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Musical Musings: Miscellaneous

Singing with the Angels

by Rembert Herbert

In order to understand the perennial appeal and importance of Gregorian chant, we must understand its function within the monastic culture. The monastic writers saw (as we do not) that in our fallen state we have no authentic "interior life." We look inside ourselves and we see fatigue, worry, and opinions, or perhaps (on a good day) enthusiasm, joy, and hope, and we know that all of these emotions are important to us; they are our life, our humanity. But even the best of them are what monastic writers call "the world." They reflect and respond to what is around us. They are not really "interior," but are the result of our having internalized the outside world. And as Saint Augustine put it, "All these seeming sources of worldly happiness are the dreams of sleepers." And so, according to the Fathers, we go through our lives in a noisy waking dream.

Monastic writers agree that in order to enter the life of prayer, the way of perfection, we must begin to resist these influences from the world. In order to have space for the Holy Spirit, in order for there to be enough silence that its voice can be heard, we have to become poor, empty of these images of the world. As Saint Gregory writes: "Unless there is an ardent striving of the heart, the water of the world is not surmounted, that water by which the soul is ever being borne down to the lowest place." Monastic teaching associates music with this "ardent striving" against the "waters of the world." The singing of psalms, especially, is recommended as a means of emptying the mind, gathering the attention, and opening oneself to the world of sacred Scripture. Saint Basil writes: "Rising up from prayers [the monks] begin the psalmody...thus reinforcing the study of the scriptural passages, and at the same time producing for themselves attentiveness and an undistracted heart."

This understanding of the role of music seems to be in opposition to most of our current thinking, even about sacred music. Many of us love music precisely because it expresses feelings and stirs emotions. And there is unquestionably an important role for this kind of music in our churches. But what I am asking you to consider here is a special but vital case, the case of music as ascetic discipline.

It is often said that the music of the chant is a perfect vehicle for its words, but from the orthodox point of view, that statement is not quite on the mark. Chant is not primarily concerned with the literal text, as the ancient monastic culture which created the chant was not primarily concerned with the literal text. Chant is concerned with the Word with a capital "W." That Word doesn't exist on the page; it exists only in the heart. So the chant is not based on a two-way marriage between words and music, but on a three-way relationship involving the words, the music, and the person. If we see that the purpose of the chant is to connect the text with the awakened intelligence of a human being, then we see that the standards we must apply are not those we are accustomed to seeing applied when we speak of the text/music relationship. We are not dealing with an art song by Schubert or Debussy. It is not necessary to make excuses for a musical accent which doesn't fall exactly where the text says it should, or for a musical phrase that doesn't quite match a verbal phrase. The music must accommodate the text in these literal ways, of course, and on the whole it does. But sacred Scripture in its living, symbolic sense places very different demands on the music than these. In fact, these demands of the spirit sometimes contradict the criteria of the art song.

The Singer Listens

The traditional name for a chant choir, of course, is schola cantorum, which is usually translated roughly as "school of singing." But from the point of view we are taking, it would be more accurate to describe a chant choir as a "school of speaking," in which singers learn to speak the text with a quiet mind, in simplicity, emptied of the world, and so with an awakened intelligence, with an active sense of the sacred Source of the text, of its life as the Word. It is this intuition of the Source which is essential, more essential than the literal meaning of any particular passage, since according to the Fathers, all sacred Scripture is one, and speaks the single message of its divine Author, which message is the cosmic love of Christ. Music, text, and singer become connected when the singer, even briefly, speaks or sings with this knowledge of the Source.

Listening is at the heart of this discipline of speaking. Saint Bernard writes, "We merit the beatific vision by our constancy in listening;" and again, "Because the sense of sight is not yet ready, let us rouse up our hearing. The hearing, if it be loving, alert and faithful, will restore the sight." And Saint Gregory of Nyssa, commenting on the line, "The heavens declare the glory of God," from Psalm 19, writes: "When the hearing of the heart has been purified, then will a man hear this sound."

Saint Gregory the Great gives us a practical model for the singer of chant in his many descriptions of holy prophets and preachers, those who speak the Word of the Holy Spirit by listening to what is being said within them, and who therefore speak the Word, as Gregory puts it, "in its own voice," not in their own. By listening inwardly, and speaking only that which he hears spoken by the Spirit, the prophet feeds himself and his hearers with the manna of the sacred Word. As Gregory puts it: "Those prophets feed others by speaking, who are themselves fed by listening to that which they speak." For those of us who are not quite prophets, the chant is a discipline which points us in the right direction, which demands that we sing the sacred text while listening, both to other singers and to what we can hear within ourselves. If we are faithful, we too may be led to speak the text "in its own voice," not our own.

For a choir, the discipline of listening has a very practical basis. In the absence of a conductor, and ideally for chant there should be no conductor, a substantial level of listening attention is required just to keep the music from falling apart or bogging down. There are no external supports. But even at a practical level, the singers discover that this kind of listening sets something to work inside them which is more than practical. The mind is being led toward quiet and awakening even as the ear is being stretched.

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Part 2: Images from Scripture

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