O Crux Gloriosa and the Unforgettable Moment

Finally, the Vespers service is up. This was the polyphonic choir I sang in – the one with the tenor section that made me feel like a second-rate singer (Cafe poster Charles Culbreth was in the first-rate category).

It seems that every Colloquium has at least one moment that is universally regarded as amazing beyond belief. The “O Crux Gloriosa” directed by Wilko Brouwers and sung at this Vespers was that moment.

The Effort to Unify the Chant circa 1100

We don’t often think about the generation of musicians that followed Guido d’Arezzo. I hadn’t really considered what Guido’s life and work meant for their own tasks. They were charged with using Guido’s fantastic innovation — the system of reading pitches on a staff — to create books of chant in cathedrals and monasteries. This entire generation is discussed in detail in Christopher Page’s marvelously interesting book The Christian West and Its Singers (2010).

While reading I conjured mental images of zealous young monks, heads filled with wonder at the newest thing, the newest innovation in science, the 12th century iPhone perhaps, and carefully copying down chants as older monks sang them, one note at a time. “Wait just a moment…was that a Ti or a Ta?” The older monks must have had serious doubts! Of course the zealots discovered rather large variations in the chant from place to place, and this surely included rhythm too. They sought to use the new tool to unify and universalize.

One author known only as John wrote the following complaint in his De Musica sometime after 1100. He offers a passage that struck me as hilarious. Three singers are comparing chant editions and here is what happens:

One says, “Master Trudo taught me this way.” Another rejoins, “But I learned it like this from master Albinus”; and to this a third remarks, “Master Salomon certainly sings differently.” … rarely, therefore, do three man agree about one chant. Since each men prefers his own teacher, there arise as many variations in chanting as there are teachers in this world.” (p. 467).

So interesting, isn’t it? This was the situation that the Guidoian innovation was supposed to rectify, and surely it did settle many questions to some large extent. And yet the above conversation might have happened last week at the Sacred Music Colloquium. They go on every day – and we hope we can learn from each other rather than fight with each other. However, it remains true to a large extent, even 1000 years later: there are as many variations as there are teachers!

And, by the way, there is nothing particularly wrong with this. At the Colloquium, we experienced Mass with four different chant choirs in the same Mass, led by four different conductors. At the same Mass, we heard: precise and pious, rich and strong, elegant and polished,  stable and settling, each with a different approach.

The reason is fairly obvious actually: despite the enthusiasm of the post-Guido generation, print manuscripts with staffs don’t actually sing themselves. As usual with every innovation, that generation exaggerated the benefit of the new thing. Chant must come from human beings, not machines, and thank goodness. No edition can capture every subtlety, every nuance, every interpretation. Nor do I think we want it to. Variation and difference are lovely. This is not a matter of doctrine; it is a matter of application and art.

Does anyone doubt that the same arguments will be going on 1000 years from now?

When I read this passage to William Mahrt on the phone, and offer the above sentence, he replied profoundly: “and how wonderful it is to know that they will still be singing these chants 1000 years from now.”

Of what other music, of what other art, can the same be said?

The Polyphonic Gradual in the Ordinary Form

Maybe I’m a bit slow, or maybe the details of liturgical music are really complicated, but here is the truth: it took me years to figure out the relationship between the “Responsorial Psalm” that I know from the ordinary form of the Roman Rite, and the “Gradual” from the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite. This is complicated by the oddities of language. There is no “Responsorial Psalm” in the old form so it becomes difficult to trace its lineage. It occurs where there Gradual (which is also a Psalm between the readings) once occurred. The term Gradual is complicated by the fact that the book that contains all the sung propers of the Roman Rite is also called the Gradual or Graduale Romanum.

The structure of the two Psalm forms is completely different. The Gradual is for reflection. Time stands still. There are long elaborations on single vowels. It is a time for prayer. The Responsorial Psalm, in contrast, has typically asked the congregation to engage in a sing along with the cantor, usually consisting of an instantly repeatable antiphon, something closer to what we might experience in the Divine Office. But, as everyone knows, in our culture and times, the Responsorial Psalm has become the most musically unfortunate event at Mass. There are ways around it, such as using the Chabanel Psalm, but generally the Psalm at Mass has not fared well under the new form.

All of this is clear to me now but it took a long time to sort it all out. Which reminds me: we still have no easy reference book that explains the relationship between music and the ordinary form of the Roman Rite. Don’t you find it incredible that after 40-plus years, no such book exists? There are several reasons: confusions, complications, and too many open-ended options. As a result, most musicians are deeply confused and end up just relying on the missalettes for guidance.

