I loved my Music History 101 course that began with Gregorian chant, worked its way through motets and madrigals and on to the baroque. I soon realized the history of Western music rolled along with church history and world politics writ large. Composers like Edvard Grieg rode the “nationalistic” music wave right along with the nationalism that eventually led to World War I.
Only occasionally used in liturgies today, plainsong (often called “Gregorian” chant) was dominant in Christian worship until the 12th century. Pope Gregory, who reigned from 590 to 604 AD, is credited with having either compiled the chants or with composing some of them.
I find the music to be haunting, stark, and reverent. It lifts and soothes my spirit at the same time. I hear neither meter (regular beats) nor instruments; only a voice that gently follows a line of square shaped notes, or “neumes,” that create a rising and falling lyrical path. The voice grows louder and softer as the musician intones a Psalm in Latin. For me, chant is evocative and speaks to the soul as can no other musical form.
I don’t recall the choir of my childhood church singing contemporary Christian music. There was no such thing in the 50s and 60s as a traveling “Kingdom Bound Music Festival” or popular Christian bands. I am more familiar with altars, candles, and organ music on Sunday mornings.
“Smells and bells,” describes those traditional church services where incense wafts through the sanctuary, and the acolyte rings a hand bell at certain points in the day’s liturgy. Some teens today have probably never smelled incense and may wonder why you would ring hand bell in church anyway. Don’t get me wrong. I can sing and shout with the best of them as we “make a joyful noise unto the Lord,” but I fear we are losing part of the church’s (and world’s) precious heritage when the contemporary is the only music played in our worship services.
Listening to chant, I close my eyes and I am in a gothic cathedral. Surrounded by marble and stone, I feel a draft, and sniff the hint of sacred smoke. Cowled monks face each other at the foot of a marble altar and their solemn voices echo along the nave. A huge stained glass window above the altar sheds prisms of light that become shimmering mosaics on the stone floor. I feel I can almost touch that blessed realm that surrounds us, where the cherubim and seraphim sing “Holy Holy” and God is continually glorified. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WuK59jQ5bwU
The chant ends and now I hear another medieval composition. Here, another voice joins the first one and they become like musical vines, each weaving its melodic tendril around the other. The polyphonic (many voices) song becomes thicker and richer as even more voices join in and meander to the final note. For me, this early medieval motet is for my spirit what a rare fine wine is for my palate.
The Taizé Community is an ecumenical Christian fraternity in Taizé, Saône-et-Loire, Burgundy, France —like the St Dismas monastery in my novel The Divine Meddler. https://www.google.com/search?gs_ssp=eJzj4tTP1TcwLivKSjNg9GItScysSgUAMrQFlw&q=taize&oq=taize&aqs=chrome.1.69i59j46i275i433i512j0i512l4j0i10i512j46i512j0i512j69i59.9768j0j1&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8
If you click on the site and follow the links you will hear music based on chant, but a little less austere to appeal to the modern ear. I so wish all Christian churches occasionally worshipped with chant. Like the death of so much we once treasured, if we lose this musical gem forever, we will be the poorer for it.
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