A Treasury of Christmas Carols

The Middle Ages

Christian Music During The Middle Ages

The Middle Ages can be defined, generally, as the period in Europe from the fall of the Western Roman empire, ca. 476, and the discovery of America in 1492. The end of the Middle Ages can also be defined from the beginning of the Renaissance and the Reformation.

Throughout the long period of medieval music, the Roman church was the dominant and unifying force in Western music. The most important musical developments were the establishment and codification of the repertory of plainsong chants of the Mass and Offices, which would serve as the structural basis for countless secular as well as sacred compositions in ensuing centuries; the rise of polyphonic techniques and forms; and the development of metrical rhythms and principles of rhythmic organization.

The Catholic Church valued music greatly and the earliest Christmas songs date from 4th century (the earliest known is Jesus refulsit omnium by St. Hilary of Poitiers). Saint Ambrose of Milan (340-97) wrote at least a dozen hymns including "Veni Redemptor gentium" ("Redeemer of the nations, come"), all of which have eight 4-line stanzas; musicologists cannot determine with certainty whether he wrote the melodies also. Ambrose developed an antiphonal chant which was to be used in the church for centuries. It was a form of congregational singing in which two groups of the congregation sang alternately. [1] The music now associated with these hymns is from later centuries. Saint Ambrose is regarded as one of the founders of Western church music. Another hymn attributed to St. Ambrose which is still known is Conditor alme siderum ("Creator Of The Starry Height").

Among the important hymn writers who came after Saint Ambrose were

Their hymns were set to unharmonized plainsong.

Like all music in the Western world up to this time, Christian plainchant was monophonic: that is, comprised of a single melody without any harmonic support or accompaniment. The many hundreds of melodies are defined by one of the eight Greek modes, some of which sound very different than the major and minor scales our ears are used to today. The melodies are free and seem to wander, dictated by the Latin liturgical texts to which they are set. As these chants spread throughout Europe, they were embellished and developed along many different lines in various regions.

The forms or the chant repertory can be divided into psalmodic and non-psalmodic. There are three main forms of psalmody: antiphonal, in which two halves of a choir sing psalm verses in alternation with a refrain (antiphon); responsorial, in which one or more soloists alternate with the choir in singing psalm verses and a refrain (respond); and direct, in which the cantors sing verses without a refrain. Non-psalmodic forms include the strophic form of the hymn, in which a single melody is repeated for all strophes; the sequence, in which there is repetition within each couplet; the repetitive forms of the Kyrie and Agnus Dei; and the non-repetitive forms of the Sanctus, Gloria and Credo. In the Mass, the chants of the Ordinary are all non-psalmodic and those of the Proper are psalmodic. Recitation formulae are used for both psalmodic and non-psalmodic texts. The syllabic psalm tones are the musical patterns based on mode that accommodate the recitation of psalm verses. The beginning, middle and end of each verse are punctuated with small intonation, flex, mediant and cadential formulae.

There are three melodic styles of chant: syllabic, in which each syllable of text is set to a single note; neumatic, in which two to a dozen notes accompany a syllable; and melismatic, in which single syllables may be sung to dozens of notes. The Christian liturgies are divided into the Eucharistic Mass and the Divine Office, and it is the liturgy that determines the musical style of plainchant. In general, the more solemn the occasion, the more florid the music, although the most solemn chants are intoned by the celebrant. Each family of chant is characterized by a specific melodic type: antiphons and psalms are normally set syllabically, introits, Sanctus and Agnus Dei melodies are neumatic, and graduals, alleluias and offertories contain extensive melismas.

Chant composition involves the contrived selection of traditional modal materials, which may be divided into cells, formulae and patterns. Cells are miniature melodic gestures, which either stand alone or contribute to the larger stylized formulae; formulae are longer, more individual melismatic elements; and patterns are flexible frameworks or pitches that accommodate whole phrases of text. These melodic idioms are chosen and ordered according to established modal procedures.

From cantorial song and from the melodic evolution of simple declamation, a profusion of liturgical chants developed by the 4th and 5th centuries. As the church spread, different traditions of chant [2] arose, the most important being Byzantine, Old Roman, Gallican, and Mozarabic.

Gregory_1.JPG (146691 bytes)Pope Gregory I, c. 540-604

 The chant of Rome had developed by the time of Pope Gregory I [3], after whom the whole body of Roman chant is named (i.e., Gregorian chant). Gregory commanded that a way be found to collect and preserve the chants of the monks. The texts, all Latin, came from the liturgy of the Church. The music is made of a single melodic line, sung in unison and free from rhythm. It is still sung and recorded in the 20th century. "Chant" (Hollywood, CA: Angel Records, 1994), a cassette recording of the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos in the Castile region of Spain, sold widely in the mid-1990s in the United States.

Few traces of the Gallican chant exist today, whereas the Ambrosian repertory is still used in Milan. Mozarabic chant was superseded in the 11th century.

The mass in the Western (Roman) church evolved as a Latin ritual consisting of chants by the male choir and recitation by the priest -- the congregation did not participate. The choir chants, which are the items of musical importance, fall into two categories: proper (texts that vary from day to day according to festival and season) and ordinary (texts normally sung at every mass). The proper chants, derived in large part from the Eastern churches and the Jewish synagogue, consist primarily of psalms with interpolated antiphon and responsorial verses (Introit, Gradual, Alleluia or Tract, Offertory, Communion). Codified mainly during the reign of Pope Gregory I (590-604), these chants, as well as others of later date, have come to be called "Gregorian."

Under the reign of a Byzantine pope, Vitalian (657-672), the liturgy and chant of Rome underwent a thorough reformation, the fruits of which were designed for the exclusive use of the papal court. It was this chant that Charlemagne, some 150 years later, spread throughout the Frankish Empire as a part of his attempts at political unification. Vitalian (or Carolingian) chant, although highly ornamented, was characterized by great clarity of melodic line. As befitted the accentual patterns of the free prose texts, the chant melodies were written in a free rhythm using notes of long and short duration in proportion of two to one.

Latin hymns include sequences long, rhymed poems dating from about the 10th century.

The ordinary chant evolved more slowly, achieving its final form in the 11th century (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei). Around 1300 these five chants began to be treated as a cycle, and the term missa applied to them as a group as well as to the entire liturgy.


1. Glimpses Issue #26, Ambrose: Potent Leader Yet Servant of ChristReturn

2. Plainsong is the name given to the monodic (single melodic line) vocal liturgical music of the Christian Catholic churches. It is unaccompanied and is usually in rhythm that is free, not divided into a regular measure. As commonly used, the terms plainsong or plainchant and Gregorian chant are synonymous. Return

3. Gregory I, known as Gregory the Great, was pope from 590 to 604. Born c.540 to a wealthy patrician family in Rome, he chose to follow a public career. At the age of 30 he was named prefect of Rome. Dissatisfied with worldly success, Gregory turned to a life of piety and contemplation. He became a monk (c. 574) in one of the seven monasteries he had built with his own money, following the Rule of Saint Benedict. Gregory was elected pope in 590. He was the first monk to attain the Papacy. Return

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The Hymns and Carols of Christmas
Douglas D. Anderson

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