In any case, let’s take this apparatus one step further. The Gradual can be sung in the ordinary form but rarely is. Further: it need not be sung in chant only. There is a long history of polyphonic Graduals. It is extremely rare to hear these masterpieces in any form of the Roman Rite. The Colloquium actually featured one by William Byrd. And here it is, followed by the Alleuia. It is absolutely magnificent. It so happens that this occurred in the extraordinary form but there is no reason why this could not have been sung in the ordinary form. There is a substantial distance between this and, e.g. Respond and Acclaim.

Love, Liturgy and Life


Love, Liturgy and Life

Those are fairly ubiquitous words in our domain. And as naturally as they are invoked by our tongues and pens, and as is natural with things of this world and in the Enemy’s parlor dubbed “cyberspace,” we who treasure these words tend to, at best, pay lip service to them when provided the opportunity to turn them from abstractions to actions. This human flaw reminds me of folks who regard Jesus Christ as their own personal “Teddy Bear.” Such people are as nice and cuddly as their own “Make a Jesus” doll, until someone else wants to share that joy and transgresses by wanting to hold that doll for while, themselves. Then hell hath no fury…

We can talk, type and sing a good game about “Jesus is my personal Lord and Savior” on OUR blogs and journals until we’re literally blue in the face, but we’re still neck deep in the big muddy of The Fall: whether we’re God’s greatest creatures ever, not only about to step in a cow patty, but to taste it as well! Or those creature’s progeny, a sibling who would crush another’s skull out of jealousy and pride. I’m reminded of Al Pacino’s “Satan” character in “The Devil’s Advocate” schooling his “son” about how each of us thinks we’re each and solely “God’s special creature” and that we’re immune to the lure and stench that is Gehenna.

This café is about LOVE, LITURGY and LIFE. It is about our Lord’s work. And though we may still be a needle stuck skipping on the turntable of the Fall, we must never forget that Jesus was present then, before then, and is present now and evermore. And it doesn’t serve Him or us well to turn that reality into a pathetic parody of Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” because we have forgotten about approaching His Father with “fear and trembling.” Oh, and after reconciling with each other. Yes, really.

I’m getting up there. Yesterday was my eldest’s 35th birthday. Before going to dinner, I re-watched the film “The Book of Eli.” No spoiler alert necessary, but I hadn’t quite caught in previous viewings the explanation that Eli offers his companion of why he yielded his noble quest and treasure- “I lost sight of what the book had taught me- to help someone else rather than myself.” So, now that I’m trying, real hard, to become more circumspect in my thoughts, words and actions, I ask myself a theoretical question about one of my elders: “What is more valuable to me, Professor Mahrt the man, or Professor Mahrt the oracle?” (You can substitute your own mentors’ names.) Of course, that question is absurd. Jesus Christ obliterates that question as utterly meaningless. Our integrity as God’s special creatures is made manifest only by His Incarnation. If we name Him as Lord, then what are we to then do? Feed His lambs, tend His sheep.

I was very well fed at Colloquium. Near as I could tell, so were many others so tended. Even after a quiet, profound exit from the flock, there apparently were many other Christs who, without knowing me, awaited our meeting so that they could tend to me and feed my soul with blessed assurance that Christus Vincit et Regnat. I’m speaking of one of our member’s daughter, the most beautiful child I’ve ever seen. This little cherub couldn’t quite run the two hour race of the closing Mass and her amazing mother sacrificed her goal of “being there” in the midst of the assembly of heavenly hosts and God’s faithful preparing for COMMUNION. I’m speaking of my wife, who, a day before at that same Mass subsumed her spirit and voice among those same hosts under the angelic direction of Wilco Brouwers, sprinted over fifty feet with 17 pins in a still-healing left ankle to get to her husband’s side as I groaned on a wet Pittsburgh street in agony. I’m speaking of a burly delivery man who came to her aid, helped her to raise me up to a sitting position, called 9-1-1, and when he asked “What brought us to Pittsburgh?” we answered “a Gregorian Chant retreat” said, “Cool!” I’m speaking of EMT’s, nurses and physicians at Mercy Hospital ER on a mid-day Monday who never lost sight of me and my needs though level one traumas were streaming through the doors minute after minute. I’m speaking of a couple of nuns at Mercy who gravitated towards us amid the maelstrom with nothing more than calm, open smiles and pithy conversations while I mantra’d the heck out of the Rosary awaiting any meds. I’m speaking of regular, faceless folk at two hotels who, without pause or annoying caveats, re-arranged our lodging because of the accident, and did so gladly. (One knows these things, because when it happens in this era, it seems oddly unexpected that people are actually accommodating and humble.) And so on and so forth.

