The End of Antiquity
This lecture covers what happened to music during the transition from Classical Antiquity to the Middle Ages.
Classical Antiquity is sometimes called the Greco-Roman period because it includes the high cultures of the Romans as well as the Greeks. The Roman Republic (and the later Roman Empire) carried on with the traditions established by the Greeks, including their musical traditions.
The period of time we’re about to cover is sometimes referred to as the Dark Ages. During the Dark Ages, society retrogressed severely: government and social institutions descended into chaos; illiteracy became rampant; knowledge and philosophy were forgotten. The actual (and less pejorative-sounding) name for the Dark Ages is the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages lasted approximately 1,000 years—from the fifth to the fifteenth century CE.
If we had to label a banner event demarcating the shift from Antiquity to the Middle Ages, we could do a lot worse than the inception of Emperor Theodosius I in the year 379. Part of the reason he demarcates this transition so well is that he was the last Roman Emperor to rule over the entire empire before it was split in two.
Another part of the reason—and most notable for our purposes—is that he issued religious decrees that made Christianity the official state religion of Rome.
The decrees clarified which sect of Christianity was correct, they ended state sponsorship for the traditional Roman gods, and they ushered in a period of persecution and punishment for non-Christians.
The ensuing religious turmoil contributed to the instability already ravishing Rome through civil war and through border conflicts with northern barbarians—known as the Goths.
When Theodosius died, his two sons inherited what was left of Rome. They each took up power over half the empire: one in the Eastern empire, which was centered in Constantinople; and one in the Western empire, which was centered in Rome.
Rome, especially the western half, was in free-fall. But Christianity was ascendant.
The Rise of Christianity
Beginning around the first century CE, a new religious cult was gaining popularity in Rome. Its figurehead was Jesus of Nazareth a Jew and Roman subject.
His teachings, which focused on reverence to one god and equality between social classes, proved dangerous to the Roman power structure.
In Rome (and Greece) religion was polytheistic—meaning that people worshiped more than one god in a system led by many gods serving overlapping functions. (Mars was the god of war; Venus was the goddess of love, etc.) In addition to these many gods, the Roman emperors were treated as gods themselves.
The Christian idea of only one god and an adherence to nonviolence was dangerous to the polytheistic power structure of Rome. If all Rome’s citizens were devoted to nonviolence and to being equal to the emperors, then how would Rome maintain armies and defend its borders?
The first three centuries of Christianity’s existence was marked by persecution of Christians. But in the year 317, the situation improved for them when Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan—legalizing and protecting Christianity.
Under Roman laws, people were free to worship any god they wanted—as long as they also worshiped the Roman gods and the Roman emperors. Because of this religious freedom in Rome, Christianity flourished and grew beyond the critical mass needed to be thwarted by its critics—thus graduating from cult to religion.
Christianity grew so much that Theodosius’ decrees—the ones making Christianity the official state religion—came just 60 years after the Edict of Milan.
The eventual fall of Rome and the continuing rise of Christianity inaugurated a period of severe unrest, war, and famine. The world order cultivated through centuries of Greco-Roman culture was soon replaced by tribalism and internecine violence.
The eastern half of Rome weathered the religious tumult better than the western half. Known as the Byzantine Empire, its reign lasted from about the fifth century until 1453 when it fell to the Ottoman Turks. Its capital was Constantinople—today the Turkish city of Istanbul. It’s traditions resulted in what’s known as the Greek orthodox and the Russian orthodox churches.
(Eastern Christian iconography is marked by churches with spherical domes and crosses with three lines—one smaller and slightly askance.)
Our story does not follow the eastern half of Rome, however—our story takes place in the western half with the rise of Gregorian chant.
The Beginning of Gregorian Chant
The Christians of Rome, both east and west, inherited the Jewish habit of chanting scripture. The Jews would congregate and chant their sacred texts on specific days at specific times, often from the book of psalms. The Book of Psalms is a chapter in the Old Testament, the part of the Bible shared by Christians and Jews. It was often sung or intoned. (Intoned means to sing something using only one note.) The singing of psalms from the bible is referred to as psalmody.
Early Christians were known to have met for communal meals and worship. At these meal gatherings, they would sing hymns and psalms. As Christianity gained popularity, the meetings grew in size, so larger and larger spaces were eventually needed. These large, often rectangular spaces for gatherings were known as basilicas.
