Saturday, February 08, 2020

Gregorian Chant: Perfect Music for the Sacred Liturgy

Last week I posted at Rorate Caeli the full text and video of the presentation I gave at the Sacred Liturgy Conference in Spokane in May 2019, under the title “Gregorian Chant: Reservoir of Faith, Wellspring of Devotion.” I am especially grateful to Marc Salvatore who produced a first-class video that includes my illustrations (e.g., a liturgical map of the Old World) and musical examples. My goal was to furnish a pretty comprehensive introduction to the history, functions, characteristics, and unique fittingness of Gregorian chant for the Roman rite.

Some excerpts:
Since chant was the custom-made music that had grown up with the Church’s liturgy, the chant traveled wherever the liturgy traveled. No one dreamed of separating the texts of the liturgy from their music; they were like a body-soul composite, or a happily married couple. Or you could compare the chant to the vestments worn by the priest. The chants are the garments worn by the liturgical texts! We might even dare, with medieval freedom, to apply the words of Psalm 103 to the chant in relation to the liturgy: “Thou hast put on praise and beauty: and art clothed with light as with a garment.” In the Transfiguration of Christ, there were two elements: the mortal body of our Savior; and the radiance of glory He allowed to shine through His body from a soul already enraptured in the beatific vision. In some ways, the chanted text is a transfigured text, radiant with an otherworldly glory that reminds us of our true home.
In all religions of the world, we find the chanting of sacred texts. This universal practice derives from an intuitive sense that holy things and the holy sentiments that go along with them should not be talked about as ordinary everyday things are, but elevated to a higher level through melodious modulation—or submerged into silence. Authentic rituals, therefore, tend to alternate between silences and chanting. Both of these may take place by themselves or in conjunction with symbolic actions. The contrast between singing, which is human expression at its highest, and silence, which is a deliberate withholding of discourse, is more striking than the contrast between speaking and not speaking. The former is like the rise and fall of ocean waves, while the latter seems more like switching a lightbulb on and off. Speech is primarily discursive and instructional, aimed “at” a listener, while song, which more easily and naturally unites many singers into one body, is capable of being in addition the bearer of feelings and of meanings that go beyond what words can convey, greatly augmenting the penetrating power of the words themselves. We find this especially in the “melismas” of chant, the lengthy melodic elaborations on a single syllable that give voice to inner emotions and aspirations that words cannot fully express.
Gregorian chant is “ametrical” or “non-metrical”—the only music of its kind in the Western tradition. Gregorian musical phrases follow the irregular rhythm of scriptural texts. Unlike the pagan poets of Greece and Rome, the Hebrews did not have metered poetry. The Greek and Latin translations of the Psalms, faithful to the character of the original, are not metrical either. Moreover, the Church Fathers were opposed to the use of strongly rhythmical music in the liturgy—“music with a beat”—as it smacked too much of pagan cults. Because chant is not confined to a predetermined grid of beats, such as duple or triple time (think: a march or a waltz) but conforms to the syllables of the words, its phrases seem to float, flow along, meander, and soar. It breathes rather than marches ahead; it moves with a wave-like undulation, or like birds circling in the sky. Non-metricality and modality are the two characteristics that most obviously distinguish chant from all other music. A large part of the “magic” of chant is caused by its unconstrained fluidity and freedom of motion, which seems to break out of the hegemony of earthly time and the constraints of the flesh represented by the beat.
Because our ears are so habituated to the major/minor key system, Gregorian chants, which employ eight different modes that seldom conform to our modern musical expectations, strike us as otherworldly, introspective, haunting, incomplete, or to use a term that has been applied to Byzantine icons, “brightly sad.” We should rejoice in this fact, which illustrates a general rule: an ancient art form is more, not less, likely to be associated by a modern believer with the holiness and unchanging truth of God, His strangeness or otherness, His transcendent mystery, the special homage He deserves, and the need for our conversion from the flesh to the spirit, that is, from a worldly mentality to a godly one: “Be not conformed to this world, but be reformed in the newness of your mind” (Romans 12:2). The very differentness of the art form, which the passing of ages has accentuated, acquires theological and religious significance. We see the same thing with the use of ancient liturgical languages, silver or gold chalices, ornamented priestly vestments, the wearing of veils by women, and Romanesque or Gothic architecture. All of these things have acquired expressive and impressive power due to their longstanding exclusive association with divine worship. In other words, I want to say that we have advantages, in a sense, that medieval people didn’t have.
The vast majority of Latin chants were composed by anonymous monks, cantors, and canons. We will never know their names in this life. What a healthy corrective to the egotism that often comes with artistic creativity and performance! Chant quenches distinctive personality—both in that we usually do not know its author, and in that we cannot “shine” or stand out in a rock-star way when singing chant in a schola or congregation. It works against the desire for show, encourages a submersion of one’s individuality in Christ, and makes us act and feel as members of the Mystical Body. Like other traditional liturgical practices, use of chant strips us of the old man and clothes us with Christ. This process of conversion needs to be gentle and continual if it is to be ultimately successful. It cannot be the result of fits of enthusiasm, emotional highs, or psychological violence.
Human beings are made for the contemplation of God. Gregorian chant prepares us for this contemplation and inaugurates it. It is music evoking and drawing us towards the beatific vision. In particular, the melismas express “the ineffable sighs and groanings” of the Spirit. Gregorian chant—and, in a different but complementary way, the quiet low Mass—brings something of the revitalizing spirit of the cloister, the tranquility of the monastic “search for God,” into every church. If monasticism is simply the Christian baptismal vocation lived out as radically and integrally as possible, then our liturgy, too, should have this monastic core identity, purity, and efficacy. Without it, we are already on a downward course into superficiality, distraction, and worldliness.
Read the rest here.

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