Spirituality of Gregorian Chant, Part 3
Chant is Not Carnal
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.