Why I Chant
I admit that originally I was drawn to chant music as a sort of adolescent rebellion against the baroque music to which my father listened (and which I loved), the jazz and folk songs to which my mother listened (and which I loved), and the rock and roll of my brother and my peers (which I did not love at all, but was clearly expected to love). I also found the floating, melodically limited songs compelling and trance inducing, and I became addicted.
The term chant includes music from many cultures. African and Native American chants are often rhythm-driven. Asian Indian (Carnaic) chant uses melody, rhythm, and repetition. European chant (Gregorian, Ambrosian, Mozarabic, Carolingian, the chants of Hildegard von Bingen, Jewish chant, and others) is usually drone-based and arrhythmic.
I like them all, but the type that gets me tickled to my core is the European chant. I have a particular fondness for Hildegard’s chant, but I’ll get into that in another essay. First, we need to have a little Chant 101 so we’re all playing with the same toys.
European chant is modal. This means that the scales used to construct the melodies are not exactly what you’re used to hearing. You know what a major scale sounds like if you just sing “do-re-me-fa-sol-la-ti-do.” If you found a C on the piano and played up eight notes, you’d use only the white keys to make that nice major scale. Now, move your fingers up one key and play up eight notes USING ONLY THE WHITE KEYS. You’ll think something is wrong, because the half step (where there’s no black key between two white keys) is in the “wrong” place. In modern music, a scale that starts on D like that would have a black key (F#) instead of the white “plain” F and a black key (C#) instead of the white “plain” C, in order to be a major scale. In modal music, using only the white keys starting on D is called the dorian mode. The mode starting on E is Phyrgian, the one on F is Lydian, and so forth.
Don’t get me wrong, the black keys get used in modal music; this was just a nice simple way to get us all on the same page, as far as understanding what a mode is. In modern music, a D scale always starts and ends on a D. The Dorian mode, however, can begin on any note, as long as that half step is in the correct position. A mode is a kind of scale, but a mode is not an immutably-placed scale.
NOTE: If you need the “math,” here it is. In the C scale, the half steps are between the third and fourth notes and between the seventh and eighth notes (whole+whole+whole+half+whole+whole+whole+half). That’s nice and symmetrical; you just remember three whole steps and a half, and repeat. Dorian “moves” the half steps to the left and puts them between the second and third notes and between the sixth and seventh notes (whole+whole+half+whole+whole+whole+half+ whole). Now its two whole steps, a half step, three whole steps and a half step, and one final whole step. It’s not as easy to remember as that C major scale, that’s for sure. Each mode places the half step in a certain place; the mode is defined by where the half steps are, not by which notes are played.
Within the modes there are two forms. The earliest (ancient Greek, most likely, and persisting until about the eighth century A.D.) used five-note scales (pentatonic), so you’d only sing do-re-mi-fa-sol. Later scales finished the cycle and added the final notes to get the eight notes you know when you think of a major scale (diatonic). In early chant, you’d have to modulate modes to move out of the five-note scale. Later chants were diatonic, so less “math” was required by the singers to keep the half steps in their proper place.
Historically, there are two types of modes, church and plagal. The story I heard is that someone went to Rome, where they were beginning to document the modes, in about the second century A.D., and brought them home to northern Europe. His memory wasn’t entirely accurate, and although he got the concept right, he reported the modes in a slightly different place, giving us modes that begin on other notes than do, re, mi, fa, and sol. These have different names depending on with whom you speak (like Ionian, Aeolian, and so forth, orhypolydian, hypomixolydian, and so forth), but the results are the same. Ionian and hypolydian are the same mode—both have the half steps between the third and fourth and the seventh and eighth steps and sound just like the key of C major that you sang as do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do.
European chant melodies are constructed within the modes. Leaps of fifths (both ends of a major chord—five steps apart, counting the first note as “one”-and the one at the other at the end of the chord as “five”) are uncommon but not unheard of. Octaves (eight-note leaps, or from "do" to "do") are not usually present in step form or in leaps (because the original modes had only five notes, presumably). Most of the time, chant melodies move up or down one step at a time, or by a third (skipping a note step-wise). Sometimes there are leaps of a fourth (four steps, counting the first note as “one”), but these typically accent the text and are not typically there for melodic reasons.
