FR. COLUMBA KELLY: Chant is sung speech. If you know how to speak a language, then you already have much of what you need to sing chant well. It's that simple.
BR. KOLBE: This is Echoes from the Bell Tower. Stories of wit and wisdom from Benedictine monks who live, work and pray in Southern Indiana. I'm Br. Kolbe Wolniakowski.
BR. JOEL: And I'm Br. Joel Blaize. You might notice I sound just a little bit different… I recently had some orthodontics installed, braces and an appliance, and,unfortunately, they're here to stay for a couple of years.
BR KOLBE: In this preview episode, we will be talking about chant and the music we sing at Saint Meinrad during Advent.
BR. JOEL: The Advent season, which extends over the four Sundays before Christmas, is a time to joyfully await and prepare for the birth of Christ.
BR. KOLBE: At Saint Meinrad, chant is a part of our daily prayer. Here is Fr. Jeremy King, the community's choirmaster.
FR. JEREMY: The monastic vocation is basically a rhythm of prayer and work. I have the combination of my work as to enhance the prayer of the community. We gather five times a day in the Abbey Church as a monastic community. And in each one of those five times each day that we pray, we sing.
So music is an essential part of prayer for the monastic community, and so it's part-and-parcel. It's the bread-and-butter. It's the meat-and-potatoes of monastic prayer. Of course, there's an individual, private, contemplative prayer that each monk engages in, but any time we pray in church, there's always music.
BR. KOLBE: Not all of the music heard in the Archabbey Church is chant, but a lot of it is.
When Fr. Jeremy was named choirmaster in 1986, Fr. Timothy Sweeny, who was abbot at the time, asked him to preserve the use of chant especially at the Liturgy of the Hours, the daily prayer service.
At that time, after Vatican II, a lot of other monastic communities were letting go of the chant tradition.
If you join the community at Saint Meinrad today for the Liturgy of the Hours, you will still hear chant. Here is Fr. Harry Hagan to talk about tradition.
FR. HARRY: I'm a person that's interested in the tradition. I think it's Pablo Picasso who is supposed to have said, "Tradition is not wearing your grandfather's hat. Tradition is having a baby." So tradition is not just kind of playing like you live in a different century.
On the other hand, in order certainly to have a baby, you have to have connection to people going all the way back and having the baby is more than just the birth. It's the raising and the making of this person.
And being a traditional monk means not living in the eighth century or the twelfth century, but it means knowing what went on at that time so that you can recreate it and make it new in this day.
BR. JOEL: So what is chant? As Fr. Columba Kelly said at the beginning of this episode, chant is sung speech.
FR. JEREMY: The earliest forms of music were chant-like and they cross all cultures: Asian, African, European, Latino. Whatever cultural experience there's been, there's been a chant form to their music.
BR. JOEL: Chant doesn't use meter or time signature as modern music does. Chant is designed around eight Gregorian chant modes.
The modes are like scales. They set pitches in whole- and half-step arrangements. The modes, most importantly, set the mood, tone and feeling of the chant. Here is Fr. Columba.
FR. COLUMBA: Chant is the opposite of practically all modern music, because the first thing you do is set meter: What meter are you in? Am I in 4/4 time, 3/4 time, 6/8? Am I in 1-2-3-1-2-3-1, or am I in 1-2-1-2-1-2? No, I'm in none of those.
I'm in how I speak. And notice, do you speak in meter? I don't think so. And I defy you to put you in a meter as I speak well.
FR. HARRY: Chant follows the word accent and so there's a flow to it and you can have a main note, but then a lot of other notes that decorate that and move you through and give you this experience of the text. Chant is really about giving you kind of a visceral understanding of the Word of God, not just an intellectual one.
And it's there to make the Word beautiful, but even to experience those darker emotions so that you have this experience of the Word and not just a kind of an intellectual understanding.
BR. KOLBE: A lot of the chant sung at Saint Meinrad is English Chant or plainsong. It's not Gregorian chant, but it's based on Gregorian chant modes and methods of putting sacred text to music. It uses the pitches and melodic flow that Gregorian chant would have used.
BR. JOEL: Fr. Columba studied chant in Rome, and in 1964 he worked to translate Gregorian chant, which was in Latin, to English chant. That way the monastic community could pray in their own language.
