Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Gregorian chant back in style at local churches

Posted on Sunday, March 6, 2005

Original Article

Ralph Stanley singing "Angel Band," the strains of "Amazing Grace" and "Just as I am," often sung at the altar call, are the sort of sacred music most often heard in Northwest Arkansas, given the region’s deep associations with evangelical Protestantism.

But for some people in the area, the ancient form of music known as Gregorian chant has a unique power and appeal. "The chant has proven itself over the centuries to be a powerful way to bring oneself into a spiritual state," said Roger Gross, a drama professor at the University of Arkansas. "Nothing has ever been so conducive to worship as Gregorian chant."

Justitiae Domini dulciora super mel et favum. The ordinances of the Lord... are sweeter than honey and the honeycomb.

The origins of Gregorian chant, or plainsong, date back to the ancient Jewish synagogue. Its melodies would have been familiar to Jewish worshippers in the first century A. D. St. Gregory the Great, pope from 590 to 604, developed and codified the use of the music by the Catholic Church. Often associated with the monasteries and cathedrals of the Middle Ages, recordings of Gregorian chant have sold millions of copies in recent years.

Ethel Simpson, a recently retired archivist and classicist from the U of A, is a singer in a Gregorian "schola," or choir, that sings chant every week at the Saturday evening Mass at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Fayetteville. Asked about the "popularity" of chant in the last decade, Simpson was reluctant to classify the music with Britney Spears, Eminem or Rascal Flatts. "I don’t think chant is popular in the sense other kinds of music are," Simpson said. "Its appeal is related to the popularity in the last 30 years of meditation. Many different kinds of chant have surfaced. The Beatles went to India looking for chant. Chant is a part of Buddhism. People realized, ‘Hey, the Western tradition has something like that, too. ’"

Qui biberit aquam fiet in eo fons aquae salientis in vitam aeternam. Whoever drinks this water shall have within him a spring of water welling up unto eternal life.

Simpson’s schola has provided music recently for a special service held at 6 p.m. on Mondays in Lent at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Fayetteville. The church’s rector, the Rev. Lowell Grisham, usually presides over the service, called "Ancient Roots: Chant, Silence and Breaking Bread." Grisham finds in the chant a measure of a peace the world cannot give. "Gregorian chant is so counter-cultural for people in our age," he said. "This music has all the time in the world. Time seems to stand still. It’s so balancing to the hurry-up world that most of us live in.

" Before Monday’s service, I’d had one of those days, with too many plates spinning. I found myself almost sprinting to the service. After just a few minutes of allowing the peace of that music to enter me, my metabolism had changed. I was present, relaxed, everything was centered again. "

Grisham said the service is popular with his congregation.

" It’s the only special Lenten program I’ve ever offered where as many or more people come at the end as at the start of Lent, "he said.

Passer invenit sibi domum ubi reponat pullos suos: altaria tua, Domine virtutem, rex meus et Deus meus. The sparrow hath found herself a house where she hath laid her young: even thine altars, O Lord of hosts, my king and my god.

At a recent Saturday night Mass at St. Joseph’s, the congregation joined in some of the chants, singing from song sheets that contained translations of the Latin texts.

Lyle Cooney-Pead said the use of a sacred language that is not a spoken language in everyday use is a universal human impulse.

" At the Last Supper, Christ and his apostles prayed in Hebrew, a language as dead in first-century Palestine as Hebrew is today, "he said." Until a decade or two ago, Protestants used the King James Bible, which is written in a form of English that hasn’t been used for 400 years. Every religion has a sacred language. "

Cooney-Pead appreciates the chants’ emphasis on the divine.

" Some people today say the purpose of the Mass is to celebrate community, "he said." I profoundly disagree. The purpose of the Mass is to worship God. With the chant, there’s no forgetting that. The chant draws men to Christ. "

Richard Lee, a philosophy professor at the UA, has led the Gregorian schola for 10 years. Besides the mixture of aesthetic, historical and spiritual motives that have drawn the choir’s members, the music they sing helps the congregation at St. Joseph’s reconnect to the denomination’s roots.

" One thing the priest [at St. Joseph’s] has been asked to do is re-introduce some Latin into the Mass, "Lee said." So he looks to us to help the congregation learn the ordinary [unchangeable] parts of the Mass in Latin. Putting Latin back into the Mass might be a way of restoring some common ground so people can pray together anywhere in the world, for example, singing the Lord’s Prayer together in Latin. It might be a way of returning to tradition. "

Simpson said the Catholic Church places a high value on tradition as a means of teaching.

" Gregorian chant is a way of connecting to the those earlier ages [of Christianity]. It connects us to the universality of the church, not only across the world today, but across time. "

Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis. Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of goodwill.

The lyrics of Gregorian chant, such as those interspersed through this article, are generally taken from the Bible, mostly from the Psalms. The music that goes with it, with its four-line staff and square notes, is far older than the five lines and round notes familiar to choirs today. Lee said those are not the only differences.

" The rhythms are different in chant than in modern music, "he said." It’s not like a four-four march. It’s more like the rhythm of spoken words. Some chant is melismatic, where there are several notes — sometimes dozens — on a single syllable. There’s a lot we don’t know about chant. Sometimes we’re surprised at which words are ornamented in this way, because they don’t seem to be the most important words. "

According to Lee, Gregorian plainsong does not have four-part harmony.

" Chant has an advantage in a choir like ours because everybody sings the same note, "he said." I’ve been in other choirs [that sang modern music] where the tenor didn’t show up and we couldn’t sing. "

Parce, Domine, parce populo tuo. Spare, O Lord, spare thy people.

Austin Welsh is a Springdale physician who belongs to the Northwest Arkansas chapter of Una Voce, an organization that promotes the use of Latin and Gregorian chant in church services.. The group is circulating a petition to church authorities, asking them to implement locally a directive from Pope John Paul II that Mass be offered for those who want it in the" Tridentine rite" — the form of Mass common in the Catholic Church until the early 1960s.

The word "Tridentine" refers to a reforming church council in the 16 th century, held at Trent in Italy. "We have found the traditional Latin Mass is the perfect setting for Gregorian chant — they’re made for each other," Welsh said. "Our organization seeks to make the Tridentine Mass a permanent part of the Northwest Arkansas religious landscape."

Cantate Domino canticum novum. Sing to the Lord a new song.

Roger Gross and his wife are among several Northwest Arkansas residents who like to share in the worship of a religious community in Oklahoma that uses Gregorian chant in its daily round of praise and intercessory prayer. Clear Creek Monastery, near Tahlequah, Okla., was founded in 1999 by 13 Benedictine monks from Fontgombault, a medieval abbey in France famous for its recordings of the chant. The Grosses and others from Washington County make the 90-minute trip to Clear Creek to participate in the monks’ worship, and sometimes to spend a few days in the monastery guesthouse. "We used to have traditional vacations and take recreation in the ordinary way," Gross said. "The time we spend at Clear Creek in the monastery’s atmosphere of peace provides much better re-creation than any vacation or entertainment we’ve ever done."

The Rev. Philip Anderson, the prior of Clear Creek Monastery, quoted a choirmaster from the community’s French motherhouse on the power of the chant. "Gregorian chant excels in transporting souls to the blessed region where God waits for them," Anderson said. Lee said the Gregorian schola welcomes new members, of any religion or none. "If there are people interested in singing chant, we’d love to have them," he said. "We’re small, but we’d like to be bigger." Contact information for Lee is available on the schola’s Web site at comp. uark. edu /~ rlee/chant. html. Directions to Clear Creek Monastery can be found at Una Voce of Northwest Arkansas has a Web site

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