Music at St. George's
Why Our Choir Sings Gregorian Chant
The goal of the study of chant in the St. George’s choir is what we might call the contemplative study of scripture. The choir is learning to read early chant notation and sing from that notation in a way that will reinforce a feeling of stillness, both in the singers and in the congregation which listens to the music. Through this approach, the choir aims to reinforce its inner feel for the truth of scripture, as is taught by the ancient fathers and mothers of the Church. The essential goal of this study of scripture is to help the singers find a way to remove all obstacles between the inner ear of each singer and the sacred voice of scripture, speaking to the singer at deeper and deeper levels. As Gregory the Great himself put it over a thousand years ago: “If you lift your mind in contemplation, then what you first thought was spoken in the scriptures according to the ways of the earth, appears not of the earth. And it happens that as you perceive the words of sacred scripture to be of a celestial nature, so you yourself, illuminated by the grace of contemplation, are raised to the level of celestial nature.”
Gregorian chant is the traditional music of Western Christianity. The repertory includes thousands of melodies for nine services each day. It is sung in unison, without accompaniment, to Latin texts largely from the Bible. It is ancient, and its history abounds in enigmas. The music notation used by orchestras and choruses around the world today was invented (probably in the Frankish empire, somewhere around the ninth century) in order to write down the chant and preserve it. But no one knows when the music itself was composed. Another extraordinary fact: When music notation was first invented, it was not possible to read pitches, but it was possible to see whether the melody indicated went up or down. About two hundred years later, it became possible to read pitches when an Italian named Guido of Arezzo invented the musical staff (about 1025). Here is the extraordinary fact: When the melodies written down two hundred years earlier, in early notation, are compared with those whose pitches can be read, it appears that the melodies to hundreds of texts in many monasteries throughout Europe are the same! How were these melodies preserved? By memory? One can only guess.
St. Gregory the Great, whose name became identified with the chant at least as early as the eighth century, died in 604, about 200 years before the earliest music notation was invented. We do not know what music was used in services in Gregory’s day, but we do know that they were sung. Could the chant be even older than Gregory? No one can be sure.
But important as the chant is to music history, it is more important for what it is than for where it came from. Throughout its history, Gregorian chant has been associated with what we might call contemplative Christianity, Christianity based on meditation and silence. When it is well sung, the chant evokes an unmistakable sacred quality, a quality which can touch almost anyone with a reminder of something beyond the ordinary.
If we are to understand the chant, it is this sacred quality we must try to understand, and here we encounter a problem. There is little in modern aesthetic theory that can help us articulate what we feel in this ancient music. More surprisingly, we find little help in medieval treatises on music either. But if we turn to medieval writings on scripture and immerse ourselves in these works, especially those of Gregory the Great himself, we begin to realize that we are in the presence of sacred qualities reminiscent of the chant. Even though Gregory seldom mentions music, his commentaries are sister works to the chant. The chant is a musical commentary on its scriptural text as Gregory’s is a verbal one, and the aim of the two commentaries is the same. Both arts, verbal and musical, are concerned with bringing about a meeting between text and the inner person, a meeting based on stillness and prayer. The study of scripture was the foundation of monastic life, and Ato study@ meant to grow into a living relation to the text.