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Voices Suspended in Time and Space

The MHS Review 379 Vol. 11, NO. 1 • 1987

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Frank Cooper


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"The mystery and suspense of another time, another place," said Judith Crist of the current hit film The Name of the Rose, which stars Sean Connery and F. Murray Abraham. Set in a startling evocation of dreary 14th-century Italy, the plot centers on a series of monastic murders and the unraveling of their knotted causes (Who would have believed that Aristotle was to blame?) against the inexorable work of Rome's Congregation of the Holy Office (read Inquisition).

Mysticism, superstition, and the love of wonders readily triumph (at the in­quisitor's hands) over logical demonstra­tions. We see the frightened monks several times in services and in a proces­sion to the stake, singing their ancient chants. We quiver with the sense of place and time evoked, with the apparent reali­ty of chant, liturgy, and ritual as anchors for the faithful in the face of unimaginable evil.

The chant used in the film and that which is best known today is popularly called Gregorian, after Pope Gregory the Great (who, around 600 A.D., is credited with organization of the Roman Catholic liturgy, the systemizing of its body of chants, and the establishment of the schola cantorum to train church singers). The style of its performance today is chiefly that of the Benedictine monks of Solesmes, in France, who developed a method so convincing to the ears of the Church in the latter decades of the last century that, by 1903, Pope Pius X could issue his Motu proprio to restore Gregorian music to its former eminence. It is a style of disembodied flow, without the pulses of secular music: austere, ma­jestic, spiritual.

Writing in the 12th century, Bernard of Clairvaux stated these ideals for the sing­ing of chant: "Let the chant be full of gravity; let it be neither worldly, nor too rude and poor ... let it be sweet, yet without levity, and, while it please the ear let it move the heart. It should alleviate sadness, and calm the angry spirit." The appropriateness of the styk as an aid to worship in the reverberant spaces of romanesque and gothic edifices (monasteries, abbey churches, cathedrals) was a sound almost of another world, of God's heaven, to console the sufferers of this world.

Heard today, after the Church's sweep­ing changes (made in our lifetime) to modernize and liberalize its music, ancient chant sung in Latin takes on additional meaning. Lessons, responses, anthems, psalms, and hymns carry more import now, perhaps, than when everyone understood their language, knew their sinuous musical lines by heart, and took the whole experience for granted. The music transports the sensitive listener across centuries and arouses thoughts of times long past, when every waking mo­ment was meant to serve God.

The tradition behind such ineffable beauty in God'; service accrued over a period of more than a thousand years. The unchanging sound of chant reflected the Church's role as a steadfast rock of faith in ages which changed from what philosophers called the noumenal to the phenomenal, as the medieval gave way to the Renaissance, baroque, and subsequent eras. Our present sensate age--with its lust for driving rhythms, blatant tunes, and loudness-is the antithesis to that in which the vast body of chant accumulated.

Removed as our culture is now from those bygone centuries, we can listen to the generous sampling of chant provided by the Gregorian Choir of Paris and use the experience as a springboard to thoughts about former and present roles of music in religion and of religion in life. Emotionally, we can appreciate both music and performances for their sheer aesthetic loveliness. Heard in the rich acoustic of the German Evangelical Church of Paris, the seraphic voices hover, suspended ecumenically in time and span· for all of us to savor.

(This article refers to the Gregorian chant recording featured on page 1.)

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