Why are Gregorian Chants so important in Church and Western society?

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Gregorian Chant has its roots in ancient Hebrew and Byzantium-era music, but adapted those early forms into much more complicated and melodious arrangements.  Over hundreds of years, the adaptation of Christian prayer to musical format evolved into what became known as “Gregorian Chant.”  While documentation is nonexistent and interpretations differ, the genesis of Gregorian Chant in its current form has been attributed to Pope Gregory I (590-604 AD), who is said to have formally established this form of chant as a component of Christian – and later primarily Catholic – prayer services. 

The importance of Gregorian Chant to the Church and to Western society could be slightly exaggerated today.  In fact, outside of the Catholic Church, it had become something of an anomaly.  It wasn’t until the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos in Spain got the idea to record and market their chants in 1994 that this form of liturgical music was reintroduced into broader society, although it should be pointed out that is a U.S.-centric perspective, as Western European Catholicism continued to utilize chant more prominently than in the United States.  The enormous and unexpected commercial success of the Benedictine Monks’ recording not only breathed new life into Gregorian Chant, it spawned a couple of follow-up recordings that also sold well and illuminated the resurgent popularity of this form of solemn, respectful prayer.

Gregorian Chant remains a respected form of prayer because it does two things, and does them well: it submits to a higher form of being and it adds a solemnity to the proceedings consistent with the more conservative form of congregational prayer.  By its musical structure, it adds an element to prayer that expands on the importance of the underlying text.   The compositions compliment the prayer rather than distract from it, and contribute to the sanctity of the process through which prayer is offered.  For Catholics, Gregorian Chant also provides a link to the past, to the origins of Catholicism.  It would be an exaggeration, however, to suggest that Gregorian Chant remains integral to Western society’s religious culture.  It did, after all, take the 1994 recording to remind much of the public that such music existed.