Richard Crocker’s Introduction to Gregorian Chant

February 27, 2009

A brief excerpt from Richard Crocker’s Introduction to Gregorian Chant (Yale University Press, 2000)

Pp. 62-63

“In terms of broad genres, the Mass Propers can be described not as epic or dramatic, but rather as lyric.  The melody presents short involuted turns of phrase that cluster around a central theme sometimes so vague as to be merely implied.  The order of presentation is not significant, being arranged so as to furnish variety and avoid obvious repetition.  This kind of arrangement is meditative in that it invites contemplation of various aspects of a subject without the pressure of following a closely argued discourse or of arriving at a conclusion or at a lofty vantage point – such as we experience in a Beethoven symphony.

“In Gregorian chant I hear a succession of short melodic phrases (each about the length of a word or syllable); the succession itself I can only describe as lyric fantasy.  Each phrase moves a little differently, or in a different direction; even though by itself each phrase makes a simple, easily understood melodic move, the succession from one to the next is unexpected, giving a sense of fantasy to the whole.


“I find this non-narrative, non-dramatic quality throughout the repertory of Gregorian Mass Propers, exceptions being so infrequent as to be famous among chant singers. There is one instance of a long sustained ascent exceeding an octave, arriving at a climax that is foreseeable in the approach and satisfying in its completion (this is the Offertory Iubilate Deo universa terra).  There is a descent, even longer, through an octave and a half in the Gradual Ecce quam bonum, although in that case the descent is so leisurely, backtracking with so many involute turns, that the overall trend may be perceptible only when the piece is complete.  And in Ecce quam bonum the long descent accompanies words that describe the cup of fine oil that overflows and runs down the beard of Aaron – an instance of word-painting unusual in Gregorian chant.


“In most melismatic pieces, however, there is no such sustained preparation for ascents or descents; usual procedures include, instead, circling around a central pitch in a complex way, or making relatively unprepared moves to the top or the bottom of the pitch set in such a way as to suggest that movement anywhere in the set is possible at any time.  Melismatic chants do not conform to a simple model such as an arch; there are plenty of melodic high points, but they are not consistently located in the centre of a phrase, that is, preceded by an ascent and followed by a descent.”




“There is so much to hear – melismatic chant is so complex in its movements! The avoidance of repetition at the lowest level, from one pitch to the next, is absolutely persistent; the sense of difference is continual.  After forty years I am still learning to recognize the subtle ways in which the seemingly endless twists and turns of Gregorian chant deftly define a musical shape, a musical meaning.”