Saturday, December 01, 2007

Re-discovering Gregorian Chant

~from The Hartford Courant. Hat tip to Brad at Roman Catholic Vocations
But the men, all seminarians at Holy Apostles College and Seminary, are devoted to it. This is a class in Gregorian chant, one of the world's oldest musical traditions.

And, as any of its disciples would tell you, there's nothing quite like it in the world.

"It's supremely beautiful. It's deeply spiritual," said Scott McKee, 46, a member of the class who is from Albuquerque, N.M. "There are people who listen to chant and are not Catholic, but they feel something in it that touches them."

Gregorian chant has been a part of the Catholic Church's heritage for over a millennium, written in a Latin text with tones that rise and fall to a cadence formed before the ninth century. There are enclaves in Connecticut where it is still practiced regularly.

But classes in the ancient art are rare. Yale has held them and plans to again next year. Specialists traveling in the state sometimes host chant seminars.

The class at Holy Apostles is unique in that it trains future priests both how to chant and how to teach it to the laity. Students learn to conduct and compose. This year's midterm, for instance, asked students to write their own chants.

The goal is to graduate seminarians who will safeguard and spread an age-old church tradition, one that scholars say was, until the 1980s, in serious danger of tumbling into irrelevance.

"We are the Latin rite Roman Catholic Church," said the Very Rev. Douglas Mosey, president and rector of Holy Apostles. "We don't want the parishes to lose their rich Latin heritage. We don't want our language and our music to just drop out of consciousness."

The most recent threat to chant came, inadvertently, from the church itself, experts said. In the early 1960s, the Second Vatican Council decreed that priests could incorporate the vernacular, or native language, into the liturgy.

Suddenly, pastors in Latin America could lead prayers in Spanish. Priests in Uganda could celebrate the Mass in Swahili. Meanwhile, ceremonies performed in the traditional Latin declined in popularity. And Gregorian chant went with it.

In addition, groups that wanted the church to adopt more progressive ideas encouraged it to shed some of its orthodox roots. Latin became synonymous with everything that was inaccessible and outdated about the church.

"The Latin liturgy and the chant unfortunately become a game of political football," said Margot Fassler, professor of music history and liturgy at the Yale Divinity School.

The trend began to turn around in the last two decades, when traditionalists rallied to reintroduce the Latin Mass and chant.

They found an unexpected ally in the New Age movement. People interested in spirituality and meditation sent the album "Chant," recorded by the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos in Spain, to the No. 3 spot on the Billboard charts in the 1990s. Suddenly, Gregorian chant had rock-star status.

Most recently, Pope Benedict XVI in July gave parishes the autonomy to decide whether to celebrate the Mass in Latin. The announcement paved the way for more priests to bring Latin back into the church.

The upshot has been an increased interest in chant today among the laity, especially youths, said Marguerite Mullée Duncan, Holy Apostles' music director and professor of liturgical music who teaches the chant class.

"There is a hunger for it," she said. "People realize that this is not a museum piece. This is a living art form."

Mullée Duncan has taught chant at Holy Apostles for nine years now. She also leads chant seminars around the state, and this summer plans to take a small group to a chant workshop in Barga, Italy.

Given the amount of ground she has to cover, her chant classes at Holy Apostles tend to evolve into part vocal coaching, part music theory and part language.

At a recent session, for instance, the students spent several minutes debating whether the "h" in Latin is pronounced. (Consensus: It isn't.)

Of course, the class's emphasis is still mostly on singing. Mullée Duncan opens every class by singing a simple Latin invocation: "Benedicamus domino." Let us bless the Lord.

To which the students sing back: "Deo gratias." Thanks be to God.
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