Tuesday, August 9, 2011

"Gregorian chant decoupled the ideas of movement and rhythm"

In his book "The Spirit of the Liturgy", Pope Benedict XVI describes the difference between Apollonian and Dionysian music.

Apollonian music, the Pope describes, is "music that draws senses into spirit and so brings man to wholeness ... It elevates the spirit by wedding it to the senses, and it elevates the senses by uniting them with the spirit". It is easy to see that this is the effect that sacred music should have on worshipers. Their senses are engaged by the beauty of the musical content and they are are drawn into the spirit which grasps for the infinite God in an act of praise and prayer. This is the Apollonian effect of sacred music.

Dionysian music though, according to the Pope, "drags man into the intoxication of the senses, crushes rationality, and subjects the spirit to the senses". In this case, the spirit is crippled and unable to ascend to the heights of prayer and contemplation. The senses are overwhelmed and become the primary focus of the individual. A worshiper who becomes enraptured by Dionysian music is not able to engage the music sacramentally, in a way that it could lead him beyond the sign toward the heavenly reality, but instead weds him to his flesh and leaves him bound to the effects of the Fall.

I found the following passage of a review of a new book by Mark Changizi entitled Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man to be very telling of the difference between Apollonian and Dionysian music. The reviewer foretells Changizi's thesis that music, an historically constant activity of man, has nearly always been associated with movement, and music has therefore always had the power to harness man. The reviewer then offers this very interesting insight:

The relationship between movement and music may come as a surprise for some, but not so much for others. In some African cultures, the word for "music" and "dance" are one and the same. In contrast, concert pianists or cellists sit still when they perform.

Why this difference? Blame the Gregorian chant, says Benson. Monasteries were the intellectual centers of Europe in the Middle Ages. Monks chanted tonal, arrhythmic verses daily, developed the Western musical notation, and set the pattern for the understanding and performance of Western music during the centuries that followed. “And if you think of that as the basis for music, then you’re not going to get the kind of music you get in Africa and India,” Benson told me.

Essentially, the Gregorian chant decoupled the ideas of movement and rhythm from music in the Western world. But Changizi's theory brings the ideas together once again, backed by a statistical approach that looks more deeply into the correlation between dance and movement and music.

What Gregorian chant did for Western music is orient it to an Apollonian end. Gregorian chant stripped "world" music (if you will) of rhythm and dance intentionally so that the music could serve the purpose not of intoxicating the senses, but of wedding the senses to the spirit and enabling it to lift its gaze to heaven.

While Dionysian music may have always been and still remains a part of the universal human experience, it is not the music of prayer. On this earth we are bound by the effects of the Fall and our aim is to "undo" our fallen nature and prepare for, even begin to participate in, the restored creation in heaven.

Every time that we participate fruitfully in the liturgy we prepare for and even truly participate in the heavenly reality. True sacred music enables this participation and lifts our senses out of the fallen world and up into the restored order. True sacred music weds the senses to the spirit and lifts the entire person to prayer. True sacred music releases worshipers from the bondage of the fallen world and aids them in participating in a foretaste of the world to come.

Western music can thank Gregorian chant for lifting its focus out of mere sensuality and orienting it to the contemplation of higher things. It is no wonder that Gregorian chant is the supreme model of sacred music. Its effect not only on the liturgy but also on all of Western culture is colossal.

This music, this very repertoire, remains for us Catholics the supreme model of sacred music even in our day, so much so that the Second Vatican Council gave it primary place in the liturgy. Whenever we ask ourselves if the music that we sing in the liturgy is achieving its ultimate goal we need only to look to Gregorian chant which is the Church's model of what true sacred music is and ought to be.