Friday, May 3, 2013

Gregorian Chant as a Liberal Art

I heard the most fascinating lecture once, about the liberal art of Chinese calligraphy. The thesis of the talk concerned the training that young people received from the discipline of writing characters. Far from being simply a medium of communication, the process of learning to write characters was itself considered a liberal art: the kind of learning that makes people free.

Music is one of the classic seven liberal arts. It belongs to the intermediate stage of studies called the quadrivium, which followed upon basic studies, and prepared the way for philosophy. Music shows the proportions among numbers. It helps people to learn to weigh things, and to discern.

The need for these basic skills seems to come up again and again in the Church. People without thinking skills can easily be swayed. I remember talking to a colleague in an office, a faithful Catholic churchgoer and a capable employee, who was confused by a Dan Brown novel, The Da Vinci Code. She said, "How do we know it isn't true?"

In the Last Gospel, read at the end of every Extraordinary Form Mass and read on Christmas Day in the Ordinary Form, we read, "In the beginning was the Word." The word for "word" is not simple. Perhaps it is best translated as "a reasonable expression." We might say "In the beginning was the meaning," or "the logic," or "the reason," or "the reasonability." According to Church Fathers such as St. Athanasius (yesterday's saint of the day), the creation resembles Christ in its rationality and intelligibility. "Through Him--through reason and in a reasonable way that communicates its own rationality--all things were made."

The chant is inherently rational: it is composed of ratios and uses them in a meaningful way. It is also elevating. Unlike music bounded and confined by the limits of a chord progression, chant pursues the melodic line according to the meaning of the words. It is intelligible, amplifies the intelligibility of the words it accompanies, and pursues meaning. Singing it is a training in reason as well as in beauty and liturgical sense. Since the chant is united to Scriptural words almost exclusively, we hear the Word, the meaning, the truth, in many senses.

This is one of many reasons why it is essential for the Church that children learn to sing Gregorian chant at a tender age, when it can influence them. They receive moral strength from training in beauty, and intellectual strength and wisdom from rational exercise, in a connatural and deeply pleasurable way.

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