A Selection of Chant Recordings

(To Early Music FAQ)


Plainchant, or chant, is the music of the medieval Christian church. Its origin lies partly in Jewish liturgy, and in the early Christian church's efforts to devise a liturgy radically different from pagan rivals (no clapping, no dancing, no instruments, texts mostly from the Bible sung homophonically). For an exploration of the possible links between the Jewish and Christian liturgies, see:

The Sacred Bridge
Boston Camerata, Joel Cohen
Erato 2292 45513-2

As the Church itself, chant divided into Eastern chant and Western chant.

Western Chant

As plainchant developed in the West, local traditions emerged in Spain (mozarabic), Ireland (Celtic), France (Gallican), and several in Italy (Milan, Benevento, Ravenna, Rome). During the Carolingian renaissance (750-850), one specific form of chant probably elaborated in Rome was introduced throughout Western Europe; it developed and progressively displaced other chants: this is Gregorian chant, which remains the official chant of the Catholic church. Some traces of the earlier chants remain in manuscripts, to varying extents (Celtic chant is lost).

Even Gregorian chant itself evolved into local rites (Sarum chant in England), and was reformed or revised several times, by monastic orders developing their own traditions (e.g., Cistercians), or from above: the counter-Reformation brought one such reform, strongly resisted in France which maintained and codified its tradition into neo-Gallican chant.

Other reforms culminated in the late 19th c. with the edition of chant by the monks of Solesmes, who "reformed" chant and returned it to what was perceived to be its original purity. The best examples are recordings by monks. Recent research has thrown into questions many aspects of the Solesmes interpretation, and the results have been illustrated by several performing ensembles.

For an illustration of the Solesmes approach:

Gregorian chant
Choir of the monks of Saint-Pierre de Solesmes
Accord 20088a (4 CDs)

The arch-famous Chant CD falls in this category, although the monks of Silos have also recorded some Old-Spanish chant (DGG 445 391-2 ; Recorded in 1968).

The "revisionist" approach is presented in:

Les Tons de la musique
Ensemble Gilles Binchois
Harmonic Records H/CD 8827
Chants des voûtes cisterciennes
Ensemble Venance Fortunat - A.M. Deschamps
L'empreinte digitale ED 13073 / Adda AD184

A hodge-podge collection (with lyrics-only liner notes) but mid-priced:

Tradition of Gregorian chant
(various monastic ensembles)
Archiv 435032-2 (4 CDs)

A sampling of Eastern European chant comes from Hungary:

From evening to evening
Schola Hungarica, L. Dobszay, J. Szendrei
Hungaroton HCD 31086

The Ensemble Organum has specialized in "the other chants." A lot of their work has relied on tracing Eastern influences, and the result is mesmerizing. To date, they have explored Ambrosian chant (Milan), Beneventine, and Old Roman, with Mozarabic in the offing. The Sibilla disc presents another, very old repertoire.

Messe de Saint Marcel (Old Roman chant)
Ensemble Organum
Harmonia Mundi HMC 901382
Chants de l'Église Milanaise
Ensemble Organum
Harmonia Mundi HMC 901295
Chants de la cathédrale de Benevento
Ensemble Organum
Harmonia Mundi HMC 901476
Cant de la Sibilla
La Capella Reyal - J. Savall
Astrée E8705

For later traditions, see:

Missa in Gallicantu (Sarum rite)
Tallis Scholars
Gimell 454 917

Eastern Chant

The Eastern half of Christendom developed its own liturgy as well. The Byzantine chant has survived in manuscripts, while local traditions have continued to this day in the Middle-East (Armenian, Syrian, Coptic) and of course in the Orthodox Slav countries.

Byzantine chant is presented in the following CDs (note that the Benedictine monks of Chevetogne have recorded at least half a dozen CDs of Orthodox chant; L. Angelopoulos collaborated with Ensemble Organum on the Ambrosian, Roman and Beneventine chant CDs cited above):

Passion and Resurrection
Soeur Marie Keyrouz, choir of Saint-Julien le Pauvre
Harmonia Mundi HMC 901315
Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom
Greek Byzantine Choir, Lycourgos Angelopoulos
Opus 111 OPS 30-78
Liturgy of Saint Basilius
Choir of abbey of Chevetogne
Art et Musique CH/CD 105389

For other traditions:

Christmas, Passion and Resurrection (Lebanon)
Soeur Marie Keyrouz, Choeur and ensemble instr. de la Paix
Harmonia Mundi HMC 901350
Melchite sacred Chants (Syria)
Soeur Marie Keyrouz
Harmonia Mundi HMC 901497
Early Russian Plain-chant (17th c. Russia)
Patriarchal Choir of Moscow
Opus 111 OPS 30-79
Ancient Orthodox Chants (Bulgaria, Greece, Ukraine)
Drevnerousski Choir
Chant du Monde LDC 288033
The Music of Armenia, Volume 1
Sacred Choral Music
Celestial Harmonies 13115
François Velde