So what is Gregorian Chant? Here's Fr. Harry with a little history…
FR. HARRY: Charlemagne became the Holy Roman Emperor in 800 and he represents a kind of peaceful time between when the barbarians invade Europe starting in the 400s, and then after him are the Vikings. But during his reign of northern Europe, he creates a stability and he wants to get everybody on the same page.
So he wants to have the same legal code. He wants to have the same liturgical book, so he has the Pope, the Bishop of Rome, send up what the Bishop of Rome uses so that everybody in his kingdom can use that. And the same is true for monks. He wants all the monks to have the same rules, so theRule of Benedictbecomes kind of the rule for monks.
BR. KOLBE: Charlemagne also wanted a unified form of chant. The music that came out of this movement is identified with Pope Gregory the Great and so it bears his name.
FR. HARRY: By calling it Gregorian, it's really saying that it's the Roman church's chant.
Gregory was truly a great man and so his name kind of gives it an honor and a priority. But it's also true that once the people in northern Europe learn that music, they begin to elaborate it in new and different and complicated ways that reveals their own genius and their own ability, again, not just to wear their grandfather's hat but to have a baby, to do something new.
BR. JOEL: Although many communities have let go of the tradition of chant after Vatican II, chant seems to be making a comeback. Saint Meinrad Archabbey and Fr. Columba have been contacted in recent years to help communities revive the chant tradition. This helps chant remain a relevant form of prayer and, as Fr. Columba explains, an important one.
FR. COLUMBA: I think it's important because what it does, it does not monkey around with paraphrasing God's text, as a hymn does. No hymn gives you the straight text. It has to be reworked so the accents always fall in the right place.
So if you're gonna do what I call drinking God straight, which any good whiskey drinker knows, you know, you drink it straight, okay? As scotch drinkers will say, "Oh, but I drink it straight." Well I prefer that, too, with God's Word. I like God's Word straight and not paraphrased or messed around with. And that's the problem with almost all contemporary compositions, you know? People will put a nice tune to it and with a meter but, in doing it, they have to paraphrase God's Word.
BR. KOLBE: As we said earlier, the chant mode sets the mood or feeling of the music. There are certain antiphons or hymns that are associated with different times of the year. Seasons like Advent and Lent have their own melodies, their own moods.
FR. HARRY: Lent is certainly - the music sounds Lenten. There's kind of a melancholy or sadness that speaks of being sorry for sin or of confronting the death of Christ, while Easter is certainly full of seventh and eighth mode, which are these exultant, happy, rejoicing moods. The music, then, it carries you through and kind of points you in a direction.
FR. JEREMY: Advent Music is filled with wonderful scriptural images that, in the first part of Advent, starts off with the way the church year ends with the Feast of Christ the King. It's apocalyptic. It's End Times, and the music has to then enhance that.
Then toward the second half of Advent, you get more the prediction of the coming of the Messiah as a child. And so you get a shift in the experience of the music, both the modality, as I mentioned, you know, the mood of the music and the texts, and so you get these Annunciation of the Birth of Jesus, the Annunciation of the Birth of John the Baptist, you get all these wonderful images of the world coming to perfection.
The church's Advent music is to be anticipatory. It's not the same as Lent. It's a penitential season, but Advent prepares. I like to say, "Advent prepares, Lent repairs." So Advent looks forward to a wonderful experience of birth in the Christ Child and Lent looks forward to Easter, a Resurrection, a new life, but after a reparation of sinfulness and so the Lenten season and the Advent season are greatly different.
BR. JOEL: Every night at Vespers, the monastic community sings the Magnificat, a hymn the Blessed Mother sings in the Gospel of Luke. The prayer gets its title from the Latin word for "magnifies," which appears in its opening line: "My soul magnifies the Lord…"
BR. KOLBE: Before and after the Magnificat, we chant a short verse, known as an "antiphon," which is typically a little more complex than the basic chant mode.
BR. JOEL: The seven days right before Christmas, the antiphon for the Magnificat begins with the exclamation "O." Known as the "O Antiphons," all seven reveal different titles for Christ, titles that we find in the Hebrew Scriptures for the long-awaited Messiah.
