The Roman Empire had near-hegemonic authority over Europe, Politically, culturally, militarily, and religiously. As the centralized Roman state lost power each of these pillars fell. Political power was maintained by a military that could no longer be paid; cultural power was maintained through trade that has all but collapsed. However, the Roman church survived. Though through reform and adaptation, the medieval church became its own entity, a line can be traced back to the religion of the late Roman Empire.
It is impressive that, even though all the former Western Roman Empire was conquered by either pagan or heretical Christian tribes, in the 5th and 6th centuries, the Church was able to regain religious authority over many of these regions. In a time of chaos, instability, and fragmentation, this one pillar of Roman society was able to adapt and reform itself and maintain, if not expand, that power for the subsequent thousand years. One of the ways that the Church remained relevant to peoplesâ€™ lives was in how it expressed itself through art.
Some art is created for artâ€™s sake, but in Europe for the centuries after the collapse of Roman authority, most arts were created with a distinct goal in mind. In the same way that architecture is an expression of beauty mixed with functional restraints, Post-Classical European art exists to glorify God. Just as a house, no matter how beautiful, is meaningless without doors, these people felt art was meaningless if it did not glorify the creator. Like a house with no foundation, boundaryless creation will get you nowhere if it cannot stand on its own.
The goal is clear, throughout history there has long been disagreement in artists, and in religious institutions on how best to honor an all-powerful creator of heaven and earth. On one hand, you could say that in order to most closely reflect the beautiful complexity of the creation, Earth, that spiritual music should be as complex as possible. Polyphonic symphonies inspire in our glory and power beyond our understanding.
But thereâ€™s another way to think about it, and, as you may guess, itâ€™s the absolute opposite approach. Instead of striving for a reflection of the complexity of the heavens, one can acknowledge the impossibility of that and instead seek the purity of simplicity.
To shave away everything extraneous until youâ€™re left with something simple and powerful, like God. This is the essence of Gregorian Chants. A form of music over 1000 years old, these songs were designed to require no instruments but the human voice and to contain just a single melodic line. Yet within this simplicity, these songs can be hauntingly powerful, and if you give yourself to them, you canâ€™t help but find your mind drifting beyond the confines of the physical realm.
St. Augustine said that when you sing a prayer, youâ€™re really praying twice because the beauty of the song honors God just as the words do. Gregorian Chants, through this lens, were truly designed to give everyone the power to pray twice. To be the peoplesâ€™ music, created so that anyone could learn them and everyone could sing together. In this way, the power of the church is reinforced not through complexity or ostentation, but pure, simple, music.
It can be easy to think that old art forms are simplistic simply because they were created long ago and â€˜people of the time didnâ€™t know any better.â€™ But the next time you listen to a Gregorian chant, keep in mind its simplicity is there to by design, to serve a purpose. Simplicity can give all of us a chance to partake in the beauty of art, in the song that honors what is beyond us.