For the most part, there isn’t much symbolism or word painting in European chant. If the word being sung means "angry," the notes don't necessarily make you think the word "angy" if you heard them without the word. Occasionally, you’ll find the shape of the cross (C-G-B-A—if you drew those notes on the staff, you’d see the shape, vaguely), and sometimes there are other shapes (like a spear when you’re singing the word for “shield”). But mostly, the chants are based on the various aspects of the mode.
By the tenth century, Gregorian chants were being documented and they started ascribing certain moods to the modes (solemnity, dignity, sadness, quiet joy, etc.). By the 17th century, the modes had become modern scales form most compositions and the moods were ascribed to them as well. (Documentation of Gregorian chant is spotty. Pope Gregorius and his henchmen in the ninth century, and who gets credit for all these anonymously composed chants, began collecting them. Until nearly the end of the 19th century when a Liber Usualis was compiled, there wasn’t a good single source for the chants. Of course, over time, the skills of the various scribes were quite varied, and there is no way to know if the documentation that survived is accurate.)
Many of the melodies are familiar to non-chanters, as later era composers used the chants as the basis for their works. Ave Maris Stella and Ubi Caritasare particularly popular examples, with compositions based on the chants right up to present times.
Gregorian chant uses lyrics from the bible, both Old and New Testament. The Psalms are particularly popular choices. Other forms of European chant use combinations of biblical text and colloquial versions of the same stories. Hildegard wrote her own experiences and stories to illustrate Christian principles. She used particularly elegant descriptions of nature as metaphors to make her point, and that is the primary reason I find her work so mesmerizing. (The church was slow to approve this departure from tradition, and she spent many years of her life trying to gain approval for this more personal form of worship.)
Not all the stories chosen for chant lyrics have much happening in them. Sometimes, the excerpt is only significant if you know the surrounding stories as well. The chant was meant to be used throughout the liturgical day as part of mass celebrations, so the chants often illustrate something relevant to a particular feast day or saint’s life.
Gregorian chant is in Latin; Hildegard’s chant is in German Latin, which means that she tossed in the occasional German word if she needed something that wasn’t in her Latin repertoire, and that the Latin is sung as if the words were German (a slight change in pronunciation from Roman Latin).
Gregorian chant and its predecessors was meant to be learned by rote. If there was a leader, he (it was typically a monk or priest, but occasionally an abbess led a group of nuns) would move his hands in such a way that the higher and lower notes were revealed, as were the accents, the lengthened notes, and so forth. The rhythm (if you can call it that—perhaps “forward motion” is a better term) of the song was entirely determined by the words of the song, and extra meaning or implications were provided by melisma (passages of wandering melody on a single syllable). Some chant passages change notes with every syllable and others use the vowel sounds to carry a melismatic passage.
Originally, European chants were documented in neumes. These little hen-scratchings reveal that there is a change in note and where emphasis should be placed (or “weight)”, but not necessarily the interval between the notes or how much emphasis to provide. The leader interpreted the neumes and directed the group by waving his hand in a way that reflected the gesture of the neumes. It is most likely that the neumes evo!ved specifically to provide suitable hand gestures.
Because these neumes are so non-specific regarding the intervals between notes and the duration of notes, even when later scribes began placing the pneumes on lined parchment, there is no way to know if we can replicate the music as it would have been heard a thousand and more years ago.
Around the 12th century A.D., block notes developed on a four-line staff. Although the “do” note is movable, it was finally possible to know whether the approximate note intervals were reproduced. Masses and Feast days were also documented in block notes, so we can be pretty sure that we are doing the same thing as the documenter. (The “round” notes that you see on today’s five-line staff were developed around the 14th century, and were based on the block notes. It wasn’t until the 16th and 17th centuries that the complete modern form evolved to its current state.)