I’m still feeling a bit alien posting on this site. The “I’m NOT WORTHY” insecurity that so easily rises like bile in my mind. Yes, my name’s Charles, and I have self-esteem issues. ‘Hi, Charles!” I may not be capable of grasping the quantum physics of the isolated punctum, but like my new best crazy bud, Ralphie, I know it’s the coolest thing I acquired this last week at colloquium. It’s better than Gatorade, for sure. Magnificat anima mea

This is the Chant Café. This is not the Cat Café. As I said (to the eternal consternation of my beloved) I’m getting up there. The older I get, the less trivia I know or remember. But the older I get, more is my desire to emulate our Blessed Mother’s humility and acceptance. But as beatific as her visage is depicted by Michelangelo’s marble monument of her “Pieta,” I cannot but think that at that real moment in time, weariness also would have been recognized in her eyes as she cradled her lifeless son’s corpus. But her humility and trust in her God, her eternal heavenly Spouse prevails always.

So, can we meet in the little loges of this blog without the tedium, the trivial, the weariness? I am the last person who wants this little enterprise to be some sort of liturgical Disneyland. But if we choose to park our gluteous maxima’s in a comfy chair with either a latté or a triple espresso in the comboxes, how difficult would it be, really, to sit back rather than lean forward? To listen rather than to “hold court?” To tend, rather than direct? To share, rather than to contradict? To laugh with each other, rather than to take pleasure from the scorn of others? To celebrate “love, liturgy and life” rather than to roll in the slimes of our own making?

I’m talking to myself while my angel never stops singing joyfully to my deaf ears.

“If my people, which are called by my Name, would humble themselves…..”

PS. As I finished this post, one of our vicars called and informed me that my bass section leader, Frank, fell from a ladder this morning with significant head trauma and possible vertebrae issues. He’s been transported to the regional trauma center for surgery. Please offer prayers for my friend, Frank.

Gustate et Videte

Gustate et Videte is this Sunday’s communion chant. It has one of the more familiar and notable openings of all the communion chants, something that is unmistakable for anyone with a knowledge of Gregorian music. It begins with great excitement suitable to the text: taste and see that the Lord is sweet. And note how the double tristopha has a penetrating quality, a transforming effect. The remainder of the chant might be seen as a rhapsodic description of the results of the opening line.

Dom Johner comments: “This is the oldest Communion song to be found with its psalm in all the liturgies, oriental as well as occidental. How heartfelt it must have sounded, coming from the lips of those who were returning from the altar with the sweetest and most savory of foods in their hearts! What longing it must have awakened in the souls of the faithful who were still on the way to receive Holy Communion! Whoever loves the Eucharistic Saviour will not only gladly and frequently carry this exhortation into effect, but will also, as far as he is able, make others partakers of this same great joy.”

Here is a performance.

“I Just Can’t Warm to Gregorian Chant”

I find Gregorian chant to be incredibly beautiful. It touches something very deep within me, and it is bound up very tightly with the faith itself in my heart and mind. It is the archetype of perfect music, and I listen to it all the time, even at home and driving.

On the other hand, I’m convinced that there are people for whom this is not true. The music for some just doesn’t connect. It doesn’t mean anything to them. They don’t quite say this, but they just don’t like it and do not want to hear it at Mass. Rather than admit that outright – knowing of the Vatican directives concerning chant – they generate other fancy reasons for not granting chant first place or excluding it, looking for loopholes concerning acculturation, language, and more.

Now, to be sure, the choice of music at Mass should not a debate about taste. Regardless of what we like or do not like, Gregorian chant is the music of the Roman Rite. it is embedded as part of the ritual. I would like to believe that even if I were not drawn to the aesthetics of Gregorian chant, I could still come to terms with its normative value as ritual music.

But how can I be sure that is true? How can I do a personal inventory of my own commitment to the ritual ahead of my personal preferences given that my preferences coincide in this case?

I recently found the opportunity. A friend delivered unto me a large collection of recordings of Polish Orthodox liturgical music, chant of the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. This is a style and a language about which I know next to nothing. I know that it is Christianity and I recognized some aspects of it but it doesn’t connect with my history, my aesthetic understanding, my sense of the faith, or anything else. As I listened with pervasive sense of unfamiliarity, it occurred to me that perhaps that is what some people experience with Gregorian chant.

This prompts some serious thought. What if by singing chant in a world in which the sound and language are so unfamiliar, we are introducing a barrier for people who want to connect with the Mass? What if the sounds and language create a foreign environment that causes faithful Catholics to have a sense that the liturgy is more remote and removed from their hearts than it would otherwise be?

