Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Gregorian chants draw new, unlikely fans

By Carlos Alcala

McClatchy Newspapers

Gregorian chant holds a place in popular imagination as the province of hooded monks intoning monotonous melodies along dim stone corridors.

It's not like that.

At St. Stephen's Catholic Church in Sacramento, the ancient musical form is sung by children and young men and women, a multiethnic choir of multicolored voices.

Teens sing wearing Vans or boots poking out from beneath cassocks. They sing at Masses where toddlers babble and babies wail and adults walk in and out during services.

Rehearsal is in a classroom furnished with old pews, the ceiling covered in dull acoustic tiles.

The setting is mundane, but the music is ethereal. It's ear-pleasing and eye-opening, but difficult to describe.

It resonates when the men's deeper voices are breathing the Latin phrases.

When the higher voices come in, the music undulates; it flows out like unrhythmic acoustic heat: radiant music.

St. Stephen the First Martyr Church is one of the few parishes in Northern California to incorporate traditional Gregorian chant into Mass.

To hear some tell it, that is very odd. To them, chant and Mass are nearly synonymous.

Gregorian chant ebbed in the decades after the Roman Catholic Mass was opened to vernacular non-Latin languages, even though chant was still officially supported.

"Gregorian chant should have the first place in musical liturgy," said William Mahrt, a professor at Stanford and president of the Church Music Association of America.

"(It's) the fundamental music," Mahrt said, "the basic music."

In the fourth century, it was how people learned the psalms, said Peter Jeffery, Scheide Professor of Music History at Princeton.

Much as popular songs are memorized today, the music of chant conveyed religious precepts to largely illiterate societies.

"The chant is the servant of the text," said Jeffrey Morse, St. Stephen's choir leader for six years.

Chant is fundamental to more than the church.

"There wouldn't have been Elvis Presley if there hadn't been Gregorian chant," Morse said.

That may be an exaggeration, but musical notation itself was created by monks in the 800s specifically to record chant melodies.

It's essentially the same notation the system for writing music that is used for chant today, though not for other music.

What Morse's choir sings during St. Stephen's Masses is largely prescribed by centuries of tradition.

"Choristers were singing the exact same text to the exact same melody in 800 on the same Sunday," Morse said. "It grounds you in history."

Few parishes are grounded like St. Stephen's.

The parish was set up by Bishop William K. Wiegand to conduct a traditional Latin Mass. The priest who hired Morse recognized the place of chant and Morse's wealth of knowledge and experience.

When asked about the name "Gregorian," he readily recites the dates and nature of Gregory the Great's papacy. Gregory's name was appended to the chants that existed before he was made pope in 590.

The music was practically dead in the United States in the late 1980s and early '90s. Morse had to go to England to study Gregorian music. "No one wanted it, basically," he said.

Things are changing, though.

There's something of a self-help movement, experts like Mahrt and Jeffery say.

A summer chant gathering four years ago had 40 participants mostly refugees from failing choirs. This year it had 260 some from growing choirs, some who seek to seed new ones.

In some cases, politics is behind the growth of chant.

Many Catholics associate Latin Mass and traditional music with conservative politics, said Princeton's Jeffery.

Indeed, at St. Stephen's during a recent Mass, political stickers on cars in the parking lot were all in support of the McCain-Palin ticket or initiatives aligned with a conservative social agenda.

Many may seek tradition, but few have the experience of Morse and his choir. Even some teens in his group have been in it for six years six times around the prescribed cycle of the liturgy.

They know the chants. They know the music. Though it's in Latin, "We definitely try to understand what we're singing," said Ellen Presley, 20, a music major at California State University, Sacramento.

When the choir takes a break in August, Presley said, "everyone complains about us not being here. The music adds a lot."

In fact, it is choir participation that draws 21-year-old Jonathan Crane to drive two hours from Corning, Calif., to St. Stephen's. "It was the sound" that thrilled him, he said.

Crane and Presley are also impressed by the voices of the 8- and 9-year-old choristers who sing with them.

The music is a major part of the service, but not everything. During Mass, the chant's beauty competes with the rustle of life in the congregation.

It is not like a visit to the symphony, where every cough is frowned upon and babies are unwelcome.

The choir is not the focus. In fact, they sing from a loft, heard but not seen.

Chant's most ardent supporters seem to like it that way.

"I think that's very much what music in a sacred context should be," Morse said. "It shouldn't be a concert at all."

"The object of one's attention," Mahrt said, "is worship."

Still, the music augments the worship, said Father Robert Novokowsky, the parish's pastor.

"During the liturgy, the chant is meditative," he said. It's one thing to have a short psalm read. It's quite another to experience it sung.

"It takes four minutes to sing that one line," Novokowsky said.

"It's a way of experiencing the mystery of God."

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