Chant and Chat

There’s definitely something to be said for stepping outside of your comfort zone, and that was certainly the situation when a friend of mine invited me to come to give a guest lecture on Gregorian chant for the church history class he teaches at a seminary. The idea was that by exploring music developed and disseminated during the ninth and tenth centuries these students might given some sort of bridge into this period that they were studying, separated from us as it is by centuries of turbulent history and radically different world-views. I think that this lecture turned out effectively in terms of giving the students some sort of introduction to the topic. For myself, though, it ended up being quite a learning experience, both in terms of seeing some interesting connections between music that is so different in style and function from orchestral music, and for provoking questions about how to talk about music with an audience.

Though I’d studied Gregorian chant at university the memories of this felt almost as historically remote as the topic itself. Re-familiarizing myself with this subject it became clear that the history of Gregorian chant was rather more to do with questions of politics and identity in the church in Western Europe than it was with the development of a certain musical language or style. There is a notable repetition in the refrain heard over the centuries about Gregorian chant’s appropriateness for worship because of the way it interconnected churches not only in different regions and countries, but also through time, providing an unbroken tradition linking worshipers past, present, and future. I couldn’t help but be struck by some historiographical similarities in this dialogue about chant and the way we often talk about the pan-national and pan-temporal enjoyment of the greatest works of classical music. And though I wouldn’t consider attending a church service and attending a concert to be the same thing, there was something quite touching for me about the imagery of the stones of a church reverberating with the same chant offered in worship over centuries in the same way that concert halls might somehow contain the memory of the numerous performances that have happened there.

Gregorian chant is intricately connected with its function within worship, both on a local level as structural points within an individual service, and on a more global level in terms of the linkages it creates between the weeks, months, and seasons within the church’s liturgical year. However intricate or beautiful any particular piece of chant might be, much of it exists for use only on particular days of the year, and chant that does not have its use so precisely defined is selected in part because of its compatibility with those works that are performed only on one day. There are some obvious parallels to be drawn in the way that we might programme a concert, both as a question of compatibility of pieces, and also in those pieces which – to borrow a term – appear on solemnities. I’m thinking here of those works with some sort of national(-ist) quality like Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, or Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No.1. Moreover, there’s also the intriguing question as to whether the natural restrictions applied to chant by the intention of its use at certain points within church services is paralleled in the way that classical music is written for concerts in a hall; occasions that have their own kind of rubric.

One of the challenges I faced in giving this lecture was explaining the concept of the church modes that chant is written in to students who had little or no musical training. This is probably the thing that took the longest in my preparation, particularly as I kept challenging myself to find an explanation that was accurate and clear without falling into a music theory lexicon I couldn’t expect them to know. In the questions afterwards someone said that they had understood my explanation of the different modes, but to his untrained ear they all sounded the same: was this just a question of needing further exposure, or was it something different? I think the fairest answer I could give was to say both were the case. Whilst one can become better attuned to hearing the difference in modes in the way one might be able to identify regional accents in voices, no amount of training or exposure lets us un-hear all of the music not written in church modes that we are more familiar with. It was a fascinating question, though, because it sprung from the first reaction to the music: what we hear, rather than what we begin to rationalize and order through our knowledge. I wonder how much of the way we talk about classical music relies upon considering how our audience thinks about music, rather than how they hear it? It seems to me that there is, perhaps, something to be gained from reversing this priority of thinking and hearing, if only because of the way it may well give all of us a little therapeutic dose of discomfort within our comfort zones.