Voices of Angels: Medieval Plainsongs

Gregorian chant is among the earliest form of written music in the Western classical tradition. It is also known as plainsong or plainchant, a form of monophonic music, unaccompanied by instruments.

In this blog, I like to introduce the enigmatic form of monophonic song known as Gregorian chant and highlight some interesting variations of this style of music.

Plainsong has its roots in the Roman Catholic church, where its purpose was to facilitate the praise and service of God. The celebrants of plainsong are male. They are the public servants of the church whose duty is to uphold the liturgy. When they sing, they sing without emotions. The sacred text is what matters.

Because our modern ears are used to polyphonic music (music with more than one part or voice), listening to a Gregorian chant can be a discomforting affair. We find it austere, slow, and musically flat, not to mention the language barrier of Latin in which most plainsong is written. However, I find plainsong to be quite charming precisely because of these qualities. Somehow, these songs reach to parts of my soul where few polyphonic songs do. I think this has to do with the purity of the melodic lines, which foster in the listener a singular focus on something larger than ourselves.

If you’ve never heard a plainsong. Here’s an example (8.36 minutes)

This medieval Gregorian chant is entitled “Invitatorium: Deum Verum” which translates to an invitation to the faithful to come and worship the true God (Deum Verum). The author of this plainsong is Etienne de Liege (ca. 850 – 920), a bishop of Liege in Belgium from 901 to 920. The plainsong is sung by Psallentes, a Belgian chant group.


Whereas the tone and manner of most plainsong is deliberate, precise and emotionless, the next piece, “O vis aeternitatis” is a daring departure from these principles. The writer is Hildegard von Bingen, a scholar and female member of a religious order from the plainsong era whose music definitely irked the church establishment of the time. Critics (invariably males) baulked at Hildegard’s poor grasp of Latin. But what really offended them was her celebration in music of emotions such as love, personal passions and feelings. The church of the day wanted these emotions to be kept under wraps. Hildegard saw no reasons why they should be.

The emotion of “O vis aeternitatis” is very poignant. One has the feeling that here, music is the vehicle for the intense expression of pain, despair, passion and ecstasy. The female voice ranges over a much greater interval of pitch than conventional plainsong, rising and falling in a tide of emotions but not giving up or letting go and words are subordinated to the ebb and flow of the singer’s experience. With this song, Hildegard is declaring that emotions are part of the human condition, and that a music that embraces it is better able to deal with it.

Hildegard von Bingen, “O vis aeternitatis”, 12th century, performed by Sequentia, an early music ensemble (7.56 minutes).

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