Authoritative books on history of Gregorian Chant


Could someone recommend a few authoritative and scholarly works on the history and development of Gregorian Chant? What plain chants are classified as ‘Gregorian’? Where did they originate? Is there a cut-off time after which any chants are no longer classified as Gregorian Chants?

Thank you!


I maybe @oralabora could help.


I was afraid someone would say that :wink:

It’s a pretty tall order!

This is an interesting book on the restoration of Gregorian chant in the 19th century:

Alas it appears to be out of print.

That said, I think it’s a pretty fair assessment that Gregorian chant as we know it, dates from the late 19th century and was made official by the Vatican Edition of the Roman Gradual promulgated by Pius X in 1908. Now, that’s a facile and somewhat facetious answer. The restoration of chant by Solesmes is somewhat controversial because of some musical signs added in the process (that have been removed in the most recent antiphonary for the Monastic Divine Office) and the fact that the modern chant repertoire as codified in the chant books they produce are specifically *Solesmes’ interpretation of Gregorian chant" and thus it is how Solesmes imagined chant sounded. How it actually sounded, is anybody’s guess.

The corpus of music that Solesmes used in its restaurations, from actual antiphonaries (St. Gall, Laon), historians generally agree was written in the 8th to 10th centuries. Some may extend that to the 12th or 13th. There is no definitive answer. Anything later, such as the Mass of the Angels (Mass VIII), can be considered “Neo-Gregorian” IMHO. Much of the Mass of the Angels was written in the 15th and 16th centuries (except the Sanctus), and Credo III often used with the Mass VIII setting is from the 17th. Some chant is downright modern: the propers for the feast of Christ the King, were written in the 20th century, since that is when the feast was introduced.

Gregorian chant, that which we know from existing manuscripts, is from the Carolingian era (8th to 10th centuries, and is a fusion of Old Roman and Gallican chant. It is from these manuscripts, for the most part, that Solesmes restored the chant we use today. There are no known manuscripts of Gallican chant known to survive.

There have been some predecessor and parallel developments, but alas their specific histories are lost in the mists of time, such as Ambrosian (Milan), Gallican (France), Mozarabic (Toledo, Spain), Sarum (England), and Beneventan (Southern Italy).

As my focus is largely performance (of modern Gregorian chant!) and not history, I don’t claim my account to be authoritative, and I believe that Solesmes’ account linked to above focuses more on the history of the restoration of the Gregorian repertory and not so much on the history of the sources.

For more scholarly writings on the subject, I would recommend consulting the reference section of the Wikipedia article on Gregorian chant, you’ll find lots of scholarly works to search for.


“Chant According to the Manuscripts” by A. Gregory Murray, published in 1963, which can be read at


Thank you for your informative reply!

Here is a reprint of the book you recommended:

It is indeed my a surprise to me that Gregorian Chant was a developing sacred music tradition which continued to evolve even in the 15th century, as you mentioned above about the emergence of Missa de Angelis. Why, then, should the Roman Rite esteem highly of Gregorian Chant if it is only a ‘modern interpretation’ of ancient liturgical music?

One common argument for Gregorian Chant is that it is logocentric and focuses on the Verbum Domini, but how exactly is this so? Can’t all sacred music, such as polyphonic music or even modern hymns, except for extreme examples like Jazz, Rock and Roll or pop song styles, be equally spiritual and rooted in the Word? While the Church recognizes the ‘primacy’ of both Gregorian Chant and polyphony (e.g. Sacramentum Caritatis, one of the most recent Papal Encyclicals on liturgy) over other forms of music, why have music forms and hymns in subsequent centuries failed to achieve what Chants can do?

I really love Gregorian Chant and highly appreciate its theological, historical, spiritual and aesthetic value, just that there are many defenders of Gregorian Chant who propose claims like it had its Jewish roots in the Jerusalem Temple and the music was codified even before the Council of Trent which are not cogent.

Thank you very much!


I think anything before the 8th century starts to get sketchy as there are essentially no, or very few, manuscripts.

Why Gregorian became prominent can be traced to Charlemagne, and more recently Solesmes and Pius X with whom the « Solesmes method » found favour.

One must also consider the monastic influences also. Gregorian lends itself particularly well to monastic récitation of the Divine Office, and also to the notion that no one voice dominates. This squares with the monastic concept of humility. There are also different approaches and practices of chant depending on the Order.

Where chant really distinguishes itself, especially the more melismatic chants of the propers of the Mass and some of the antiphons of the Divine Office (especially feasts and solemnities) is the way it emphasizes the Word of God. There are in addition to the basic melody a broader sort of « meta-melody » that sets the tone of the verse and corresponds to its mood, such as sad, glorious, mystic, praise, etc. Each of the psalm tones have names such as tristus (sad) for mode II or angelic for mode VII. Whenever our choir learns a new (to us!) piece, we read it first so we can understand how to interpret the mood of the piece.

Gregorian chant is also especially adapted to the Latin word and phraseology, which is why transcriptions into other languages often fall short.

In many modern pieces and some of the great polyphonic choral pieces, often musical prouesse has greater emphasis than the word. In Gregorian, it’s the other way around, which makes it especially suited to the liturgy.

The constant evolution of chant also sort of undermines the concept of « traditionalist ». While Gregorian is part of the broader tradition of Western plainchant, the interpretation we use today is exactly 110 years old this year. And the new Monastic and Roman antiphonaries continue to spring new interpretations on us. « Tradition » is in fact far from static.

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