Posted in For Project 5 Examples

Example 1 Research, Part 1: Introduction to the Western Plainchant

While writing example 1 for project 5, I noticed that even though the melody I’ve composed was in the pentatonic scale, its free flow resembled a bit of the western plainchants. For that reason, I wanted to research more on the subject.


Fig. 1. Medieval illumination with three monks singing from a manuscript

Plainchant is a type of monophonic (single-voiced) sacred music performed a cappela (without instruments). It represents the earliest music of the Christian church. (Fig. 1)

As for the Roman Catholic churches, the cantus planus, as it was called in the official Latin language, developed separately in several Western European centers to support the regional liturgies, which is why we find so many different medieval chant traditions. However, the Gregorian chant was imposed as the dominant style during the Caroligian dynasty (Klinn, 2007: 144), with Old Roman, Beneventan, Gallican, Mozarabic, Celtic and other chants, such as those from Ravenna and Aquileia, representing the old musical conventions which preceded this ascendancy. The Ambrosian chant is the only exception, which unlike the other local chant families, was never successfully repressed by the Gregorian.

Among the Eastern Orthodox churches, Byzantine chant of the Greek Orthodox church was practiced from the establishment of Constantinople. Surviving its fall, the tradition struggled throughout the Ottoman period, which continues to dominate the current tradition. The Byzantine rite influenced the Slavic lands, and with the acceptance of the religion, the chanting was also embraced, translated from Greek into Old Church Slavonic language. Among many chant families that developed we have the Znamenny chant of the Russian Orthodox Church, and some other include Macedonian, Serbian, etc.

The medieval chant traditions of both the Latin West and the Byzantine and Slavonic East can generally be traced back to around the tenth century, from when the earliest surviving notated manuscripts originate. (Jeffery, 1992: 151) In these sources, the previously mentioned chant heritages developed into traditions distinct from one another. However, there is very little information about how they evolved into the states in which we find them at the present times, what Apel (1958: 507) outlined as the central problem of the research in this area.

Along these lines, with the state of the surviving data of each tradition being different, the origins and early history of the Christian plainchant is in a way uniformly obscure, as the features that seem lost and uncertain in some chant traditions are sometimes relatively well-documented in others. The turn from purely aural transmission to the one written, also impacts the issue. What is clear though, is that the oldest versions of the Latin and the Byzantine melodies and their early development took place farther in the East, going back to a common source, the music of the Churches such as Antioch and Jerusalem, which in their turn were influenced somewhat by the music of the Jews.

In the next blog post, I will write about the formative years of the Christian plainchant, and then I will focus specifically on the two Western traditions – Gregorian and Ambrosian.

List of illustrations:

Fig. 1. Medieval illumination with three monks singing from a manuscript


Flinn, Frank K. (2007) Encyclopedia of Catholicism. New York: Facts on File, Inc.

Jeffery, P. (1992) Re-envisioning Past Musical Cultures: Ethnomusicology in the Study of Gregorian Chant. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, Ltd.

Apel, Willi (1942) The notation of polyphonic music, 900-1600. The Mediaeval academy of America

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