I haven’t told you how I first came into contact with Gregorian Chants, have I? I don’t think so. I was 16, and with my schoolmates I went to see a movie that quickly became one of my favourites: “The Name of the Rose” after Umberto Eco’s novel of the same name. There is some beautiful Gregorian singing in that movie, for instance when the monk William of Baskerville (Sean Connery) and the novice Adso of Melk (Christian Slater) slip out of mass to investigate the books in the locked section of the abbey’s library. The Gregorian chants add much to the suspense of that part of the film, and I was quite impressed by the music.
Recitation of biblical texts
The origin of the Gregorian chants in 9th/10th century is not well documented, but it flowered throughout the 12th and 13th century. The central element is the monophonic recitation of texts from the Gospel and prayers during mass. Monophonic does not mean monotone: The Gregorian choirs all followed a single melodic line with no instrumental accompaniment, but the choir was split in two halves, often in female and male singers, where one half asks and the other answers.
The chants are characterized by a regular, slow and gradual rise and fall of the pitch. Experts debate whether this qualifies as music or should rather be considered as sung meditations. I believe this to be a purely academic discussion of little value. Over time, Gregorianic chants became very sophisticated – rhythmical structures became more and more complex, canons added a new style element – and by the end of the 12th century, the scores were so elaborate that there can be no doubt anymore that they represent the finest music of that era.
From monophony to polyphony
Why is this important? Well, with my growing interest in sacred music, I came across the composer Pierre de la Rue (1470-1518), representative of the Franco-Flemish School. Understanding the rise and fall of Gregorian chorals helps to explain what Pierre de la Rue was up to. Gregorian chorals went into decline by the end of the 12th century for reasons I do not know (yet). But the sophistication of Gregorian chorals had sufficiently impressed musicians, clergymen and princes, the scores were readily available in monasteries, and it was only a question of time before someone had the idea to give them a fresh look.
The next logical step after the introduction of the canon was to move from monophony to polyphony: two or three melodic lines sung in parallel. In a simultaneous development in Italy on the one hand and in France and what is today Belgium and the Netherlands on the other hand, polyphonic liturgical music began to establish itself as the norm. And in this discipline de la Rue was only second to the grand master, Joaquin Dezprez, whom we have met earlier this year.
Pierre de la Rue originated from the region of Tournai in Belgium and worked as a church musician and composer all over Brussels, Ghent, Cologne and ‘s-Hertogenbosch. In 1492, he joined the Habsburg-Burgundian chapel. De la Rue wrote more than 30 masses and about 45 motets characterized by a skillful structure. Among these is the “Misse de Sancta Anna” (Mass Of St. Anne), a beautiful example of sacred Renaissance music. The ensemble Schola Discantus recorded it in 1995 in Memorial Hall of Memorial Church at Harvard University, a world premiere. And now, without any further ado, please enjoy this delicate music.
© Charles Thibo