Saturday, July 31, 2010

Spirituality of Gregorian Chant, Part 3
Chant is Not Carnal
By Ben

Gregorian chant is not the sort of music that gets your toe tapping, and you can’t really dance to it. This is because of its irregular free rhythm. The example given in Part 2 of this series was a simple chant with the rhythm of prose speech. This is quite different from other types of music which have a regularly occurring ‘beat’ a strict recurring rhythmic grid work, 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4 and so forth. This doesn’t mean that chant ‘has no rhythm’. Plato defined rhythm as ‘ordered movement’ but movement doesn’t have to be regular.

In the history of the Church popular (secular) forms of art have been adapted for religious use. This isn’t necessarily wrong in and of itself, but care must be taken to alter these art forms so that they are different (set apart, sanctified). Non-liturgical religious/devotional music is of course less of a problem.

In the past there have been difficulties in adapting entertainment music to religious use (examples in music include the Ars Nova, Symphony, and Opera). Has that really changed today? Music that is intended to entertain is designed to move the emotions or cause one to experience something. And one element of music that can be used is rhythm; just think of the effect dance music with a strong beat has on a person.

Now the emotions and the ‘primal’ part of man--the part which responds to a strong beat--are part of man’s lower nature. By the “lower nature” I mean the carnal, sensual part, the appetites; St. Paul calls it the flesh. Feelings, instincts and such in the lower nature aren’t wrong necessarily, but the lower nature is weak. The lower nature must be governed by the higher nature which is the intellect and will, the divine part of man, St Paul calls it ‘the spirit’.

Gregorian chant does contain emotion, and sometimes intensely. Listen to the long ornamentation on the vowel A at the end of the word alleluia (it’s called the jubilis) Another example would be the Offertory chant ‘Jubilate Deo’ the text of the first line is ‘jubilate Deo universa terrae,” Rejoice in God all the earth.


It repeats and the second time there are 48 notes on the word jubilate which means rejoice, listen.


The distinction should be clear, in Gregorian chant there is a certain sobriety. What I mean is that it is never drunk with emotion. It is structured so as not to excite the passions but rather lift the spirit. Entertaining music is meant to entertain (and there is nothing wrong with that). Chant is designed with a different purpose and doesn’t borrow from secular forms for use in liturgy. Rather it is a product of the liturgy and so set apart (be sacred) in a very pure and natural way.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Attending a Latin Mass parish

Taylor Marshall over at Canterbury Tales shares why he attends a Latin Mass parish.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Spirituality of Gregorian Chant
Part 2
By Ben

In principio erat Verbum. In the beginning was the Word.

Gregorian chant is different from almost all other types of vocal music in that its texts are not fit to music. Most of the words in chant are prose. They are taken from scripture and since they are sacred they aren’t paraphrased to fit the music. Rather the shape of the music is determined by the text.

The simplest form of chant is when a text of scripture is chanted to a ‘tone’ or even 'rectotono’. (single reciting pitch.) Here is an example:
Listening you can see how the music is an expression of prayer, an expression of the sacred text, it flows out from, rather than being imposed upon the words. This idea is pretty basic but also very important. This is different than almost all other types of music.

‘Contemporary’ and other types of religious/devotional music are also divorced from this idea. Other types of music take a sentiment, an emotion, or an idea and create some form of poetry that is regular (prose is irregular) for the purpose of music, this is okay in the right context, but it isn’t sung prayer or at least not in the same sense that chant is.

One might try an experiment to better understand this concept. Take some prayer, perhaps the ‘Glory be to the Father’, and pray it with sincerity by reciting it, then pray it by singing it on a single comfortable pitch. The idea that prayer has burst into music should then become clear.

In conclusion I would like to quote from the book, ‘An Introduction to the Interpretation of Gregorian Chant” by Luigi Agustoni and Johannes Goschl, page two.

“The text is not something that just happens to be attached to a particular melody but rather the text is a sounded word that has flowered into a musical work. The line does not run from the melody to the text that has been set, but on the contrary the exact opposite. The direction is from the word to its realization in musical sound. The source, from which the Gregorian melodies originate and are nourished, is the word. In fact, it is the word of the liturgy, a word that possesses a sacramental character according to the statements of the Second Vatican Council, (*) for Christ is present in it, and in it Christ is received. This word of the liturgy, which in the final analysis is always God speaking to us, that is to say, the encounter of the human being with God, finds its highest expression when it can blossom forth in music. This happens in Gregorian chant to an eminent degree.”

* They reference Art. 51 of the Constitution on the sacred liturgy, “The treasures of the bible are to be opened up more lavishly, so that richer fare may be provided for the faithful at the table of God’s word.”

Friday, July 2, 2010

On chant

The spirituality of Gregorian Chant

Part One, definitions

By Ben


While I am not an expert on the subject of Gregorian Chant, I do know something about it and think that at least a general understanding of the chant would be beneficial for all Catholics. Gregorian chant belongs to and is for, everyone, even those who “cannot sing”.

Before we can talk about the chant, though, we must define it. Musicologists have their own definitions of course (‘Frankish/Roman monophonic liturgical music prior to the tenth century’….etc.) but they are viewing the chant as a musical artifact to be studied like any other fossil. They have a role to play, but we must look at things differently.

Gregorian chant is ancient, its origins/composers are lost in time, it belongs to no one and so it is everyone’s. No single culture can claim it as their own. Like the liturgy itself it has absorbed and surpassed cultures and emerged as purely Christian and universal. For us the chant is alive. It is just as much part of the liturgy now as ever. So, on to some definitions.

For our purposes, Gregorian chant is the native music of the Roman liturgy (other Catholic liturgies, the Ambrosian for example, have their own chant); it is not music that accompanies the liturgy, it is the liturgy, sung. It is in the Latin language. It takes its name from Pope St. Gregory the Great who was very important in the development of the Roman Liturgy (similarly St. Ambrose is important to the Ambrosian Liturgy, to follow my previous example). It is prayer burst into music.

I would like to include some other reasons why we should care about Gregorian chant.

It is the foundation of all western music; musical notation was invented because of it; modern music theory, scales, ABC, Do Re Me--all of it developed as a result of chant. Even types of music that at first glance seem very removed from chant can be traced back to it.

For Christians chant is sacred. Almost all of its texts are from scripture. For Catholics in particular the church has declared, most recently in the Second Vatican Council that chant “has pride of place”.

I hope this sets an adequate foundation for an explanation of the spirituality of the Chant.