégorien (Maredsous, 2nd ed., 1904), German by P. Thomas Elsasser (Paderborn, Schoningh 1892); Brambach: Gregorianisch (Leipzig. Spirgatis, 2n ed., 1901); also in Frethurger Kath. Kirchensänger 1890 Nr. 7; Cagin 0. S. B.: Un mot sur I’Anliphonale Missarum; Gastoue Orig. 85 sq.; Leclercq 0. S. B. in the Dictionnaire d’Archeologie Chrétienne (Paris 1905), I’Antiphonale dit Grégorien, columns 2433 sqq. (with copious references to the literature appertaining thereto). According to Lederer the Choral is of Bardic-Ceitic origin and Gregory the Great was Irish.]

The tradition can be traced in England down to a few decades after the death of St. Gregory.

Egbert, Bishop of York (732—766) writes in his Dialogue De instiutione catholica; "We ... observe the fasts as our teacher and master, Blessed Gregory, ordained in his Antiphonarium and Missale which he sent to us by our teacher, Blessed Augustine" (Migne, Patrologia Latina, 89, 441.)

This Antiphonarium is more clearly specified by the following canon:

The second council of Cloveshoe 747 [Footnote: Mansi: Ampl. Coll. Conc. 12 col, 399, cap. 13; Hefele; Konziliengeschichte (Herder, Freiburg) 2i.d ed., 1877, 3rd vol., p. 564. ordains that the "feast days of the Lord shall as regards baptism, masses and chant (in canlilence modo) . . . be performed according to the book serving as a pattern which we received from the Roman Church."

According to this the above mentioned Antiphonarium certainly contained the chant in some kind of notation, and therefore St. Gregory transplanted to England a definite system for liturgical chant, and must in consequence have been in possession of it himself.

Acca, Bishop of Hexham (740) appealed to the cantor Maban "who had had at Canterbury singing-masters trained by scholars of Blessed Pope Gregory"; [Footnote: Beda: Hist. eccles. Migne, 1. c. 95, 270] moreover, Putta, who was consecrated Bishop of Rochester about the year 669 writes that "he has to thank the scholars of Blessed Pope Gregory for his knowledge of the Roman chant (modulandi more Romanorum)." [Footnote: — L. c, 95, 175.]

Venerable the Bede calls the deacon James, who from the year 625 was the companion of St. Paulinus, Bishop of York, a "master in ecclesiastical song according to the method of the Romans or Canturians" [Footnote: — L. c. 95, 116. Chapter 1] (there was a singing-school in Canterbury founded by Rome, hence this "or").

In regard to Italy we have no evidence dating from the VIIth century, nevertheless it can be proved that the chief portions of the choral melodies were already syste¬matically arranged at the beginning of the VIIth century (St. Gregory died in 604), for:

The text set to the old melodies is from the Itala, i. e., the most ancient Latin translation of the Bible. Now, according to the testimony, of St. Isidore of Seville in the first half of the VIIth century, the Itala version had been supplanted by the Vulgate, St. Jerome’s translation of the Bible. If the chants had originated after 6oo it is inexplicable why they did not follow the new text of the Vulgata then in use, instead of the out-of-date Itaia. [Footnote: Cf. Revue Benedictine, p. 321, and Wagner: Ursprung pp. 210 sqq.]

The texts for Masses, the date of which is subsequent to 600, were not set to original melodies (cf., e. g., the Thursdays in Lent for which an office was first compiled by Gregory II; [Footnote: Liber Pontificalis, ed. Duchesne (Paris, Thorin, 1880), vol. I. p. 402] accordingly the collection of Mass chants was considered to be closed after 600.

Don Mocquereau (Pal. mus. IV, 25 sq.) contributes the interesting information that the liturgical melodies have been influenced by the Cursus, see cap. V. Now since it can be shown that the Cursus was quite neglected or no longer known from the VIIth to the XIth century, so these melodies must date from earlier times. At least it is scarcely probable that just at the time when the Cursus had completely fallen into desuetude, the composers of the chant should alone return to it.

Pope Hadrian I. (772-795) wrote an introduction (prologue) to St. Gregory’s Antiphonary which was sung in the Mass of the 1st Sunday of Advent. it runs thus: "Gregory...occupied the highest place of honour to which he had a (kind of) right (unde genus ducit)... he composed this book of chants (hunc libellum musicca artis composuit) [Footnote: Cf. Musica sacra of Milan, 1890, pp. 33 sqq.] for the use of the singing-school throughout the ecclesiastical year: Ad te levavi," etc.

The words unde genus ducit can only apply to St. Gregory as he alone had a Pope amongst his ancestors, namely Felix IV. According to others unde genus ducit merely means that Gregory, a Roman by birth, had attained to the highest dignity in his native city; therefore these verses could be applied both to Gregory the Great and Gregory II. (who was also a Roman by birth).

But then the two first verses of the prologue "had been previously inscribed on the ivory diptychon [Footnote: Diptychon, a tablet with two leaves (later more), on which from the IVth century onwards were written the names of persons connected with a church, especially benefactors] at Monza above the figure of St. Gregory the Great in rilievo, and it is all the more certain that they refer to him and not to one of his successors, since he himself sent the diptychon to Queen Theodelinda, and the inscription, though not actually in con¬sequence of this event, was in all probability engraved thereon not so very long afterwards." (Dr. Ebner: Kirchenmusicalisches Jahrbuch, 1892, pp. 101 sqq.)

Walafrid Strabo (807-849) says: "It is related (traditur) how blessed Gregory regulated the order of the masses and consecrations (the Sacramentarium and Pontificale) and how he arranged the greater part of the liturgical chants as retained to the present day, being the most suitable. The inscription which is at the beginning of the Antiphonarium indicates this." [Footnote: P. L., 114, 948.]

Leo IV (847-855) writes to the Abbot Honoratus inter alia: "The same holy Pope Gregory, this great servant of God, renowned preacher and shepherd, full of wisdom, who laboured zealously for the salvation of man, composed with great labour and musical skill the chants which are sung in our Church and elsewhere. By this means he would influence the heart of man more effectually, rousing them and enlivening them; and in truth the sound of his sweet melodies has not only allured spiritual men to the Church, but has even drawn those who are not so cultivated or sensitive." [Footnote: See Neues Archiv (Hannover) 1880, 389.]

In this document the expression dulcedo Gregoriani carminis, the sweetness of the Gregorian chant, is used.

John the Deacon (c. 872) writes in the 2nd book, 6th chapter, of his life of St. Gregory: "He arranged for the singers a most useful collection, the Anti¬phonarius Gento. He likewise instituted a singing-school which still cultivates the sacred chant of the Holy Roman Church according to the rules drawn up by him . . . . to this day is shown near the Lateran the couch from which in his illness he gave instruction in singing; the rod also with which he chastised the boys, and the authentic Antiphonary are there, and are venerated as relics." [3 M.P.L. 75, 90.]

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: