Friday, March 07, 2008

The Lord Cried out to Lazarus: the chant

Earlier I posted on the early operas, and how they combined drama and music to make a unique art form. But we should not believe that this was done first in the 17th century. Indeed, the integration of story telling with music is part of the Gregorian tradition, so much so that it is, at times, completely undeniable, as this weekend's communion chant shows.

So far as I know, there are two types who deny that Gregorian chant has musical drama that is reflective of the text -- or "word painting" as it is often called. There are scholars who want to treat chant as if it were a fossil to be studied that way scientists examine rocks and things, not as something purposive and living but as a relic of a past age that exists independent from any life form that we know today. The chant in their hands becomes little more than an assembly of predictable motifs, primitive patterns of note arrangements that are no more sophisticated than ancient folk art.

There is another type that disparages the human drama of chant: contemporary musicians who think chant is nothing more than an medieval expression of penance, something sung under the duress imposed by an overweening clerical class.

All that said, it's time that people begin to realize that chant is both ageless and packed with amazing story-telling drama that is typical of the highest art. It's subtle but is there if you think of it. It also communicated with style and flare. So let us think of this song about the miracle of Lazuras's being raised from the dead.

Jesus observes with sadness that his friend Lazarus was dead in the tomb, and the music is intense but very sad. He cries, and the tension grows until we come to the amazing words of Jesus himself. Here the melody takes off and reaches its highest point: Lazare, veni foras.

Next comes the response. Lazarus rises, and so does the chant again. His hands are bound, and so are his feet, and can it really be completely random that the chant reaches its lowest point on pedibus? Surely not. Finally at the end, we get a report of the most astonishing thing of all: he had been dead for four days. This is underscored by the most mysterious moment of the chant, beginning below the final and moving with a quilisma to the fa of this melody. Some scholars have said that this should be sung with a shake in the voice, a practice usually discouraged in parish use, but one can see it here. It can only add to the meaning.

So we can see here that dramatic stories in song, accompanied by action--in this case communion--did not begin with Monteverdi.

Lazarus lives. So does the chant.

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