Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Chant East and West (My Christmas/Epiphany Music, Part 4)

Medieval illuminated chant manuscript
We are now moving toward the Epiphany/Theophany events and their celebration as the manifestation of the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, dwelling among us. This gives us a good opportunity to grow in appreciation for that which is called "sacred music" in the primary and eminent sense: the great liturgical chants hallowed by ancient or (at least) long-standing usage in public worship.

As I have said before, I find beauty in music in diverse and analogous senses, and I appreciate—in the right place, at the right time—good contemporary popular music, jazz, folk and roots music from all over the world, classical music, vocal and instrumental music of all kinds, electronic music, blues and gospel music, etc. All of these ways of crafting sound have their measure of aesthetic excellence, and in their attainment of beauty they are also good and therefore can be edifying.

Some of these forms can be constructed and presented in ways conducive to prayer, and in the appropriate circumstances can contribute to youth gatherings, pilgrimages, prayer meetings, and even parts of the liturgy. It is very moving to see and hear this done well, in a fitting manner, by artists who are themselves people of deep faith and prayer. Unfortunately, it is much more common to find it done badly, carelessly, disjointed from its context. Instead of fostering prayer, it becomes distracting, intrusive, or annoying.

The Lord deserves our best, and there are certainly different ways we can offer that to him in our songs.

But the great ancient chants have endured as liturgical worship music down the centuries for a reason. In them sensible sound draws our complex humanity into simplicity and "silence," and stirs the apex of the soul to prepare us to encounter God. These chants have come forth from prayer and lead back to prayer. They are the fruit of profound communion with God, self-offering, and suffering. They are, so to speak, icons written with sound.

Even in chant, however, there is the concreteness of human expression marked by the history of the great liturgical traditions and the cultures and peoples among whom they arose, our ancestors who continue to be alive within the Communion of Saints.

I can only touch very briefly on these excerpts, and then allow the music to "speak" for itself.

Most familiar to me, of course, is the chant that holds preeminence in the Roman Rite, the most widely used ancient chant of the "Western" liturgical tradition, the Gregorian chant. Pope Saint Gregory the Great (c. 540-604) is the patron of the Roman liturgy.

The traditional Western celebration of the Epiphany focuses on the arrival of the "Magi" from the East to present gifts to the newborn King (as narrated in the beginning of chapter 2 of Matthew's gospel). In these visitors, we can see a symbol of all the nations of the earth, and thus the nations are represented as "present" at the beginning of Christ's coming into the world.

Listen here to the noble simplicity of Gregorian chant in this recorded (and visual) presentation of the Vidimus Stellam, the Gospel Acclamation that immediately precedes the reading (or chanting) of the Gospel for the Mass of the Epiphany in the Roman Rite: "Alleluia. We have seen his star in the East, and we have come with our gifts, to adore the Lord."


Take a moment to lift up your mind and heart to God. We are not in a hurry.

Take some time.

We can perceive in this chant something of the spirit of the monastic life in its gentle rhythm, great peace, interior focus, and the seeking of God and the finding of him in adoration and worship. For well over a millennium and still today, monasteries have prayed using Gregorian chant in different degrees, manners, and adaptations.

But it's not only for monasteries.

The verse above, of course, is primarily intended for a single voice (the cantor), and many chants in public Mass settings are sung by a small, trained choir. Nevertheless much Gregorian chant (especially chant of the basic prayers of the Roman liturgy) is accessible to congregational singing, with a little pastoral initiative, attention, and effort. It's an effort worth making.

Meanwhile, although the Western liturgical tradition is the most widely diffused throughout the world, it is not the only tradition. Let us take time to look to the East.

The Byzantine liturgical tradition has Saint John Chrysostom (c. 347-407) as its primary patron. The high point of the Christmas season in the Byzantine tradition is the celebration of the Theophany on January 6th (which corresponds to the Western traditional feast of "The Baptism of the Lord" on the Sunday following January 6th).

