Friday, May 11, 2018

Chant in Christian Liturgy: Not Private But Public Order of Things

Dmitry Levin - Winter's river

Then, in another lovely antiphonal exchange, minister and people said, “Praise ye the Lord,” “The Lord’s name be praised.” At St. Andrew’s this exchange was sung, or rather chanted, as were all of the canticles and psalms.

If someone had asked me ahead of time about chant, I would, I think, have had an objection ready. Chant is analogous to Tibetan prayer wheels. The heathen chant. A chant is a monotonous, artificial, repetitious sequence of notes imposed on a text. It has the net effect of throttling whatever life there might have been in the text to begin with.

But here were evangelicals chanting! And not only that, I discovered that the chant tunes were beautiful beyond anything I had ever dreamed. They were extremely simple tunes, and indeed they were repetitious. A great number of words might be sung on one note before you moved on to the next. But the effect, far from throttling the texts, lifted them into what seemed the joyful solemnity of heaven itself. To the objection that to impose a rigorous meter and melody on biblical texts was to slay them, these people would have pointed us to hymns.

There one finds highly stylized words set to rigorous melodies in exact meters. But all of us find that somehow the life of the words is thereby enhanced, not quelled. The structure is the midwife, so to speak.

Chant carries this phenomenon a step further than ordinary hymns do. It eschews the great sweep of melody available to hymns. Its thrift is its genius. Like a very simple frame around a picture, or an almost invisible setting for a diamond, it sets the text up and permits it to speak, or rather, to sing. The psalms, after all, were made for singing. Scottish meter is one way of perpetuating this, but it carries Hebrew poetry into the modern idiom of iambic tetrameter and trimeter. Chant, on the other hand, stays somewhat closer to the genius of the Hebrew, which depended on balance and repetition for its effect.

Gregorian chant, which is infinitely more austere even than the Anglican chant that I learned to sing at St. Andrew’s carries things even further. To an untrained ear it sounds artificial in the extreme, and so it is. But artifice is a very noble thing. God Himself appointed artificers and craftsmen to make cunning things for His own Tabernacle. Real craftsmanship, far from doing violence to them, works the materials so that their own properties are released. 

Gregorian chant, in its subtle austerity, performs this service for biblical texts. Whereas we commonly hear them read aloud by an individual who invests the words and phrases with his own rhetorical interpretation high-blown or understated, allegretto or largo, Gregorian chant lifts the texts away from this private milieu and arrays them, simply, out there, where we may encounter them the way we see the stars glittering on a clear night or hear the music of Bach so utterly satisfying to our deepest imaginings. Chant belongs to the public, not the private, order of things. Very few Christians will want to chant their private prayers, and this is as it should be.

excerpts from Thomas Howard, Evangelical is Not Enough: Worship of God in Liturgy and Sacrament, Ignatius, 1984