Friday, October 13, 2006

Aufer a me: Latin and Neumes for meditation

Anytime the topic of Gregorian chant comes up, the conversation immediately veers in two directions: why can't this material be in the vernacular, and why can't we just sing in modern notes? The communio this week, which conveys an intoxicating spiritual power, is a good illustration of why both of these paths seriously diminish the glories of chant.

We begin with a plea that moves unusually quickly through a long opening phrase: no breaks, no "downbeats," no time signature, and very effective use of vowel and consonant sounds to match the words. Put this in modern notation and you lose the visuals, the phrase, and, ironically, make it more difficult to place the consonants. Now look at the word "contemptum" in which the first "n" sound closes on the lower note (which is small, a liquescent in the Gregorian notation). I can't think of a way that this unity of notes and music can achieve the same effects in modern notation.

Now move halfway through, beginning with "nam." This last phrase is a singer's dream but only as written. It feels and sounds just like what you expect of meditation. It captures the sense of private, contemplative, concentrated prayer. The intervals are short and the changes in notes are a perfect match with the text, and it is a long and uninterrupted phrase. What you certainly do not want here is a sense of bumping through the notes one by one, as you might get in modern notation. Also with the neumes you can enjoy the visual presentation of what it means to meditate.

As for language, I'm sure it's been put into English somewhere, but it is almost painful to imagine how it might sound. Isn't it time that we all just acknowledge that the presentation of Gregorian chant is at its highest glory in precisely the form that it has come to us through the ages?

Here is a printable version of the "Aufer a me" with Psalms.

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