Gregorian Chant: beautiful or boring?

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Sister Rosemary Esseff presented a master class in Gregorian chant on Monday, May 1. Photo by Kathleen Miller.

Last Monday, May 1, Sister Rosemary Esseff gave a lecture at the University of Dallas entitled “Gregorian Chant and Polyphony: Beautiful or Boring?”

She began her talk by having a group of students sing a brief chant. When they had finished singing, she asked those attending the lecture to rank the music on a scale of one to 10, with one being the least beautiful and 10 being the most beautiful.

No one called the music a 10; in fact, most responded that Gregorian chant was more likely a two or a three.

Sister Rosemary then asked her audience to think about why we have this perception of chant and polyphony. Is it because the music truly isn’t beautiful, or because it is typically performed poorly?

Before I attended the lecture, I would have been inclined to say both. And judging by the responses of several others in the room who appeared equally unimpressed, it’s clear that this is a popular sentiment, particularly among young people.

But Sister Rosemary, unfazed by the less than enthusiastic response of her crowd, proceeded to offer several tips for singers on how to worship with better technique: emphasize the accented syllable, don’t stop in the middle of a phrase, speed up at the beginning of a phrase, slow down and breathe at the end of a phrase, and, most notably, integrate discipline and emotion when singing.

As the minutes went on, the singers began to follow her directions, repeating the chant several times over with new attention to detail. The music began to rise in enthusiasm, with a renewed dynamism to the volume and far more pronounced shape to the chant’s vowel sounds.

As I looked around the room, I began to see bored, blank stares turn slowly into smiles and crossed arms unfold into more attentive posture. Those that had sat quietly in the beginning now started to sing along, and with every measure that passed by, audience participation in the worship soared.

UD is a largely Catholic university, making it the perfect location for a lecture of this nature. But the outside world has also begun to show an interest in Gregorian chant, even beyond the Catholic sphere.

For the last several years, albums of Gregorian chant have risen to the top of the Billboard classical charts. Dozens of Gregorian Spotify playlists have been made public, generating hundreds of thousands of followers, and parishes around the world have begun to reintroduce the chant after nearly 50 years of its absence in the wake of Vatican II.

When conflict and despair surround us, beautiful music reflecting the beauty of the Gospel becomes a real solace, even for non-Christians. People hear something in Gregorian chant that is beautiful — at least when it is performed well — and that beauty helps them transcend the mundanity of everyday life, hearing instead the echoes of God’s voice in their hearts.

The tradition of chanting, both Gregorian in the West and Byzantine in the East, has survived so many centuries for a reason: it’s captivating, it’s inviting and it’s an incomparable form of worship.

Our world has the tendency to numb itself to truth and goodness in an age of relativism and secularism.

In such an atmosphere, beautiful music can be a marvelous tool, even 2,000 years later, for the God of the chanted verses to reach through the ever-widening cracks of our hearts. It is a historically effective method of worship by which God can permeate our souls when other options may fall short.

At UD, we are well acquainted with ancient beauty: we cherish it in the texts we read, cling to it in the Bubble we form, carry it with us through the streets of Rome. We know what beauty is because we wrap ourselves up in it for four solid years; as such, we ought to be especially receptive to the potential Gregorian chant holds for beauty, given both its musical and historical potency.

The authentic beauty of Gregorian chant makes the reality of God’s existence and the compelling nature of His love for us easier to perceive and understand.

As a reflection of the perfection of God, the music is captivating and pleasing — it draws the heart outside of itself, allowing us to become larger than our own limited experiences. When sung by skilled musicians, it has the powerful effect of a sort of spiritual antidote to other music and artistic offerings of the world.

As Sister Rosemary persuasively argued, it is the responsibility of our young generation to learn the chants, embrace them and keep them alive; for if we do not, they will once again gather dust on forgotten shelves and potentially be lost forever.

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