Monday, January 28, 2008

Gregorian Chant as Worldview

As I took some quiet time yesterday to listen to music (Shostakovich preludes and fugues) and read some music criticism, I stumbled upon an interesting editorial trying to argue that the decline of 'serious' (i.e. classical) music since 1945 has to do with the growth of state funding of the arts. The argument itself seems lacking to me, inasmuch as artists from Perotin to Beethoven were funded by those in power in some form or other. Add to that the fact that state organizations like the NEA ultimately have very little sway in the economics of music production. But the question of the sorry state of the European classical tradition is one that any music historian has to grapple with.

In a series of talks I gave to Church musicians and clergy in the Marquette, Mich. diocese some years ago, I formulated a theory which is not new with me (I've adapted it from Plato), but deserves a new look. I haven't settled on the final phrasing but the idea is this:

"The music that we choose to compose and perform and to which we choose to listen embodies and performs ritually the worldview that we hold or that we desire to enact."

Let me put that more simply. The music we play and listen to either represents the world as we believe it to be or as we wish it would be (I also believe that music works on us passively, to help us see new worldviews, but that is more controversial). To give some examples: Bach wrote during the explosion of scientific discovery, especially in the hidden laws of physics. The worldview involved the cosmos as a machine, following laws. Bach's contemporary Rameau was the first to articulate a musical theory of harmonic progression, in which the bass line (real notes or implied 'roots') provides the structure for the working out of the melody, which itself often was governed by elaborate rules of key and figuration. Haydn's classicism emerged as the Wars of Religion gave way to Enlightenment rationalism and interest in the Greeks and Romans. Wagner's Romanticism reflected the loosening mores and political upheavals of mid-nineteenth century Europe. Today, can there be any doubt about the connection between grunge and nihilism, rap and violence, 'country' and patriotism?

This brings me to the reason why monks tend toward Gregorian chant. Monks and other church musicians (probably canons) composed this music and have continued to find it useful for centuries. This says something powerful about the enduring and timeless aspects of revelation and the Word of God. What worldview does chant bring into being?

Chant is notable for its sense of order without fussiness or control; ornate melodies that never devolve into grotesquerie; densely channeled passion that remains chaste; playfulness that is never silly and at the same time sobriety that is never self-obsessed or cheerless; rhythmic vigor that matches the stately and simple motions of the Latin Rite; short snippets of tune that suggest vast mysteries of God the Holy Trinity. Chant, in its way, makes credible the Christian Gospel in a manner that more recent (and probably ephemeral) styles struggle to match, even remotely. This is not to say that everyone would be better off doing chant, but there is a reason that the documents of Vatican II accord chant a privileged place in Catholic liturgy. Sacred music should be composed in every age, but if we wish it to perdure, it probably will need some of the qualities enunciated above.

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