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On Gregorian chant

The relationship of the arts to Christianity yielded liturgical practices in the Middle Ages that survive to this day and which reflect the whole range of aesthetic practice, from the use of vestment colors to the development of more elaborate architectural schemes (including extraordinary stained glass depictions aimed to spiritually and physically elevate the eye toward the heavens) and the organization of sounds and smells (especially incense) that aimed to create an overarching sense of encountering the Divine.  At a time when congregants were often illiterate and uneducated, the Church made the Latinate mass accessible by the layering on of liturgical drama and ritual.

All of this evolved into highly specialized practices, and for those (like me) not raised in the Catholic or Anglican tradition, the subtleties of variation and repetition are too easily lost.  This is especially true of Gregorian chant (named, of course, for Pope Gregory the Great, who composed and encouraged certain plainsong practices); as WIlliam Mahrt has noted, “although remarkable for its beauty and art, its styles are differentiated according to the purpose of the text which they set.  For each kind of text, there is a particular style of singing which has its own rhetoric, differentiating and identifying that text and giving it suitable expression according to its function” (24).

The priest or other cleric sings two kinds of texts – lessons and prayers.  For each of these, simple formulae serve to deliver the text clearly and effectively, and at the same time to suggest something of its character.  These simple melodies set the grammatical structure of the texts, providing a comma at mid-sentence and a period at the end.  The tone for the first lesson, usually from the Prophets, has a certain harshness, and something of the character of a prophecy in the trumpet-like interval of a fifth; its astringent half-step comma gives it an ascetic, even harsh quality we might associate with a prophet…  The final lesson, from the Gospel, is sometimes sung to an extremely simple tone, sometimes to a more attractive melody.  In either case, the melody distinguishes the Gospel from the previous lessons.

That these and many other structural features of the chants have remained virtually untroubled for almost 1000 years (and the recorded antecedents go back to the late sixth century AD) attests to their continuing spiritual vitality, and more generally to their capacity to induce a sense of the sublime in hearers.  Given this, it seems curious that over time, sharp disagreements provoked by the practice of Gregorian chant have sometimes led the Catholic Church to explicitly discourage its use, and chanting within the context of liturgical practice has often been less visible.

Many explanations are offered that can be easily debunked.  One common misconception is that Gregorian chant fell totally out of favor during the Renaissance, when polyphonic music came more fully into style, but actually even then (for example, prominently in the French monasteries) chant was still nurtured.  Although the Second Vatican Council specifically affirmed the appropriate place of Gregorian chant, another misconception (which arises from the mistaken idea that the Second Vatican outlawed the Latin mass) is that the Church discourages Gregorian chant because it is not performed in the local vernacular.  Still, because singing the older versions mean the mass is not being performed in line with the 1969 revisions of the Latin Missal, some uses of chanting have been discouraged.

I often listen to recorded Gregorian chant as I write or read, since I find its rhythms soothing even when I am wholly separated from its sacred context and although I lack enough skill in Latin to closely follow the meaning.  It has become popular folklore to say that Gregorian chant produces beta waves in the brain which in turn have a calming and meditative effect; I’m not sure whether that’s why I listen or not, but I do find that when I’m listening I can settle more easily into a focused concentration to the task at hand.

As I learn more about the history of Gregorian chanting, I am struck at how many points of contact arise in the scholastic debates with an affinity to current debates over language and rhetoric.  The suasory power of chant derives from its full integration within an embodied context of ritual and wide-ranging connections with all the senses (which is to say, chant is not simply an mechanism of the verbal conveyance of meaning).  The academic disputes center on issues like the various paths of intellectual diffusion and shifts from orality to literacy that will be very familiar to historians of public address and rhetoric.  And scholars of the Gregorian repertory have recently been arguing over the flow of transnational musical discourses in a manner that would be fully recognizable to those at work on globalization topics today.

One of the chief theories, vigorously defended by Kenneth Levy (an emeritus music professor at Princeton and a world-renowned scholar of plainsong), dates the emergence of neumes (the often very precise plainsong notational system) as having its start early, propagated by the early Carolingian Renaissance (the continental aftermath of the reigns of Charlemagne and Louis the Pious);  it was the resulting educational reforms of Alcuin at schools designed to culturally reunify Europe that revitalized the ancient trivium – which included rhetoric – as standard educational method.  Levy has offered a significant revision in the normal timeline as Gregorian/plainsong practices flowed back and forth across Gallic, Frank, Roman, Hispanic, and Byzantine culture, changing and evolving along the way.  He argues that the influence was Gallic-to-Roman and not the other way around.  This hypothesis faces something of an uphill battle among musicologists, though it is taken very seriously, because the dominance of Roman intellectual practices means that evidence of influences on intellectually imperial practices flowing in the opposite direction is hard to find (as Levy puts it, “eventual departures from” Roman musical practice “were unlikely to be proclaimed”).