The first is O Sapientia, O Wisdom. And then the next is O Adonai, which is the Hebrew word for Lord. O Radix Jesse, O root of Jesse, because Christ continues the fulfillment of the promise given to David, son of Jesse.
FR. HARRY: And the next one refers to that as well, O Clavis David, which means O Key of David. He is the key that unlocks, so that no one can close. The next one is O Oriens, which is O Dawn, O Rising Sun. "Oriens" is the word for rising and so it points to the Christ as the rising sun, the one who brings us the new day.
And bringing us the new day, he becomes O Rex Gentium, which is the King of the Nations, the King of All the World. Advent is a time of desire. It is a time of longing. In that sense, it's an Old Testament time because the Old Testament is a book that is looking for fulfillment. It's looking for the fullness of God.
It's looking for this fullness that is promised to David, that one of his descendants will sit upon the throne forever and this descendant is going to become O Rex Gentium, the Lord of the Nations. But he is also the last one, which is O Emmanuel, which is the God With Us. "Em" is the Hebrew word for with, "nu" is us and "el" is the word for God. So, God With Us.
BR. KOLBE: Each of these names for Christ form what is called an "acrostic," a generic term to describe a series of words in which the first letter in each of those words are used to form another word or set of words.
In the case of the O Antiphons, the first letter in each of the names for Christ is used to form the Latin phrase "Ero cras," which literally translates to "I will be tomorrow." This is Christ's own proclamation of his Incarnation, hidden within the Old Testament names for the long-awaited Messiah.
FR. HARRY: And in that sense, he is the fulfillment of the desire. He is what people have been looking for, longing for. And so these O Antiphons kind of one after the other, the week before Christmas, are building to the celebration of Christ coming among us. He has come, he is coming and he will come.
BR. JOEL: Advent is about desire. As human beings, sometimes wanting something is often better than getting it.
BR. KOLBE: During Advent, we take the time to enjoy this wanting, this desiring. I think Advent music is the most beautiful music because it is so much tied up with desire.
FR. JEREMY: Well, it's not "Jingle Bells" and it's not "It's Beginning to Look a Lot like Christmas." Advent music, again, is holding us back from pretending that an event has arrived. I mean, yes, Christ has been born. He's not gonna get born again. But there's something to holding us back from an experience that needs to have some waiting for.
Advent is the Season of Mary. It's the Season of Expectation. It's the liturgical Marian Season, and that's why she's a major figure because she has to wait and she waits positively and she waits actively.
When I was a little kid my mom was always a musician at Midnight Mass and my dad would stay home with us and put the toys together and everything, so mom would come home and dad would still be putting things together and so they'd be up late. Well, one year my brother woke up and he was sneaking out to the living room to see if Santa had come, and mom caught him before he got into the living room and turned on the lights. And the street light, he could see that there was stuff there, so my mom told him to be quiet and she held him on the couch until daybreak.
He was fine as long as he knew everything was there and so she held him in her arms on the couch. And that's Advent, waiting till Christmas. So it's just a wonderful season of expectation, and we don't get it outside of church. It doesn't happen.
But there's a big ribbon around the church that says, "Do not open till Christmas" and that's my approach. And that's what Advent taught me.
BR. JOEL: Thank you for listening to this preview episode about chant and the music we sing during Advent.
BR. KOLBE: This podcast was produced today by Krista Hall, with help by Br. Joel Blaize, me Br. Kolbe Wolniakowski, Br. William Sprauer, Mary Jeanne Schumacher, Jim Paquette, Tammy Schuetter and Christian Mocek. The intro and outro music for this episode was written and produced by Br. Joel.
The other chant music you heard was from the "Gregorian Chant for Advent and Christmas" CD, sung by the Saint Meinrad Gregorian Chant Schola. You can also find this CD on Spotify.
BR. JOEL: We want to give a special thanks to Fr. Columba Kelly, Fr. Harry Hagan and Fr. Jeremy King.
BR. KOLBE: Subscribe to this podcast on iTunes, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts, so you don't miss the official Season Two launch of Echoes from the Bell Tower.
BR. JOEL: And if you liked this episode, next time you're on iTunes, be sure to take a moment to share it with a friend or submit a quick review.
BR. KOLBE: We have all the past podcast episodes on our blog at: saintmeinrad.edu/echoes.