(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:
As the Church itself, chant divided into Eastern chant and 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:
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:
A hodge-podge collection (with lyrics-only liner notes) but mid-priced:
A sampling of Eastern European chant comes from Hungary:
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.
For later traditions, see:
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):
For other traditions: