Sunday, June 03, 2007

Gregorian Chant, my Introduction to an Introduction to an Introduction

This is the start of my second year of singing with St. Ann choir, which performs Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony mostly at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Palo Alto, CA.

Not knowing how ignorant I was about this music when I started, I blissfully put out into the deep, and after a year, this fragile barque I've constructed of the flotsam and jetsam of whatever I could pick up in my not so copious spare time is barely keeping me afloat. After reading the first two chapters of a book I recently bought for $7.60 (used but like new) at Amazon, I believe it may help me get my sea legs (or chant legs?). The title is Gregorian Chant, by Willi Apel [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1958].

I want to take use this blog to take notes on the many points from WIlli Apel's book that are striking me as essential for getting the point about chant. I may try to create a slide presentation as an orientation that might benefit other new chantophiles too.

When I asked if I could join the choir, director Prof. William Mahrt, renowned chant scholar and medievalist, asked if I had sung Gregorian chant in the past, and with blithe assurrance I said that I learned to sing chant in parochial grammar school. To my mind then, I knew what I was doing! Besides, Besides, I had some sight reading ability from studying piano for five years as a reluctant student, some experience playing trombone and trumpet. What else would I need to know?

My estimation of my knowledge has gone downhill since then, until now I realize that I know next to nothing, even though I've been reading books and articles and attending extra workshops, beyond practicing and singing with the choir from four to twelve hours a week, depending, of course, on the season of the Church year.

Here is what I learned in the book's preface:

+ Apel pledged to provide only known verifiable facts clearly separated from conjecture and imagination, because, as he wrote, "the reader has a right to know what kind of food he is being given" p. xi. [I wish modern Bible critics and theologians would make the same pledge.]

+ Since a standard three volume Introduction to Gregorian chant (tranlsated from the German title) by Peter Wagner is foundational for Apel's studies, Apel wrote "Since I could not call it [Apels' own book on the topic] an 'Introduction to the Introduction,' I had to resign myself to giving it a name it hardly deserves" p. xi.

+ Apel deplored a then-present trend [in 1958] to setting chant to organ; he saw it as a practice destructive to chant, rendering it something "other than it really is and what it should be" p. xii.

The first principle derived from the above is this: Gregorian chant is unaccompanied singing. A second point, not mentioned in this book but elsewhere, is that Gregorian chant is prayer.

Chapter One Definition and Terminology Main Points

+ Chant is the traditional music of the Roman Catholic Church.

+ "is rooted in the pre-Christian service of the Jews,
+ "adopted distinctive characteristics as early as the third and fourth centuries of the Christian era,
+ "was fully developed in the seventh century,
+ "expanded during the enssuing foundred years,
+ "deteriorated int he sixteenth century,
+ "was restored in the late nineteenth century"

Pre 1958, when Apel was writing, chant was being used "essentially in the same form it had about a thousand years ago."

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