Against Gregorian

In Anglican England in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there was considerable opposition to the Roman Catholic Gregorian chant.  The Parish Choir or Church Music Book, published by the Society for the Promoting of Church Music (October 1847), applauds those who “deal heavy blows at Romanism and every other form of dissent.” (1)  Part of this stems from the division of the religious denominations, but it also extends to musical taste.  The west was no longer accustomed to the key structure (modes) of Gregorian chant.  

Although the debate was no doubt heated at the time, some of the accounts appear somewhat humorous today.  William Spark recalled how his friend Henry Smart dismissed his “Gregorian-supporting” neighbour at a dinner party in Leeds:

“I am strongly of the opinion, Mr Smart, that there is a fine ecclesiastical, devotional character about Gregorian tones which no other church music possesses.”  Smart pushed back his chair, and with a significant gesture said: “Now, look here, sir, this won’t do.  Who asked your opinion upon a musical question of which you know absolutely nothing?  You may rely on it, that some day when you and your friends shouting those ugly Gregorian chants, Heaven will punish you, and rain down bags of crotchets on your heads, and prevent you from ever singing them again!” (2)

Even Samuel Wesley made a somewhat bizarre reply to a student with an interest in Gregorian music, as recounted in the Musical Times:

He [Wesley] had a rooted dislike to “Gregorians.”  Writing in 1849, on the subject of a revival of English church music, he said: “Some would reject all Music but the unisonous Chants of a period of absolute barbarism – which they term “Gregorian”.  All is “Gregorian” that is in the black diamond note!  These men would look a Michael Angelo in the face and tell him Stonehenge was the perfection of architecture!  To a pupil who had leanings towards Plainsong, he wrote: “Your question about Gregorian tones has caused me much pain,.  I thought I had made a better musician of you, I am sorry for this.  I beg to assure you that I am a musician, a protestant, and yours truly, S. S. Wesley.” (3)


(1) Cited in: Scholes, Peer (1947) The Mirror of Music: 1844-1944. London: Novello, vol. ii, p.555.
(2) The Musical Times, May 1902. Cited in: ibid, p. 554.
(3) The Musical Times, July 1900. Cited in ibid.


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