Gregorian Chant—a Brief History

One of our goals at St. Mark has been to gradually restore Gregorian chant to its rightful place in the sacred liturgy. This is specifically in response to the call of Vatican II: “The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specifically suited to the Roman liturgy; therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services” (Sancrosanctum concilium, 116). 

One might be tempted to think that there was an unbroken tradition of Gregorian chant in the Roman liturgy right up until the 1960’s, when “everything changed.” But that’s not quite right. It turns out that Gregorian chant fell on hard times from the about the end of the Middle Ages up until the mid-19th century. It’s ironic that it was that other venerable liturgical musical form, polyphony, that worked to undermine the purity of chant and initiate its decline.

It was Dom Guéranger and the monks of Solesmes (pronounced so-lem) who, through meticulous research in the mid-1800’s, worked to restore Gregorian chant to its earlier glory. It took additional prompting from popes and an ecumenical council to try to restore chant to “pride of place” in the liturgy, with results that can only looked upon today as disappointing. But there are bright spots here and there, and we’re trying hard at St. Mark to be one of them. 

By the way, the monks of the Abbaye Saint-Pierre de Solesmes are still going strong. You can read more about the history of Solesmes and Gregorian chant at their website here. While you’re there, look around the rest of the site and learn more about their beautiful ongoing vocation.

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