The orality-origins thesis did not emerge until championed by Helmut Hucke and Leo Treitler in the late 1970’s – before then the assumption was that the original Ur-text version of the chant had been written down from the outset and had simply disappeared.  Interestingly, the dawning recognition that chant (like other modes of public address) started in mechanisms of oral delivery preserved by memorization before it was codified as written script follows a very similar trajectory as rhetorical studies, since the orality/literacy thesis made famous by Walter Ong’s book on the subject in the early 1980’s had already widely circulated thanks to papers he published in the 1960’s and early 70’s.  Because the implications of the arguments over Gregorian chant are considerable for the region’s history, Emma Hornby has noted that “scholarly emotions have tended to run high in this debate” (422).

My own interest in Gregorian chant, and a key to my own tendency to return to it over and again, relates to the sense of mystery it evokes precisely because it sung in a language I do not understand.  My reactions mirror those reported by the religious sociologist Peter Berger, who found himself curiously moved in the early 70’s by a mass done at Stockholm in Swedish:  his conclusion (quoting Jacques Janssen) “was that precisely the use of an unknown or incompletely known language heightens and deepens the power of the ritual” (55).  Experiences like this led Berger to famously argue that making the worship experience wholly transparent and understandable was also, paradoxically, robbing it of its sacred mystery and trivializing the meaning of the Gospel message.  Partly this rests on a sense that when one believes the Divine Other to be wholly comprehensible, then one loses the necessary predicate that some aspects of God remain beyond our cognitive capacity.  Berger called attention to the related and more-than-simply-coincidental fact that two of the world’s major faith traditions, Islam and Judaism, remain faithfully dedicated to the languages of their origin.  [These ideas have a secular counterpart, perhaps best illustrated by Gustav Mahler’s decision to strip the titles off his compositions on the view that the titles were overdetermining the reception of the music.]

For me this evokes something of a cognitive dissonance because of my long-standing and negative visceral response to certain Christian fundamentalists who claim to be “speaking in tongues” even though they are not speaking any recognizable foreign language (unlike the kind of miraculous speaking in a foreign language that Peter accomplished at Pentacost when trying to convert a multinational crowd), and who to my ears seem to me hopelessly lost in infantile babble.  Can it be that I underestimate the spiritual power of this untranslatable stew?  Should I credit its very incomprehensibility as conveying something of the Divine?

I resist such a move.

The allure (at least for me) of Gregorian chant is its ritualized predictability, the fact that I know it to be an effort to use actual words from a different language to bring prayers to life even when one (paradoxically) lacks the capacity to make logical sense of the power of prayer, and this seems to be missing in the more effusively spontaneous eruption into babble.  Janssen makes this point very well, I think, in defending the “magic” of Gregorian chant, noting how “the logic of religious language does not reside in its intelligibility, nor in its communicative power.  In several religions the liturgical language is understood only by a minority of adepts, and sometimes no one understands what is being said, not even the one who is speaking.  It is an old profundity with biblical roots that he who speaks about God will stammer and stutter.”  Extending the point, Janssen writes,

The magical effect of Gregorian chant is known of old.  Even the term “placebo effect” – by now a methodological term to measure magical effectiveness – has been derived from plainsong.  Since the Middle Ages the antiphon “Placebo Domino” (“I will please the Lord,” Psalm 114, 9), followed by the complete psalm, was sung during vespers in the evening of the day of death.  Thus, the text of the antiphon contains the first words to resound in church after someone’s death.  When the physicians can achieve nothing more, “vigils” are sung, i.e., “placebo” (62).

Janssen elaborates these ideas by noting how Dante’s Divina Comedia becomes less intelligible the closer the journey gets to Heaven, as it winds its way toward the Mount of Purification (where Dante says Gregorian chant is heard, at that stopping point between earth and heaven).

The implication, of course, is that language attains its highest intelligibility in hell.

SOURCES:  Jacques Janssen, “Modulating the Silence: The Magic of Gregorian Chant,” Logos 4.4 (Fall 2001): 55-72; William Peter Mahrt, “Gregorian Chant as a Fundamentum of Western Musical Culture:  An Introduction to the Singing of a Solemn High Mass,” Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 33.3 (December 1979): 22-34; Kenneth Levy, Gregorian Chant and the Carolingians (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1998); Levy, “Gregorian Chant and the Romans,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 56.1 (2003): 5-41; Levy, “Charlemagne’s Archetype of Gregorian Chant,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 40.1 (Spring 1987): 1-30; David Hiley, Western Plainchant: A Handbook (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993); Emma Hornby, “The Transmission of Western Chant in the 8th and 9th Centuries: Evaluating Kenneth Levy’s Reading of the Evidence,” Journal of Musicology 21.3 (Summer 2004): 418-457.


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