Hey! Hey! Ho! Ho! Chanty Music's Got to Go!
For a while, I’m going to be writing about something that goes by the name of “chant” or “plainsong.” Neither of these terms are exactly synonyms for each other. And, as I’ll shortly attempt to demonstrate, “chant” probably does more to retard the practice among Christians than anything else. At any rate, chant (as I develop the term in the next few blog entries) is a feature of Biblical (and, therefore, best) worship that has fallen on hard times. The good news is that maybe, just maybe, what chant used to do for worship (and worshippers) is “missed” at some deep level, so that the prospects for its return to Christian worship during the remaining few years of my lifetime look good.
At any rate, if you’re reading this blog, and you happen to think chant stinks in a burning paper bag, then you might want to take a vacation from this blog for the next few weeks. Or, you might want to read anyway, in case I can change your mind.
WHAT DO YOU THINK WHEN YOU HEAR THE WORD “CHANT?”
I learned to chant (a story for a later blog entry) several years ago, and it had become a regular feature of my devotional life, particularly during Lent, when I would chant through the Psalter on Monday through Friday, five psalms a day. Like any prudent wife, mine was not going to get in the way of a husband’s efforts to cultivate a regular, healthy devotion to Christ. But, I discerned that she was also not particularly taken with the idea of chanting through the Psalms. So far as I could tell, she thought the practice was “one of those things he does,” and she knows I can have a penchant for the slightly bizarre. So, one day I asked her what came to mind when she heard the word “chant.”
Our conversation shed light on her less than enthusiastic appraisal of the practice, and it alerted me to the need for serious apologetics for chanting. You see, I was set on planting an Anglican parish in our small town, a place that has more familiarity with dwarf-tossing than Psalm chanting. After all, everyone around here has seen the dwarf-tossing sight-gag in The Two Towers. Very few have ever heard the Psalms sung in English to Anglican chant.
To get an idea of what I was up against, I decided to do a little field survey. I chose two groups – both of them internet forums where I had established some sort of identity. One forum was populated by people whose Christianity was apt to be familiar with ecclesiastical chant than otherwise – a forum populated by conservative Episcopalians and/or Anglicans, with a smattering of Roman Catholics and Orthodox (usually former Episcopalians or Anglicans). The other forum is populated far more by people similar to those who form the core of the new Anglican parish I’m planting: Christians whose cradle faith (or whose last decade or more of Christian fellowship) is formed by the Zwinglian/Anabaptist stream from the Reformation.
In both groups, I asked this question: “Please write down the first three things that come to mind when you hear the word ‘chant?’ ” I make no claim for scientific validity or reproducibility, but the responses are suggestive. Here is my analysis of the responses I received:
AN OVERALL PATTERN
I expected the responses to be a certain way, and indeed they were. Liturgical Christians’ responses were peppered with references to real ecclesiastical singing and its performance by clergy and laity alike. Zwinglian Christians’ responses (with one exception) made almost no reference to anything Christian.
The one association with the word “chant” which was common to both groups was “Gregorian” or some variation on what that word would denote. I take this to be a result of the on-again, off-again popularity of CDs of Gregorian chants, done by monks of various religious orders which have showed up on the music charts from time to time. Such CDs are a curiosity in many people’s CD collections, and everyone has a friend who plays a cut from such a CD once in a while.
CHANT AMONG LITURGICAL CHRISTIANS
As noted above, Christians from communions that are robustly liturgical (Roman Catholics, Orthodox, high-church Anglicans, conservative Lutherans) made far more associations between “chant” and a style of singing at church, whether by clergy, laity, or both. One of the most complete responses of this type was this:
(1) Kieven Chant... the normal liturgical chant of the outer caves of the Kieven Caves Monastery
(2) Valaam Chant... normal chant for the brotherhood of Valaam Monastery, Lake Lagoda, on the Russian/Finish border
(3) Obichod Chant... Imperial Russian court Chant, circa 1900... Other things that occurred to me: Byzantine Chant, Benedictine Chant, Jerusalem Chant Serbian Chant, etc.
