CHANT AND SECULAR SONG
IN THE MIDDLE AGES
The chants of the Roman Church are one of the great treasures of Western civilization. Like Romanesque architecture, they stand as a memorial to religious faith in the Middle Ages, embodying the sense of community and esthetic sensibility of the time. Not only does this body of plainchant include some of the oldest and noblest melodies ever created, it also served as the source and inspiration for much Western art music up to the sixteenth century. As beautiful as the chants are to listen to, it would be misleading to treat them purely as music, for they cannot be separated from their ceremonial context and purpose.
Plainchant is musical prayer, heightened speech that unites the faithful through melody and rhythm in the articulation of devout thoughts. But it is the text—its phraseology, punctuation, and syntax—that gives form to the songful delivery. Chant can be as simple as recitation on a single pitch, heard in the Gospel reading at Mass. A slight fall in pitch from the reciting tone may mark the end of a thought. A rise to the reciting tone calls attention to the beginning of a reading or to a major section of the text. The formulas for chanting the Psalms elaborate on this simple recitation by offering a variety of pitch patterns for beginnings, endings, half-endings, and resumptions of the recitation. More melodious chants, although they expand on this basic structure, still cling to the form of the verbal message. How elaborate the melody is depends on how weighty or solemn the occasion, how the text functions in the ritual, and who is performing the chant—a soloist, a choir, or the congregation. In short, it is determined by the liturgy.
Liturgy is the body of texts and rites that make up a sacred service. Over time, certain texts and rituals have been added or deleted. The readings,