I sometimes get an urge to hear or see or read something for no knowable reason.
I’ve heard Gregorian chant for years (long before it was on best-selling CD’s), but I recently got that kind of urge to hear it again. Decades ago, when I was taking Music courses, I remember a professor saying that the Monks of the Abbey of Solesmes were reputed to do the most “authentic” version of Gregorian Chant. I’ve read that the thinking has changed at this time. But anyway, I sought for and found a CD of theirs on Amazon.com (they also have their own website).
As I listened to it repeated times, a few things occurred to me. I post them here as separate paragraphs, with no particular “structure” in mind:
1 — Secular audiences (of which I was once a member) and non-Catholic (or non-Christian) audiences tend to emphasize listening to the music. But it seems to me that the music is really inseparable from the text, if we want to understand the intent properly.
2 — Gregorian Chant is associated with prayer, but not with “petitionary prayer” in the usual sense. Certainly not in the individual, private sense. It’s more the “prayer of praise” of God.
3. — The real audience for Gregorian Chant is God, not us. I think this is also true, in some ways, of the singing of a ba’al tefilah — prayer leader — in a synagogue. It’s not — or shouldn’t be — meant as “entertainment;” a performance for the satisfaction of the congregation. There are undeniable aesthetic concerns. But in the end, it’s about talking to God.
4. — Listening to the monks of Solesmes, I wondered about the breathing and other singing techniques they employed. Bel Canto technique came much later than Chant in its earliest years.
5. — Listening to another CD, by Benedictine monks, there was noticeable strain in some of their higher notes. I heard no such thing among the monks of Solesmes.
6. — Neither CD came with a booklet containing the texts. There should have been one. Best of all would have been one with the texts in Latin and English.
7. — I noticed on the Solesmes CD that there were times when the singers got louder and I had to adjust the volume down a bit; likewise, there were times when they sang so softly that I had to adjust the volume up. Granted, this is partly about my hearing, which is weakening a bit with age. It’s also about listening to it while driving, so it gets mixed with road-sound. But I wonder if a professionally produced CD would include the engineer adjusting the high and low points to remain in the same “zone” as the rest?
8. — Could Gregorian Chant be used in a Jewish service (with Hebrew texts, of course)? It already is: In Ashkenazic congregations, the melody of “Aleinu” at the end of each service is Gregorian Chant, but sung less meditatively and more like group-singing.
9. — That one example aside, I’m not sure most people would want a complete service of Gregorian Chant. Too calming for general tastes, I think. But it could be randomly incorporated for variety.
10. — Somewhere, I read that the monks at Solesmes chant for hours every day. It reminds me a bit of when I was studying to be a cantor. I would go over and over a few verses of liturgy, with the given nusach, until it was memorized. Then, I would add it to whatever I had already memorized. Gradually, over months, I was able to do an entire service. But repeating the verses certainly had a chant-like quality to me, too.
11. — That would also make a good part of curriculum: Have each student learn the trop for a particular group of verses — perhaps from the parshah that was being read the week they were born — and repeat it over and over.
I’ll post this now, but add thoughts as they occur to me.