Accepting the challenge to think this through carefully, I listened to the Polish music for several hours. I imagined myself in the liturgical setting, since this is not music I would be listening to in the car or at cocktail hour. Only in this imagined environment did it begin to make sense to me.

I began to listen to the sounds not as music, the way we might hear a symphony or a concerto, but rather as an act of worship. As I thought this way, matters began to change. Here I began to feel a sense of warmth today it, even affection. I thought of its history, its intimate link with ritual action, to the mysteries that the music was structured to reveal and extend.

Then I imagined myself confronting the musicians at the Polish Orthodox Church. What if I suggested that these chants they are singing are really quite dated and dull. What we need are happy hymns in the people’s language, the music of today’s young people. What we need are guitars and tambourines. We need to bring the liturgy to the people and meet them “where they are” with music you can dance to. Really, this chant choir smacks of elitism and separatism; we need music that people can sing instantly upon hearing.

Let me say, honestly and truly, I would not do such a thing. I assume, further, that if I did, I would be dismissed as some kind of fool and tossed out on my ear. After all, I seem to not understand the fundamental point about music at the Divine Liturgy: it is inseparable from the ritual. to suggest upheaval in music is no different from suggesting upheaval in the ancient use. I might as well be advocating an end to the Polish Orthodox religion itself.

Let’s say that as a parishioner in this Orthodox parish I never can quite warm to the chant. There never comes a time when I buy the CDs, put the music on in my car to listen to while I drive, read books about the subject, or make it any part of my life outside of Sunday worship. It can still develop an crucial religious meaning to me. Rather than change the music, perhaps I should let the music change me. I need to defer to its tradition and recognize that wisdom of that tradition over my own private prejudices and preferences, which are subject to change. We must also recognize that “it is not all about me.” Whatever we advocate in liturgy affects everyone in the community and it also affects the future of the faith.

Why are there some Catholics who refuse to recognized these things? There are many reasons one might give. But the major reason is the absence of an understanding of the link between Gregorian chant and the liturgy. Many people imagine that Gregorian chant is just a different style of hymn, and singing chant is a way of acknowledging our heritage and nothing more. They do not understand that in chant we find the music of the rite itself. To eliminate it or cut it out is really a violent act against the structure of the liturgy. We are denying ourselves access to crucial experiences and understandings.

To be sure, the Roman Rite has provided a great deal of liberality for extending and developing the chant tradition in different ways. There is medieval and renaissance polyphony and even the Viennese orchestral tradition. Settings of the propers continue to be composed today and they are welcome additions to the liturgy, as the Second Vatican Council suggests. What’s more, there is room for the addition of songs that go beyond the liturgical text itself. In this sense, the Orthodox liturgy is much more strict by comparison. But this liberality must be used responsibly.

I’m not saying that those who don’t like Gregorian chant should merely offer it up. I am saying that these people need to think in a different way and permit the chant to work its way into our understanding of the faith, just as Catholics have done from time immemorial.

Finally, we tend to underestimate how compelling chant and sacred music can be even for people who have never experienced it before. At the Sacred Music Colloquium in Pittsburgh I was sitting behind two parishioners who did not know that we would be offering music at the parish Mass on Sunday. They walked in expecting the usual thing and found something else entirely: fully Gregorian propers, a sung ordinary by Schubert, sung readings, a long procession and much more.

They began the experience in a state of fantastic annoyance, just as we might expect. But they stayed. After 15 minutes, I watched their shoulders begin to relax and they settled in. As time went on, their participation began to become more intense. The woman took out her rosary. The man folded his hands in prayer and bowed his head. They stay all through to the end. And the countenance on their faces was very bright as they genuflected on their way out. They began with annoyance and left, from what I could tell, feeling a sense of transformation.

The Best Introduction to Chant as Music

There are many types of Gregorian chant books out there. There are theological books, pedagogical books, historical books, detailed scholarly studies, and more. But what if you want a book on chant as music, the same type of book that might be written about the opera or about the symphony, something that covers history, purpose, and practice? Here is a wonderful choice: Gregorian Chant by David Hiley, appearing in the Cambridge Introductions to Music series. I can’t remember enjoying a book on chant more. It is sober without unnecessary academic apparatus, practical and clear without being overly focused on practitioners only, and historical without demanding vast prior knowledge. The prose is lovely and even charming, but one can be confident about its arguments and conclusions simply because Hiley is probably the world’s leading expert. The price is also right. This book filled in many gaps in my own knowledge, and clarified many questions. For college classrooms, it is ideal! But everyone interested in the subject will benefit.