Early Christian thinkers, such as St. Augustine, recognized music’s power to influence character and mood, similar to the Greek convention of ethos. Augustine (and other church fathers) thought that music’s power to influence one’s mood was best used for worshiping god. Therefore, non-spiritual music, especially instrumental music, was deemed sinful. It is for this reason that nearly all of the next 1,000 years of Western music that we are about to study is a cappella—that is, it’s all unaccompanied singing with no instruments.
Christianity developed a monastic tradition of intense isolated worship and heavy prayer. The monks in these traditions developed a system for singing the psalm verses and for singing the hymns.
Just to clarify the difference between the two, psalms are derived from the bible and hymns have extra-biblical sources—many of them newly written texts and prayers. Both are songs of praise, however, making them both a form of hymn.
This habit of singing psalms and hymns eventually coalesced into a repertoire of chants and bible readings—known as a liturgy. The songs they sang are called plainsongs.
It is thought that at least five distinct liturgical repertoires of plainsong evolved: the Ambrosian, the Gallican, the Mozarabic, and—most important for our purposes—the Old Roman. These various chant repertoires are sometimes called dialects and are like variations within one language—not too different but different enough to be noticeable.
The Old Roman dialect was the one that was eventually standardized throughout Christendom. This repertoire of plainsong is today known as Gregorian chant.
Pope Gregory I, also known as St. Gregory the Great, the namesake of this musical material, ruled over the Roman church as pope from 590 until 604. What he actually had to do with the music’s inception is a matter of conjecture.
We do know, however, that Pope Gregory revised most of the Christian worship practices during his time in power. This gave him notoriety and name recognition. The fact remains, though. He lived centuries before the invention of—or, more accurately, the rediscovery of—musical notation. It is impossible that he wrote any music down. The notation systems that had begun to evolve during antiquity were long forgotten by this time.
His influence and near universal popularity among Christians is part of why his name is attached to this music.
Remember that there were four other liturgical traditions on offer in Christianity. So, how was it that the Old Roman dialect—the material destined to become Gregorian chant—became ascendant and all of the others fell by the wayside?
The answer is the efficacy of a powerful legend—the legend of Saint Gregory. It was created as propaganda in favor of the Roman liturgy over all others. According to legend, the Holy Spirit—a permutation of the Christian god—took the form of a dove and dictated the whole of the Roman repertoire to St. Gregory. The propaganda worked, all the competing chant repertoires were eventually suppressed.
The manner of that suppression was born of a political alliance between the Franks (peoples of modern day France and Germany) and the Roman popes. That alliance came in about the year 752 and was formed between the king of the Franks (Pepin the Short) and leader of the church, Pope Stephen II.)
The deal was mutually beneficial: The church needed military protection from hostile northern tribes, namely the Lombards, and the Frankish kings needed formal recognition of their hereditary rights to consolidate their power. The alliance yielded satisfactory results—the Lombards were expelled from what today is northern Italy and Rome recognized Pepin as the official ruler of Frankish lands.
Pepin actively imported the Roman liturgy and all of its musical content for official use in his domain. Pepin’s son, Charlemagne, did even better than his father. He completely conquered the Lombards and even more actively imported the Roman liturgy. Arriving triumphantly into Rome as protector of the papacy, Charlemagne was crowned the first emperor of the Holy Roman Empire on Christmas Day 800 by Pope Leo III.
Okay, longish footnote here, the inception of the Holy Roman Empire now makes four entirely separate permutations of Rome in our story: The Roman Republic, the Roman Empire, the Eastern Roman Empire, and—the brand new—Holy Roman Empire. These are all different things. To add insult to term overuse injury, Gregorian chant is derived from the old Roman chant dialect because it evolved in the capital city of Christendom—Rome.
The newly inaugurated season of peace spurred on what’s known as the Carolingian Renaissance—a period of cultural and philosophical flourishing in what today is France, Germany, and Italy.
Gregorian chant, aided by a powerful legend and by political stability, thrived.
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Grout, D., Burkholder, J., & Palisca, C. A history of Western music. New York: Norton. 2014.
Taruskin, R. The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2005.
Norwich, J. Julius. Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy. Random House Publishing Group, 2011.