Not little hammers blows but angelic sounds combine to make plainsong
WAS IT ST AUGUS'IlNE who said that listening to Gregorian Chant vas like little hammer blows to the brain?
The beauty of it all came back to me when I went to Ampleforth Abbey in Yorkshire, the ace Benedictine monastery with quite a nice school attached.
The brethren have just produced a CD of the office of Compline with other pieces, including the Lamentations of Jeremiah and the hymn to Saints Maurus and Placid, the disciples of St Benedict. "Gregorian Chants" has already been discussed in The Catholic Herald_ What struck me about the genre was the difference between the way plainsong has been marketed of late and the real intention of the music.
Famously, the success of the wildly popular "Canto Gregoriano" from the Benedictines of Santo Domingo in Spain, didn't do that community much good. Sales reached four million and the celebrity of the monastery was such that it had to close its doors to visitors, thereby violating one of the best-known tenets of the Benedictine life, hospitality: every stranger is treated as though he were Christ himself.
To crown things, the choirmaster left the community and is now suing the monastery for his share of the proceeds from the disc. Sudden accets of wealth is hardly anything new for Benedictines, but it went badly wrong here.
Infamously, "Canto Gregoriano" was used by brittle youth chilling out after rave parties. The other use to which it was put was, New-Age style, for assisting internal meditation. A recent American video of Gregorian chant was promoted, Buddhist fashion, as a means to free the mind and encompass total tranquility.
The visual images used were indistinguishable from the Patience Strong images you get on tapes to help you relax and unwind: running brooks, flowers, breaking waves. Not that much about the life of the community. The US book Chant speaks of the musical line. .feeding our inner emotional life".
But that's not primarily what
Gregorian chant is about. As Dom Benjamin, the cherubic choirmaster in Ampleforth said, "it's first of all prayer. At the centre of it all are the words, the Scripture."
In other words, it's not meant to be directing you inwards, but outwards, towards God. It's not meant to be like a Buddhist mantra, where the words are less important than the effect they have on you. The words are the heart of the thing.
It's prayer, which by definition is not self-centred in the way that neoOriental meditation essentially is. There is one line of music rather than harmony precisely in order that there should be no distraction from the words.
And it's not an isolated activity. It's a community effort: good voices and poor voices all blend together. Ampleforth itself is mixed in terms of the brethrens' age, nationality and social background. And the plainsong is catholic in that sense as well. "Its a funny thing about chant", said one young novice. "It brings you together. You have your disagreements before you go in and afterwards, it's never quite so bad. It's bigger than any of ug individually."
Indeed the one problem for a choirmaster is a voice that stands out, a voice that won't blend: Dom Benjamin won't ever stop a brother from singing, no matter how rotten his voice, but he does occasionally ask a monk to sing less loudly.
Like everything else at Ampleforth, plainsong is an exercise in community living. But in singing the office, some monks unexpectedly come into their own. One of the monks who suffers from cerebral palsy has an unexpectedly fine, resonating voice.
The hoped-for market for the disc, which might be commercially sponsored, is for people who don't have much time. "I'd like to think of it going to some priest in a presbytery who's by himself", said one monk. "It'd be a way for them to join with the community."
In a way, it would be better if this disc did not go the way of "Canto Gregoriano", charts and all. It would compromise its real character.