Monday, August 8, 2011

Thoughts on Sacred Music, Part I

"In order to write true church music, look to the plainchants of the monks." Ludwig van Beethoven [1]

The problem is clear. Anyone who has long pondered sacred music knows it. Music lovers evade it as long as they can but eventually the rift becomes undeniable. Of sacred music, there is chant and everything else. Foremost this admission seems a blasphemy of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven to say nothing of the Renaissance masters. If music is excellent, can it not serve or be adapted to serve a liturgical purpose? One path to answering this question is technical and that is the path we will trod in this series. Today we will look at how the mechanics of chant function as a style. Let us examine what this music does and what effects it brings about.

1) Melodic Intervals

Chants use relatively conjunct motion, that is, they avoid wide intervallic leaps. Wide leaps arrest the attention and tend to segment the line whereas lack thereof permits long, unbroken, unfolding lines. Stepwise motion is the most common, with skips of a third and fourth not unusual.

2) Monophony

The lack of accompaniment focuses attention on the one melody.

3) Rhythm

In chant the rhythms are derived from the text. This has two effects. First, it frees the music from the demands and constrictions of a meter like 3/4 or 4/4. There is no predictable rhythm to "fall into." The music ceases to be "in time" and time itself fades away, leaving only the text. Second, that text is the scripture. It is the words of the sacred texts themselves that direct the music.

4) Anonymity

There is no intrusion of a personality into the music. There is no place in chant to say, "Ahh, this is classic Brahms." The listener won't be enticed to think that a change of register, a change of key, a chromatic line, a chord, a figure, or whatever, is "typical" Handel, Haydn, or whoever."

5) Text

The text is always intelligible, never obscured.

The Meditative Style

These five essential features of chant constitute a "meditative" style of sacred music. Of course not all chant from all times from all places conforms to these practices. There is scholarly debate what the norms were when and where. Nonetheless these features represent compositional practice and a unity of effect that makes them worthy of attention. These practices let the text in every way remain the center of the experience. This gives the text prime place and fosters meditation on it. The way in which any piece of sacred music diverges from these fundamentals is the degree to which something else enters the experience. That something is usually, a 1) stylistic trope of the age, 2) an affectation of the composer, 3) an attempt to dramatize the text.

Chant utilizes the unifying, transporting, and time-defying powers of music, music's most abstract properties, without adopting a discrete musical syntax (a syntax which varies from age to age, culture to culture, and so forth.) I say discrete because there is attention to musical fundamentals like pitch, pitch classes, intervals, cadences, and rhythm. Too there is of course room for composition, i.e. the choice of the composer in deciding on the most appropriate setting. Yet the text (its rhythmic demands and potential) and the text's function in the liturgy always dictate most. The text remains the essence of the musical language. Hence chant is most truly catholic, i.e. universal, and Catholic, i.e. of the Catholic Church, by being of its sacred texts. Music scholar Richard Hoppin described Gregorian Chant best as, "music in its purest state, fashioned with consumate skill, and perfectly adapted to its liturgical function." [2]

Musical fashions and fads, the personalities of composers, and even emotions themselves all constitute additions to the musical experience. In the future we will examine the way such departures affect the experience and consider which, if any, are justifiable or desirable.

[1] Beethoven's journal of 1818, quoted in The Creative World of Beethoven, ed. Paul Henry Lang. G. Schirmer Inc. 1970
[2] Hoppin, Richard H. Medieval Music. W. W. Norton. New York. 1978.

N. B. The above points have often been made but never as concisely and transparently as in Robert Greenberg's Great Courses class, "How to Listen to and Understand Great Music," which I highly recommend. See also,  Appel, "Gregorian Chant"  and Hoppin, "Medieval Music" for invaluable scholarship.

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