When we talk about the practice of monophonic chant in the liturgies of the Western Church, we tend to think of “Gregorian chant.” The name is commonly associated with the sixth-century Pope Gregory I; but it would be a mistake to call Gregory its composer. The oral tradition dates back at least as far as the third century; and, if Gregory did anything at all, it may have been no more than to document that tradition. Hence, music history students tend to be familiar with the attached illustration, in which Gregory is writing down the chants taking dictation from an angel (represented as a dove).
However, the practice of chant is older than Christianity. Abraham Zevi Idelsohn’s pioneering study, Jewish Music in Its Historical Development, traces chant back to the origins of the synagogue service, which probably originated in the fifth century B.C.E. The core of that service involved reading portions of the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) and haphtarah, texts of the Prophets, one assigned to each Torah portion. Both of these readings were chanted; and, if present day practices are represented, then there were different chanting styles for Torah and haphtarah. The hypothesis that these chants then found their way into Christian liturgical practices was examined at great length by Eric Werner in his book The Sacred Bridge: Liturgical Parallels in Synagogue and Early Church.
Those familiar with how both Torah and haphtarah are chanted in contemporary synagogue practices are unlikely to find any connection to Gregorian chant. On the other hand much of Idelsohn’s work is concerned with Semitic practices that would propagate through Arab, as well as Jewish, culture. In this respect a more likely candidate for the impact of synagogue chant on Christian liturgical practices may be that of Mozarabic chant. “Mozarabic” is an Arabic adjective that basically means “Arabized;” and it refers to those Christians who lived under Arabic Islamic rule during the Moorish conquest of the Iberian peninsula.
Little is know about this form of chant. The notation used to document it has yet to be deciphered, and it is likely to remain opaque. When the Moors were finally repelled, Church ritual became dominated by Roman practices, which meant the elimination of all Mozarabic rites, including the chanting. As the result, the only documents can be found in Toledo, where at least some of those practices survived. However, the earliest of those manuscripts date from the fifteenth century, which would be quite some time for an oral tradition to be sustained, particularly if it were subjected to strong Roman pressures. (Did somebody mention the Spanish Inquisition?)
In spite of this uncertain past, there have been some attempts to record performances based on those Toledo manuscripts. One of those was made by Ensemble Organum directed by Marcel Pérès. This was originally released by harmonia mundi, and it will be reissued this coming September 10. As is often the case, it is available for pre-order from Amazon.com or for download from ClassicsOnline.
Those familiar with Gregorian chant will quickly appreciate that this approach to plainsong is different. With my own background I felt I could at least hypothesize (if not attribute) origins of some of those differences to synagogue practices. Those hypotheses are based primarily on what happens when the chant departs from a string of syllables that are sung on the same note. Those sustained tones are interrupted by melismata, many of which I felt could be easily related to the fragments of melody I had to learn for the interpretation of the neumes that now prescribe the proper incantation of both Torah and haphtarah. Similarly, the approach to how those melismata would be employed to break the steady chanting on a fixed note seemed to follow a logic (if I may call it that), which I had previously encountered in synagogue chant.
I write all this with the disclaimer that it may be a product of imagination or, at best, distorted memory. Nevertheless, there is a uniqueness to these performances by Ensemble Organum that definitely distinguish their chanting practices from the Gregorian tradition. This makes for a fascinating recording, and harmonia mundi should be recognized for the decision to make it available again.