Sunday, March 11, 2012
(Illuminated manuscript of Gregorian
chant, likely fourteenth century, part
of the collection at McMaster University,
For almost ten years now, I have begun my mornings by listening to Gregorian chants. My favorites are the recordings by the monks of St. Peter’s Abbey, Solesmes, France, and of Stift Heiligenkreuz, near Vienna (click here for a sample of their singing).
Gregorian chant, also known as plainsong, is named after Pope Gregory I (540?-604), who is said to have standardized this form of liturgical music sung in Latin. It is composed of a single vocal line, free of rhythm and sung in unison.
This beautiful and serene music points my day in the right direction. “Chant calls us first and foremost to a sense of unity,” writes Katherine Le Mée in Chant: The Origin, Form, Practice, and Healing Power of Gregorian Chant, “a unity that exists between singer, listener, and the sound itself. It invites us to join together for a few moments in what is essentially an act of worship. We fall still, and then quietly and gently the chant rises. We are carried along together on the crest of its wave . . . As the wave touches back to shore we remain awake and more at rest. We have experienced what [the French philosopher] Jacques Maritain speaks of as ‘the intercommunion of all things, among themselves and with us, in the creative flow from which all existence comes.’”
IN COMMENDATION OF MUSIC
When whispering strains do softly steal
With creeping passion through the heart
And when at every touch we feel
Our pulses beat and bear a part;
When threads can make
A heartstring shake,
Can scarce deny
The soul consists of harmony.
When unto heavenly joy we feign
Whate’er the soul affecteth most,
Which only thus we can explain
By music of the wingéd host,
Whose lays we think
Make stars to wink,
Can scarce deny
Our souls consist of harmony.
O lull me, lull me, charming air,
My senses rock with wonder sweet;
Like snow on wool thy fallings are,
Soft, like a spirit’s, are thy feet:
Grief who need fear
That hath an ear?
Down let him lie
And slumbring die,
And change his soul for harmony.
~ William Strode (1600?-1645), English poet