Here the focus is entirely on Christ's baptism in the Jordan river as a corollary event to his birth. The revelation of the Trinity in the Spirit descending in the appearance of a dove, the Father's voice, and the flesh of the Word plunged into the river radically "consecrates" all the waters of the world and establishes the foundation for the sacrament of baptism, the new birth of the Christian in Christ.

Byzantine chant has great solemnity and also various styles, as we shall hear by way of a small example. First, here is the "Theophany Hymn" chanted in Greek: All you that in Christ have been baptized have put on Christ, Alleluia. This beautiful hymn is accompanied in this video by a fine visual presentation of different icons. Listen and watch here:


Take some silent time if you wish.

When the Byzantine tradition moved beyond the Greek speaking Eastern Roman Empire later in the first millennium, it both shaped and was shaped by the distinctive peoples and languages of the Slavic world. A different style emerged within the Byzantine rite, expressed in a different language that can still be heard today, that has become known as Church Slavonic.

This video presents a different verse from the same Byzantine liturgy for the feast of the Theophany, in a different language (though here I think it is Russian rather than Church Slavonic). Listen to the very distinctive beautiful style of the old Slavonic chant:


What tremendous music this is.

I'm putting these various links here, but please don't feel like you have to rush though them. Come back to these links whenever you want, or go on YouTube to listen to more, or take a course on sacred music, join your parish choir, or go on a retreat, go pray.

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Welcome back.

We're going to take a turn to something very different in sound and language from what we have heard in the Latin, Greek, and Slavic traditions. Ironically, however, this ancient chant may be closer to the musical style and language of Jesus himself and his first apostles and disciples.

The Copic liturgical tradition is one of the ancient Semitic traditions that endures to this day, from the church of Alexandria in Egypt which has Saint Mark the Evangelist as its patron. Here again, we are celebrating the Epiphany, in a style and language that sounds like Arabic but is in fact the language that predates the Muslim conquest of Egypt and the Middle East. The chant of Psalm 150 is fittingly accompanied by cymbals (see 150:5).

The sacred music of the "ancient Near East" is also the sacred music of people today who worship Christ under dangerous circumstances, under the constant threat of violence. This is the song and music of people who have very recently shed their blood in the name of Jesus, and who will courageously face that danger again this weekend when they gather to celebrate Epiphany and sing this song:


So we have these profound "sonic icons" through which our ears are opened and our hearts lifted to the glory of God and his angels and all the saints. Music in these modes was handed down through the centuries, modified only with the greatest care.

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But then what happened?

[Permit me to have a bit of "fun" here?😉 I don't intend to be flippant for no reason; there is a broader "point."]

What happened? MODERNITY came. New ways of thinking. New art and new music. A tremendously confusing time. Tumultuous changes in the world. There was an Ecumenical Council, with rumor and scandal rife in the Church. Meanwhile, the "new music" was being used in the liturgy. Some people in the Church were shocked by the strangeness of the new style, its loud volume, its lack of order, and its incorporation of secular music themes and techniques. Musical sounds that came from bars, from the street, from secular love songs (!) invaded the liturgy, distracting from prayer, turning the emphasis to theatrical performance, emphasizing excessive sensuality.

In fact, these good people had a point. Some of this musical experimentation was too jarring. It was done without being shaped for the liturgy, or for people's sense of the sacred. It was confusing. And people were already leaving the Church in droves, seduced by heresies that everywhere abounded.

Some bishops and cardinals wanted this music banned entirely from the liturgy. But a Pope, influenced by the modern ideas and by the Jesuits (of course!), allowed some forms of this music to prevail in the Church.

As a consequence, we got stuff like THIS in the liturgy at Christmas:


Magnificent. Today it is hard to imagine how music like this could ever have been categorized as controversial.

But let me speak to those of you who are saying "hardy-hardy-har-har what is your point?" My point is NOT "Let's have hard rock Masses because eventually in the future people will think they're sublime because it's all just cultural conditioning." No no no no no!

My overall point is that we live and are called to follow Christ in the Church within a very small piece of a very large history. We don't see a lot of what's happening even now, in our small piece of time. We certainly don't see the future. We don't even see the past very well.

