Second Chants

May 25, 2008

Is chant making a comeback? Some seem to think so, and this item in the Dallas Morning News, from the Religion News Service, adds up the evidence:

It doesn’t have much of a beat, the kids can’t dance to it, and it’s sung in a dead language. But Gregorian chant seems to be the hottest thing in sacred music right now.

Consider the following:

• The wildly popular “Halo” videogames use Gregorian chant (sometimes called plainsong) as background music.

• Universal Music Group, the record company best known for bawdy acts like Amy Winehouse and Snoop Dogg, recently signed a group of Viennese monks to record an album of Gregorian chant.

• The Middle Ages chants can even greatly reduce stress, British researchers reported this month.

After a public relations push by Pope Benedict XVI, who wants Gregorian chant restored to its “pride of place” in the liturgy, plainsong’s popularity is percolating among U.S. Catholics.

Nearly 200 scholas – choirs that sing plainsong – have popped up around the country, many in the last five years, according to the Church Music Association of America.

Sacred music seminars that once drew 40 to 50 people now lure hundreds of Catholic musical directors, organists and singers. And priests-in-training in seminaries across the country are increasingly asking to be educated in the intricacies of Gregorian chant, said association president and sacred-song expert William Mahrt.

Meanwhile, religious publishers are stocking – and selling – large collections of plainsong books and music. One such publisher, Paraclete Press of Brewster, Mass., has sold more copies of its Gregorian Melodies CDs in the first five months of 2008 – 5,000 – than it did all of last year.

The style of chant is named for the sainted Pope Gregory I (circa A.D. 540-604) in what was probably an early exercise in brand marketing. Musicologists say the pope most likely didn’t invent plainsong, but his name was used to help it spread from monastery to monastery in medieval Europe.

Written records of Gregorian chant date to the 10th century, but many Catholic experts say it was probably transmitted orally for several centuries before it was notated.

Over the years, plainsongs’ unadorned melodies, sung in Latin to an uneven meter and somehow suggestive of high religiosity, became a staple of Hollywood soundtracks, if not always Catholic churches. A 1994 album Chant by the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos caught the public’s imagination and became a big seller.

Jeffrey Tucker, managing editor of the magazine Sacred Music, said chant strikes many people as “spooky, ominous and meaningful in some way.”

“It has an inner pulse like a heartbeat, but it doesn’t have a regular rhythm,” said Mr. Tucker, a plainsong proponent.

“The effect is like musical incense. It’s always sort of floating and rising.”

Chants’ seemingly timeless melodies and Latin lyrics also connect Catholics throughout centuries and space, Mr. Tucker and others said.

But after the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, which allowed Mass in local languages, Gregorian chant fell out of favor in U.S. parishes. In came guitars and tambourines, out went plainsong.

Thomas Day, a professor of music and author of the book Why Catholics Can’t Sing, said Gregorian chant became too ponderous and funereal for Catholics then accustomed to John Denver and the Carpenters. It was so slow, in fact, that it was conducted with a large stick used to pound time on the church floor, he said.

But Mr. Day, a professor at Salve Regina University in Newport, R.I., and others say the folksy music that replaced plainsong hasn’t aged well and leaves many Catholics wanting. Catholics in their 20s and 30s are looking for something else.

“It is now two generations since ‘folk music’ was introduced into the liturgy,” said Mr. Mahrt. “Much of that music is ephemeral, and it has run its course; it is time for a change.”

Daniel Burke,

Religion News Service