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Seattle Catholic
A Journal of Catholic News and Views
31 Aug 2005

Why Chant?

by Joseph Tatroult

Gregorian Chant

"...Richness, beauty, and sublime fitness for worship."

He was lecturing about Gregorian chant, of course — our rector, a man of little musical sensitivity, great flowered vestments and speech. It was a hot afternoon, Springtime in the seminary, and I suddenly had the wicked and willful urge to ask: Why? Is Gregorian chant beautiful? And if so, what makes it that way? But as I was the chapel organist, it was up to me to answer my own question.

What about this strange music is called worthy, beyond venerable tradition or the separation from things common? What is it that you hear and call beauty in a well-sung Introit or a rare Sequence during the year? How can we understand Gregorian chant in a traditional church without technical musicology, and the inevitable history lesson? How can you echo it in your heart and sense it in your head and make it really belong to you?

A little experiment is in order. Find a piano, one reasonably in tune. You don't even have to be able to play. Sit and relax, try not to feel awkward, even if people at the mall are watching as they pass. Then drop one hand onto the center of the keyboard, hitting a white and a black note side-by-side. It hurts; I'm sorry I had to do that to you. Now strike those two notes again, black and white right next to each other. Do it a third time.

By now people are really looking askance at you!

For the next step we'll use only white notes. Pick two white notes on the keyboard together, a pair with a black note between. Press them both down at the same time - the white notes, not the black one. You get a sound that's very different from the grating pain of our previous try. The two notes together produce a round and heavy sound. Smoother. Monastic. It's dense and ringing, and contains deep bass tones that some talented people can listen closely to and pick out.

This is the sound of Gregorian chant. You might not hear the organist do such a thing outright at Mass, but the melodies of Gregorian chant are laid upon such sounds.

Now we'll do a little more piano play to show the difference between the sound of Gregorian chant and that of other, more modern, musics. This is an extreme simplification, but will give your ear a surprisingly easy grasp on what you might be hearing on Sundays in church.

With one hand in the middle of the keyboard, press down every other white note all at once. Just go for it, grab a handful of notes with your fingers spread so that you tag a note, skip a note, tag another, etc. Only white notes now. The exact number of notes doesn't even matter: 3 or 4 or 5.

Play it again. Bang it out a few times. You're hearing harmony. Now try the same notes, but pressing one at a time. What you don't hear is almost as important: those skipped notes are the key to Bach and Handel and modern jazz as well. These sorts of musics come much later. But remember: this is not the sound of Gregorian chant.

And for the final piece in our experimental suite, start on a white note a bit right of center, and play just the white notes one at a time, one after another, moving towards the left. Play 5 or 6 before you stop. That's a scale. You've heard it a hundred times. This is definitely not the sound of Gregorian chant either.

If the salesman at the mall hasn't chased you away or sold you the piano by now, go back and try the two white notes together, the chant sound. Play them quietly; hold them down and let the tones die away. It's thicker, not so harmonious as the skipped-note styles, but rich and denser and sonorous and complex. After listening to the skipped-note groups, we now hear that two-white-notes-together sounds strange and rather foreign by comparison.

But it still isn't the crashing pain of our very first example, white-and-black together. You can even add yet another white note to the group - it doesn't matter exactly which - and listen to that sound. Remember that the people who originally sang Gregorian chant didn't have the experience that you and I do of having listened only to musics based on the skipped-note pattern for all their lives. They heard Gregorian music fresh and new and unbiased and amazed. And they understood things about the combinations of three notes that you just picked (and all the ones you could have picked) that we have since lost.

So, now we adjourn to the chapel for a visit...

Faith of Our Fathers. Hum it. It's not chant, is it? The rhythm isn't even vaguely chant-like: it's a waltz. But listen to all those scales, especially towards the end! That's a good sign you're listening to a music that comes later in history. Even in chant, when you hear lots of downwards scales, you're listening to a latecomer.

Immaculate Mary. We all know that one. The beginning is actually very chant-like. But when you get to "Ave, Ave, Ave, Maria!" and what follows, it's a scale going downwards, sure as bells hanging in the tower. Not Gregorian chant at all.

Last one. Adoro Te Devote. You might not know it, and this one's tricky anyhow. The very first notes are that white-note skip pattern. It's Latin, and sometimes even written in Gregorian notation, but it's a very late sort of music, and more like a modern song than a chant. A very few pieces - very beautiful ones in fact - survive in traditional Catholic hymnody from the time that chant was just passing away in common practice.

Now you'll be able to tell from the tune just the sort of church music you're hearing.

Next time you assist at Benediction, listen to Tantum Ergo. There are two versions used, so pay close attention to the notes on the words near the beginning, "veneremur cernui". If you sing the downwards scale of a church bell tower, you're singing the newer one. And if you hear a gentle line with a couple of lifts in it, that's the Gregorian chant.

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