Our debt to Gregorian plainchant
Priests, monks and nuns would have sung most of the service after the first few centuries of the Church’s life. Congregations did not sing much if at all in church. Pope Gregory the Great, (540-604) is said to have begun the development of what is now known as Gregorian plainchant, which was the dominant form of music for almost a thousand years.
Singers sang in unison, fitting the chants to the words of Psalms and other Biblical songs. It was a very specialised art, and hard for the untrained lay person to join in with. Later on some of the tunes were reused in congregational hymns and psalms like the popular hymn “Come Holy Ghost our souls inspire.” This was based on a Latin plainchant hymn, “Veni, creator spiritus”. It is not known who wrote the original, but it was being sung at Whitsuntide in the tenth century, and at ordination services. The translation below was made by John Cosin (1594-1672) who became Bishop of Durham after the English Civil War. It was included in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, as part of the ordination service, the only hymn printed in the book.
Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire,
and lighten with celestial fire.
Thou the anointing Spirit art,
who dost thy sevenfold gifts impart.
Thy blessed unction from above
is comfort, life, and fire of love.
Enable with perpetual light
the dullness of our blinded sight.
Anoint and cheer our soiled face
with the abundance of thy grace.
Keep far from foes, give peace at home:
where thou art guide, no ill can come.
Teach us to know the Father, Son,
and thee, of both, to be but One,
that through the ages all along,
this may be our endless song:
Praise to thy eternal merit,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Words: Latin, ninth century;
trans. John Cosin, 1627
Do you enjoy singing in church or do you feel self-conscious, preferring to leave it to someone else? Who or what has shaped your attitude to singing?
This clip shows the original plainchant version of Veni Creator Spiritus