Friday, June 27, 2008

Music for the Soul, US release on Tuesday

Gregorian chant is back again in the billboard charts, hitting number one in the UK classical charts and in the top ten of all music, besting Madonna and other groups I've never heard of but which are apparently hugely popular. The CD in question is "Chant: Music for Paradise," or, as it is called in the US release set for Tuesday, "Chant: Music for the Soul."

Note that it is #11 on all music on Amazon now, beating Motley Crue, "Evil Urges," "Rock and Roll Jesus," and "Modern Guilt.," not to mention Madonna.

(It is interesting to ponder why the production company believes that the word "soul" is more popular in the US and "paradise" is more popular in Europe.)

The singing is done by the Cistercian monks of Stift Heiligenkreuz (Holy Cross) in Austria. The chants are from the Requiem Mass and office. The opening song is "In Paradisum," which sounds hopeful and beautiful but takes on a new caste when you realize that its historic association is with a graveside procession or possibly a coffin being lowered into the ground.

The quality of singing is unspeakably beautiful, even perfect. That 20 singers could so perfectly coordinate every consonant, vowel, crescendo, phrase, and cut offs must amaze any and every choral conductor. And it is not just perfect on one song but every chant and everything about every chant. Your jaw will drop on the first hearing, and then you feel the desire to listen to it a thousand times over.

The chants they sing are not from the Roman Gradual that is used in our parishes and cathedrals (or should be, in any case). The Cistercians have their own music books, so the chants are slightly different. There are different expressive neumes in them, and some extra melismatic phrases. For those who know the Roman chants, these make fascinating listening, as a highlight to the diversity of style of chant. There is not one tradition called "Gregorian chant" but many editions of music for the Roman Rite.

We can learn something about the debates within chant scholarship just by listening. The monastery was founded in 1133 by St. Leopold III of the House of Babenberg. The chant there has never stopped, so we have a case of a continuous tradition, as one generation of singers rolls into the next. It is highly unlikely that a new monk could show up and say, "here is a great new way to render this rhythm!" and get away with it. Chant masters like Ted Marier and Anthony Ruff point out that they have never had success in changing the way monasteries sing. The groups revert to the old way overnight.

So what do we hear here? We can detect a relentless pulse underneath the music. The melodic lines are free and undulating like a vast river but there is a sturdy substructure that is firmly organized to keep the singers together and secure, and this substructure is neither random nor dictated from on high. It is a shared understanding among all singers, one that partakes of the precise apparatus culled together by the Solesmes chant masters when they set out to teach the entire Catholic world to sing. So what we have in this recording is a reliable indicator of how the chant might have sounded in the 12th century and earlier. All those involved in the debates about chant rhythm would do well to listen and learn.

Let us ask the obvious question: how can we account for the secular popularity of chant?

First, it is enormously beautiful and worth from a purely musical perspective. The tunes are varied and express the widest possible range of emotion. They are also singable – some of the most beautiful music ever composed. And they have that special quality that causes them to last the ages. If you have ever attempted to write a song, you know how difficult it is to come up with anything that lasts longer than a few years at best. Master melodists like Haydn and Brahms could do this but in Gregorian chant we have the model and ideal. Also, consider the sheer length of phrases in chant. They last and last, with seamless integration over extended periods. I mean not only the development of the melody but the melody itself. We marvel that Mahler could do this in his symphonies but in chant we have tens of thousands of examples of the same thing using not orchestras of hundreds of players but just unison lines of one part. To me, that is amazing.

Second, the music has a holy quality that suggests a sacred space, and this comes at a premium in a world devoid of sacred spaces. Our intellects and souls cry out to touch something pure, fundamental, and eternal. Not even our churches qualify in most cases, especially with their loud drums and guitars or their boring metrical hymnody that never quite takes flight. With this CD, however, we can put it in our car stereos or home systems and experience something of a sacred space that we can create ourselves. It is no substitute for being at the monastery or in a church where it is sung but it is substitute we can conjure up quickly. The demand for this CD expresses the universal demand for the sacred. Why is the music holy? Here we delve into a mysterious area that I can't quite understand. Is it the modal structure, the lack of evenly divided metrics, the language, the compatibility with the God-given instrument of the voice, or that this music has all those elements? Maybe this issue will always remain as mysterious as it is undeniable.

Third, this music represents something unifying, depoliticized, and harmonious in a world of national division, war, economic crisis, and controversy between peoples. Here we have music that is uber-multicultural, as appealing to a peasant in Brazil as a hunter in Uganda or a latte-sipper in Seattle. There is an ongoing fashion to learn about the music of other peoples as a means to unifying our world. But unification doesn't come through mere appreciation of differences but by finding commonalties. I might suggest that Gregorian chant might be uniquely qualified as constituting universal music in our times. After all, we find here the very roots of nearly all that is known as music in the West.

Consider, too, the striking irony that this new CD has been produced and is being marketed by thoroughly secular company: Universal music. This company might be responsible for some of the most disgusting and culturally degrading trash music being produced today. And yet here the secular and sacred meet in a glorious way to bring holy art to the whole world. Benedict XVI often refers to the need for a "healthy secularism" in which non-sacred institutions can work to serve sacred ends. Perhaps this is an example of what he means. May the work of Stift Heiligenkreuz and Universal come together to convert our church musicians and then convert the world.

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