Saturday, October 06, 2007

Chant: The History of Private Life

Tomorrow morning our schola will sing the chant Ave Verum, together with W. Byrd's polyphonic setting of this 14th century hymn. In doing this we are doing more than merely singing a beautiful melody. In a real sense we are singing a song that has been part of a faith for centuries, from the very beginning of the modern period all the way through our own time.

As prosperity grew, as the Catholicism spread, as new countries were born and old countries died, revolutions came and went, as the world population doubled and doubled again and increased a thousand and ten thousand fold, technological miracles dazzled every generation, this song was there, a song that moved from place to place, sung age after age - a song as peaceful, beautiful, and stable as the faith itself.

And tomorrow, in this small parish in Alabama, it will be sung again, and with our voices and ears, we will participate a piece of that history. In school we were learn about kings, wars, and empires, but what do we really know about what regular people did? Do we know what prayers they said, what songs they sang, what melodies rang in their ears in the day and night? We can know a very important part of this, because we have the chant. It is ever old and ever knew. It is timeless in a way in which kings, wars, and empires are not. It is a tangible thread--a thread made of small sounds--that connects us back to our heritage, ultimately back to the very beginning of our faith.

The whole structure of the liturgy can be said to do the same, but music has a special quality because it can be conjured up anywhere and by anyone. You can hum it while shopping, when you wake in the morning, or you can sing it to a child and the little one can understand before the child can understand words. Those little ears will hear what people for many centuries have heard. Those first six notes of Ave Verum--and this could be said of thousands chant melodies--are a key that open up the history of private life, and link us to those who came before and will follow after we die, in a way that no history book can. And, remarkably, they can give us a foretaste of heaven, so they give us bridge to all time but also into eternity.

Ave verum corpus natum, de Maria Virgine....

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