There isn’t any regular pulse in European chant, such as you might find in later music. Any tempo or sense of rhythm is entirely interpreted by the performer or the leader of a group, based on personal taste and the text. The block notes (squares and diamonds on a four-line staff) provide only the most meager information about how long a note is or whether there should be emphasis placed on a note by lengthening or intensity. Neumes provide more information about emphasis, duration, and weight, but do not provide any specific limits.
Badly performed European chant puts equal weight and equal duration on all the notes in a chant. It clumps along, and is not very accessible to the listener. If you’re really unlucky, the performer will slide and slither from note to note, and you really won’t have a sense of the chant.
Well-performed European chant is mesmerizing. You can feel how much closer to the earth and its elements the singers were than are modern folk, because the words themselves influence the duration of the notes. You feel pulled forward into the music, eager to see where it goes. Formulas that became so omnipresent in later music (by Bach’s time, formulas were all the rage) are completely absent, and the lack of rhythm and modal nature of the melodies keeps you guessing about where the chant will go musically.
Not all European chant was meant to be sung against a drone. A drone is a single note, usually the “base” note of the scale (the "do") or the fifth step up from the base note, held for the duration of the piece or until the mode changes.
Although you could sing Gregorian chant against a drone, it wasn’t really done that way. Hildegard’s chants (she lived from 1098-1179, by the way) are often sung against a drone. A lot of Celtic music (chants included) are performed against a drone.
Something amazing happens when you provide a drone. A drone builds a kind of foundation upon which the other notes depend. Sometimes the drone provides a rudimentary harmony, at other times a dissonance. But there is a kind of homing sensation about it. You feel the tension created by the changing notes and look forward to the resolution when the melody note matches the drone. The same thing continues to hold true in modern music; you wait for the root chord (the base note's chord) of the scale of the piece to know that the piece is finished.
As a singer, performing against a drone provides a real sense of time and space that I have never experienced with any other kind of music. I become more aware of the personal space that I occupy--my own size and shape--and the size and shape of the space or room in which I stand. I am more aware of my breathing, and of how much breath I spend when I sing, of the sounds coming from the room itself, of any sounds outside the room. I slow down, and really get the point of the chant, really feel it in my body, hear from the space when the notes should change to make the meaning clear. I become part of the chant, and the chant becomes part of me.
I had a conductor (David Babbitt of the San Francisco Bach Choir) who said that chant is like a garden hose. Since humans began to vocalize, someone somewhere has chanted. If you take a moment and breathe quietly in the space where you are, you can feel when it’s your turn to come in. Chant is passed along through time and space from person to person, like water through a garden hose. For me, the drone helps my hectic modern mind connect to the hose of history and the future and take my turn.
I’m not a Catholic—I’m not even a Christian—so it might seem a little odd that I have this strong interest. Well, there are many things that contribute to my fascination.
As you can tell from the preceding paragraphs, I find the musicology and the history of chant interesting. I also find that the Christian church, in all its forms, has inspired the vast majority of the music I like. That’s the majority of why I chant: I like the music.
But I also feel strongly that it’s important not to forget the past, both for history and for music. I don’t really believe that modern sensibilities can fully understand what it means to connect to a more spiritual side of themselves without some connection to the beginnings, when times were simpler, when having lunch meant going out and catching it or digging it up, and where reading and making music was a luxury or reserved for clergy.
Many of the people who are currently involved in “early music” (European music before 1750) are deeply committed to researching and exploring, to ascertain how this music might actually have sounded. (There’s no way to truly know.) Many of them, like me, are moved by the interesting sounds and shapes and rhythms that came out before musicians figured out how to assemble a chord, or that a regular rhythm might be a useful tool to keeping the performers together and providing another element that passive listeners could grab onto and use to climb into the music. Many practitioners of chant and early music are scholarly and dedicated. I love being around people who are fulfilled by their avocation, don’t you?
And I suppose, some of my continuing pleasure harkens back to those early days when I first discovered chant. It’s not quite as eccentric to chant now as it was in my youth, but almost. I’m a a kind of musical rebel.