Learning the Discipline of Chant

Author: W. Patrick Cunningham

Learning the Discipline of Chant

W. Patrick Cunningham

"Whosoever does not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and calculate the cost, and determine whether he has enough resources to build it? Otherwise, after he lays the foundation, and is not able to finish the structure, everyone that sees it mocks him." St. Luke 14:27-29

For about two years, one of the hottest series of titles in the classical music repertoire has been the CD recordings of chant from a hitherto unknown Spanish monastery. Those of us who for years have been encouraging the rediscovery of Gregorian chant consider this musical coup a bittersweet victory. The music has won a devoted musical following, it is true. But the religious significance of the music has been lost, and the highest and best use of the music-worship-remains largely neglected.

A couple of anecdotes will serve to illustrate this reality: As I was browsing through a widely circulated CD catalogue recently, I came upon the first of the albums from the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos, offered as one of the featured recordings. Ironically, the title did not appear under "choral" or "classical" or even "religious" categories. It was classified as "New Age" music. In other words, the catalogue editors were pandering to the Generation X and Hippie crowd. "New Age" music can best be described as "aimless melodies to ingest illegal substances by." Thus the ageless musical prayer of the church has been appropriated as music to get "high" on.

Some days later, as I was leafing through an eclectic journal of aesthetics with a circulation the size of a corporal's guard, I found that someone had written a short article about using chant to establish a meditative atmosphere. The female author described herself as a "hermit-priest" in New Mexico.

These two situations may stand out by being outrageous to a traditionalist, but they represent what the future may portend for chant if the Church does not seize the initiative and reclaim her heritage of plainsong. By standing back and allowing popular cultural use of chant to be diverted into anomalous paths, the Church runs several risks.

In the first place, for reasons we will discuss later, it converts to "easy listening" a music intended for singing in common. Chant is performance music, in the sense that prayer can be performance. It is only secondarily for "listening" or "entertainment." In fact, chant is not entertaining in the popular sense at all. The history of the marketplace proves that. For many years only a handful of chant titles were available on tape or CD. Today, because of trendy market demands, a new title seems to be added every few weeks. But this fad is transitory. In a basic way we abuse the chant if we merely listen to it, instead of using it in worship.

Popular church music, whether it be from the Dameans or the Gaithers, is principally music for listening. Because of the reliance of pop music on rhythmic and melodic gimmicks, much of it is literally impossible to sing in common. In that sense, chant, the consummate music for liturgy, is at its root counter-cultural.

Second, just as with language, so with art, misuse promotes abuse. We have in one human lifetime seen our decadent culture corrupt the written English language. Just as the meanings of words can be changed through repeated misuse (e.g. "Gay" for homosexual, "choice" for complicity in homicide), so can music be misused so frequently as to change its original significance. As examples, consider the many popular songs, like "Pretty Woman," or "Anticipation" that have been licensed for advertising products. In some cases, even the original lyrics have been changed to fix the song's identity forever with that of the product. If we permit chant to be coopted by secular culture, it may take hundreds of years to reclaim it from more perverse connotations.

Third, nothing prevents the music and texts of chant from being altered to fit new uses. Chant was corrupted in some areas during the Middle Ages by ""roping." Words were added to the liturgical text without changing the melody. These words were not always orthodox Catholic doctrine. Thus we could have a perfectly orthodox Gradual text changed into, for instance, a hymn to the Earthgoddess. In the same way, chant melodies can be changed by extension, repetition, or addition. Because of photocopy technology, it would be very easy to fabricate a set of pseudochants in any language, and pass them off as legitimate. Such a turn of events would not easily fool students of the chant, but there are so few of us that our opinions could not seriously impede the advancement of bogus imitations.

Besides, in today's "anything goes" ethics and aesthetics, who would care that the music and text is corrupted, as long as it "feels right"?

But I believe that the worst risk we run by allowing the treasury of chant to fall into impious hands for secular purposes is that we will lose the essential element of chant. That element is best described as its internal discipline. An appreciation of that discipline is the key to understanding the meaning and performance of Gregorian chant. In turn, understanding and regularly praying/performing Gregorian chant is the cornerstone of the edifice of true liturgical renewal.

The first discipline of chant is the relationship between the text and the melody. In the main, the unison vocal line of chant is the servant of the liturgical text. Although plainsong is made up of many standard phrases assembled in a limited, if large, number of combinations, each melody is in some way different from all others, and is well matched to the underlying words. The exceptions to this rule are very few, indeed. The most frequently cited example is the use of the same melody for the Introits to the Feast of the Epiphany, "Ecce Advenit"' and the Common Mass of the Blessed Virgin, "Salve Sancta Parens."

For nearly every other text, a proper melody has been composed. The melody fits the text in three ways. By carefully following the accentuation of the text, the chant avoids emphasizing unimportant words, and draws the participant's attention to the vital ones. As an example, consider the Introit for Ascension. The less important words such as "quid" and "in" are set to single notes, while the vital words for" Galilee," and "heaven" are set to multiples.

