The Spirituality of Gregorian Chant
In principio erat Verbum. In the beginning was the Word.
Gregorian chant is different from almost all other types of vocal music in that its texts are not fit to music. Most of the words in chant are prose. They are taken from scripture and since they are sacred they aren’t paraphrased to fit the music. Rather the shape of the music is determined by the text.
The simplest form of chant is when a text of scripture is chanted to a ‘tone’ or even 'rectotono’. (single reciting pitch.) Here is an example:
Listening you can see how the music is an expression of prayer, an expression of the sacred text, it flows out from, rather than being imposed upon the words. This idea is pretty basic but also very important. This is different than almost all other types of music.
‘Contemporary’ and other types of religious/devotional music are also divorced from this idea. Other types of music take a sentiment, an emotion, or an idea and create some form of poetry that is regular (prose is irregular) for the purpose of music, this is okay in the right context, but it isn’t sung prayer or at least not in the same sense that chant is.
One might try an experiment to better understand this concept. Take some prayer, perhaps the ‘Glory be to the Father’, and pray it with sincerity by reciting it, then pray it by singing it on a single comfortable pitch. The idea that prayer has burst into music should then become clear.
In conclusion I would like to quote from the book, ‘An Introduction to the Interpretation of Gregorian Chant” by Luigi Agustoni and Johannes Goschl, page two.
“The text is not something that just happens to be attached to a particular melody but rather the text is a sounded word that has flowered into a musical work. The line does not run from the melody to the text that has been set, but on the contrary the exact opposite. The direction is from the word to its realization in musical sound. The source, from which the Gregorian melodies originate and are nourished, is the word. In fact, it is the word of the liturgy, a word that possesses a sacramental character according to the statements of the Second Vatican Council, (*) for Christ is present in it, and in it Christ is received. This word of the liturgy, which in the final analysis is always God speaking to us, that is to say, the encounter of the human being with God, finds its highest expression when it can blossom forth in music. This happens in Gregorian chant to an eminent degree.”
* They reference Art. 51 of the Constitution on the sacred liturgy, “The treasures of the bible are to be opened up more lavishly, so that richer fare may be provided for the faithful at the table of God’s word.”