In the wild winds of 16th century Europe, it probably wasn't easy to see the now-obvious distinction between a Vittoria or a Palestrina and the lesser practitioners of the new music: the sloppy ones, the cranks, the salacious seducers, the drunks, the mediocre pretenders, the well-meaning-but-clueless folks (invariably the largest group in human affairs), and the puffed up self-important people who just generally had no sense for prayer or the sacred or any kind of real excellence.

Moreover, these people were living in a tumultuous "piece" of historical time. Lots of things were really new to the lives of Europeans (and everybody else) in the 16th century. It was the dawn of the global experience of the world. Half the world was "new," and its exploration and conquest were the source and/or the occasion of many bad new things and good new things in its time and thereafter.

New things were all over the place. Printing was a new thing. The gun was a new thing. The telescope was a new thing. The idea that the whole universe didn't go around the earth was a new thing. This idea seemed like a dangerous thing but it wasn't, ultimately. The Turkish empire casting its increasingly powerful and greedy eyes to the West was a new thing. This also seemed like a dangerous thing. It was, in fact, a very dangerous thing. On top of all of this, of course, the division of Western Christendom—which is now a very old thing—was a new thing in the 16th century.

And, yes, poly-phonic music with multiple harmonies and a 12 tone scale was a new thing. We can hardly imagine a world without this full musical palette, but 500 years ago it was a thing strange to the human ear.

I'm not a music history expert. But I suspect that the development of polyphony (which began in the late middle ages) was a long and messy process. Mistakes were made. Excess and banality abounded, I would imagine. Polyphonic music probably traveled a long road of refinement before it attained its "iconic form." Its critics probably contributed to this development.

Some things, however, had not yet been invented. So there are no audio recordings of all the awful music that fell by the wayside. It was also before the age of Twitter. Thus we have no record of all the intemperate, rude, insulting exchanges of criticisms and counter-criticisms and plottings and hand-wringing that filled the halls and cloisters and sacristies and palaces all over Europe. We only have a few summaries of discussion from the record of the aforementioned Ecumenical Council, which was, of course, the Council of Trent.

Now here we are today in century number 21, which is even more tumultuous. In the global village that is today's interdependent world, we can hardly keep up with all the new things. What kind of cultures will emerge in the future and how will they be connected? It is difficult to imagine.

We know this much: conscious sustenance and appreciation of the achievements of the past (such as music) is more possible than ever before. At the same time, universal distraction tempts us to forget the past. But we must overcome this temptation, and use our intelligence and our resources and our humanity to remain vitally connected to the great traditions, to let them live and grow, and to share them with one another more fully. Certainly this applies to our iconic sacred music. It will always move what is most fundamental in us.

There are also so many possibilities for creativity, and this is certainly true for music. We must not fear those who feel called to develop new kinds of music, but help them, guide them to be faithful to their vocation, to test everything and hold fast to what is good. This goes above all for the intersection of music with the life of the spirit, of prayer, of inspiration, focus of the heart, the longing for God, and adoration and worship.

I know some artists today who seek to enrich and renew the realm of "popular devotions" with music that uses elements of the secular idiom to fashion not cheap copies of secular music but distinctive musical forms fitted and appropriate to occasions of prayer and pilgrimage, musical forms that engender reverence. We can hear some of this at World Youth Days and youth conferences, side by side with plenty of mediocre, spiritually-tone-deaf, and even preposterous efforts.

As this musical work continues, people will disagree about what is really fitting and in what settings it can be used. These disagreements will help ultimately refine the development of different kinds of music, even if the arguments become angry and vituperative because we fail to communicate with one another along the way.

But we need not cause one another to suffer in this way. We need not fear disagreements, difference of taste, and everything in between if we subordinate them appropriately to our mutual adherence to Christ in the Church and the rule of charity.

Let us, in this as in all other things, strive to be faithful to God's will, to our vocations in this place and time that have been given to us; and let us endeavor to observe toward one another the great rule of Saint Augustine: "In things necessary, unity. In things 'doubtful' (i.e. open to legitimate differences of opinion however passionately we hold them), liberty, in all things, charity."

May you be blessed in the remainder of this Christmas season and throughout the New Year.

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