There is even some tone painting going on in this magnificent Introit. As the cantor intones "Men of Galilee," the music literally soars upward, in imitation of the Lord's Ascension. Other examples from the chant literature include the old Matins antiphons from Holy Thursday, with their dark tonal references to the traitor Judas. A final instance is found in the Communion antiphon for the Sunday on which the miracle of Cana is celebrated (Second in Ordinary Time). The words of Jesus "Implete hydrias aqua" (fill up the water pots with water) are set to a tune that should remind us of hard, monotonous labor being done. When the words of the winesteward are sung, "Servasti vinum bonum usque adhuc" (You have kept the really good wine until the end!) the melody soars into the musical stratosphere. It sounds like a shrill, pouty remonstrance from a functionary to the householder. These text-enriching melodies are found on almost every page of the chant literature. Some have even become commonplaces in other musical compositions. The most notable of these is the first phrase of the "Dies Irae" from the Tridentine funeral Mass, probably the most frequently quoted fragment in all of musical literature.

The Ascension Introit fragment also introduces us to the second element of chant discipline-the melodic shape. Most plainsong phrases are images of the underlying word-phrase, and have a parabolic shape. Note that the Introit phrase begins at a low pitch, rise in steps and short leaps to a high point in mid- phrase, and then falls off toward the end. Skilled chant singers emphasize this shape by a crescendo of volume to the peak of the phrase, followed by a decrescendo to the end. Chant rarely uses intervals larger than the fourth (C to F). We can contrast this design restraint with much popular "church" music, in which wild intervals and rhythmic syncopation provide artificial musical interest, and the text is deformed from the Scriptural original to fit the modern composer's idea of a melody. As an example of this forcing of text into music, one could examine the old standby "Earthen Vessels" from the St. Louis Jesuits.

The monodic nature of chant is its third distinguishing feature. Monody is an essential part of the chant discipline. It is sometimes confused with monotony. I have good friends, including musicians, who insist that Gregorian chant was "frozen" in its shape too early, and that its natural development would have led to harmonization, as in the Russian Orthodox churches. This idea, however, ignores the fact that Gregorian chant hardly "developed" at all from its roots in the Jewish synagogue. The melodies became more melismatic, more decorative, over time. New melodies were developed as new texts became available. But there is not one shred of evidence that harmonization of chant was used in the Western Church before the rise of organum in the early Medieval period. Because organum was unstable - a transitional form - it evolved rapidly into early polyphony, but nobody would argue that polyphonic music is Gregorian chant.

The reason we can reject harmony-as-chant so decisively is that chant, in its purest, most natural setting, creates its own transitory harmonies. When sung up-tempo in a resonant setting, such as a stone chapel without absorbent acoustical tiles, each series of notes lingers momentarily, blending with its neighbors in thirds and fourths, and generates an ethereal effect. This effect is particularly pronounced when repetition reinforces it, as in the Gradual verse "Benedictus qui venit" from the Dawn Mass of Christmas. In modern musical terms, this melody features an outlined F Major triad, reiterated in a descending manner, and is highlighted by a brief pause after the last note. This triad is commonplace in Gregorian mode 5, and is a feature of the fifth mode psalm tone used in the Liturgy of the Hours.

When one attempts to harmonize the chant, by singing thirds or fourths in parallel to the melodic line, not only are these internal consonances entirely covered up, but some truly awful harmony structures can also be produced. On the other hand, the pure Gregorian melody, when sung briskly by experienced voices, always produces a singularly positive, almost transcendent harmonic effect best experienced in person.

In passing, we must insist that the Church reconsider its romance with plaster and "acoustic" tile if the desire for good music and actual participation in the liturgical mysteries is authentic. I consider the most important facet of the design of a church to be the acoustic effect. If there is adequate reverberation in a building, perhaps three to four seconds or longer, then chant and congregational song will both be effective. Furthermore, even a small pipe organ will sound magnificent. When congregations can hear themselves sing, they will be able to sing. If their hymns and psalms are swallowed up by acoustic tile, they will simply not be able to sing with much intensity.

Unfortunately to produce the kind of magnificent musical results we associate with our best churches, architects must budget for brick and stone walls and floors and hard-surfaced ceilings. Candidly, It is cheaper to use sheetrock and acoustic tile for the interior facings. The argument is somewhat inartfully made that "we can't have reverberant churches because our homilies and prayers are hard to hear." Of course, this argument is fraudulent in the late twentieth century. In order to have both reverberant churches and good speaking acoustics, one must simply design a sound system with an adequate number of loudspeakers, tuned to low volume, close to the listeners. These can be pre-wired through the floors into the pews, or retrofitted through the walls. A civilization that can design theme parks of a couple of hundred acres, with every square meter bathed in environmental sound, can wire a church so everyone can hear the preacher, but be able to experience organ, choir and congregational song fully!

To be frank, Gregorian chant is bound to be far less effective in a church with absorbent acoustics than it can be in a more ideal setting. This may be the reason many who have tried plainsong in a parish have abandoned the attempt: over half the musical effect is lost in the marshmallow insulation that envelops our modern churches.

The final element of chant that exhibits its disciplined nature is the melisma. This is, perhaps, the most beautiful and controversial facet of plainsong. The melody lingers on a syllable of text, chanting ten, fifteen, twenty or more notes to the same sound. In the "Benedictus" cited above, the phrase "et illuxit nobis" (and has shone upon us) ends with a thirty-five note melismus: This is by no means even close to the longest such passage in the literature. Such extensions of the chant seem to the modern ear to be overdone. In a day when "rap" lyrics are fed to the ear like bullets into a Gatling gun, a singer dwelling for such an extended period on one sound sounds affected. The very existence of the "trope" cited earlier demonstrates that other ages agreed with this superficial judgment. Yet melismas are an integral part of the discipline. Listen to a good Jewish cantor for any time to realize why. The melisma is a vital part of the Semitic root of chant.

The music provides a kind of non-verbal interpretation of the Biblical words. It is in effect the emotional context of the textual meaning. Consider one passage from the Christmas Midnight Mass: "In splendoribus sanctorum, ex utero ante luciferum genui te." (In the splendor of the holies, from the womb before the morning star I have begotten You.) On a cognitive level, it would appear that the most important words for musical expression would be "splendoribus," "sanctorum" and "genui te." But the chant setting says something very different: The superficially "important" words are treated casually. The musical high point of the prayer is the phrase "from the womb." The reality that the Godman was literally carried in the uterus/womb of a human being is what leaves the Church awe-struck on Christmas. As Chesterton comments, following the Fathers of the Church, what is astonishing to humans is not that Jesus was God, but that He was truly man. The chant reinforces this sense of awe. Furthermore, the elaborate treatment of "ante luciferum" leaves no doubt that the Church is not thinking of the planet Venus when it sets the child Jesus "before the morning star." There is a clear reference here to the divine Nativity as God's redemptive response to the ancient rebellion of the original summit of creation, the primal morning star now fallen from grace-old Lucifer himself.

In the whole, this wonderful little Communion antiphon from the Christmas liturgy constitutes a kind of liturgical protest song for late twentieth-century America. In its quiet, repetitious melody it offers the Christ child a lullaby. It celebrates the fecundity of the Blessed Virgin in a culture that honors sterility and either ignores or subsidizes infanticide. And in so doing, it thumbs its nose at the spirit of the age and its ancient rebel leader. It is noteworthy that this wonderful text, so beloved to the ancient Church, has been ignored by modern composers.

Now we can return to the stories that began this excursion. In a sense, we can admit that Gregorian chant is "new age" music. It is music from the post-Resurrection world. The Resurrection of Jesus changed everything. It brought new hope and new life to the world. It gave birth to the Church, the Bride. It signs forth to a world of rebellion against God the beauty of a disciplined and obedient liturgical life in Christ. In a real sense the Resurrection gave birth to the chant because it gave the Church a form of expression for the prayer that sprang from the Paschal mystery, the Mass. It is the transformation of the music of the synagogue into the music of the Church. It is the voice of the Bride for her Bridegroom.

We cannot allow chant to be relegated to the realm of "easy listening because chant is not meant to be easy. It is the musical narrow door through which the Church passes daily on her way to praise Her Savior. It demands musical excellence, habitual practice, and a discipline of mind and heart that subordinates the self to the Word even as the melody is subordinated to the text.

A number of years ago a psychiatrist was called in to consult on a monastery that was falling apart because of stress. The clinicians tried everything. Their problems only cleared up when the psychiatrist put them back to regular use of chant in their prayer. Chant is a discipline that cannot be taken up lightly. It is hard work, though uplifting and rewarding. In time, any treatment of chant short of total devotion will be mocked and forgotten.

The Church cannot lose her chant heritage to "the world," because it would be the loss of the artistic soul and disciplined form of Christendom. It therefore follows that to regain that musical form and reclaim it in its richness will be to come closer to the divine intent for the Church. If we accept its internal disciplines, and reappropriate our music as we enter the twenty- first century, we will follow the Master's decree that, as wise householders, we bring forth from our storehouse treasures both old and "new."

W. Patrick Cunningham, CLU, ChFC, MSFS, works for Connecticut Mutual Insurance company. He is also a teaching associate in finance at the University of Texas, San Antonio.

Taken from the July/August 1996 issue of "Fidelity" Magazine, 206 Marquette Avenue, South Bend, IN 46617. Subscription price is $25.00 per year. Letters to the editor may be sent by fax, 219- 289-1461, or by electronic mail to CompuServe 71554,445.