In an explanatory note, this respondent noted that each of the three styles of chant were regularly used in his parish worship.
After references to specific styles of chanting (Gregorian being the most common), liturgical Christians mentioned things associated with those who sing this way, including the following: monks, brown robes and white ropes, priests, priests who should not chant, priests in training. Next most commonly mentioned were the places where chanting occurs: church, worship, dark churches lit by candles, religious singing, monasteries.
Least mentioned were non-Christian or non-religious persons or settings: Navajos, Indians, Tibetan monks, Buddhists
CHANT AMONG NON-LITURGICAL CHRISTIANS
Among these kinds of Christians, excepting the word “Gregorian,” most of the ideas or concepts called to mind by the word “chant” were from the realm of the non-Christian or the non-religious. Most often mentioned were Tibetan or Buddhist monks. After them, most mentioned were Indians (American and Far Eastern), Hindus, pagans. Among the frequently mentioned nonreligious ideas were these: pep rallies, nursery rhymes, baby-talk, skipping rope, advertising [from jingles, perhaps?], and rap.
If one ignores the term “Gregorian,” the vast majority of associations with the word “chant” were non-Christian and non-religious.
A CHANT BY ANY OTHER NAME …
So, is it folly to plant a smells-and-bells-and-chanting parish, beginning with people who have the non-liturgical backgrounds coupled to these varied, non-Christian, or non-religious associations with “chant?” Should I go forward with my attempt to lay ecclesiastical chant at the very foundation of the parish worship in spite of these associations? So far, the attempt is going swimmingly, and I’ll have more to say about that in later blogging. For now, I’ll make a few observations from the survey:
Most evangelical Protestants are chant-free. Among the kinds of people I’m working with (from backgrounds utterly devoid of any experience of Christian chant of any sort), the word “chant” is virtually an unchristian idea. Even when they think of “Gregorian chant,” and even if they happen to find Gregorian chant pleasant to hear, they nevertheless perceive it as something alien to their experience and expectations as Christians. Bible reading is part of their experience and expectations of Christian spirituality. So also praying. Or preaching. But chanting? Bosh.
This poses something of a problem for me if I attempt to make chanting the Psalms as common an experience and expectation as Bible reading or praying or preaching. Why? Because the mere word “chant” immediately tosses all sorts of higgledy-piggledy ideas onto the table.
What to do? For starters, I’m using the term “plainsong” instead of “chant,” even though plainsong in the narrow sense is just one kind of way to sing Psalms, a way very different from highly melismatic Mozarabic chant, for example. I’m safe in saying this, because Anglican chant has far more in common with plainsong than otherwise. It is, indeed, a variety of plainsong, created expressly for use by congregations at worship. So, "plainsong" will do as a start.
American evangelical Protestants have lost something precious. Clearly this is an opinion that can only be held by those for whom chant is as much of their worship as Bible reading, praying, or preaching. What’s been lost among 21st Century evangelical Protestants (and, evidently, it’s been lost for a couple of centuries now) is more than an antique musical style. Styles come and go, and there is no reason plainsong singing of the Psalms should not sooner or later enjoy a renaissance. Except for one thing: plainsong chanting of the Psalms requires one to think of music and words in a way that seems to turn the singing universe upside down. And, if you cannot even conceive of such an “upside down way of singing,” you will never to adopt the style when it comes back into fashion. You will not even think that chant is something which anyone would ever suppose could be fashionable.
Chant’s place in the Church’s life of worship is presently occupied by choruses. In the interests of full disclosure, I acknowledge two things:
- I find 98 percent of religious choruses in church worship today to be grotesquely banal, comically trite, and pathetically saccharine. My friend Steve calls them “sacred ditties, projected on the wall,” and that’s one of the kinder things one might say about them. Ask me another time, and I’ll tell you what I really think of contemporary choruses, especially the ones built on verses or phrases from Scripture.
- On the other hand, I also acknowledge that these choruses enjoy huge popularity, a fact that has brought me near despair more than once.
Reflecting on chant (and many things connected with it which I will discuss in later blogging) I begin to see an explanation for the popularity of choruses, reasons for this popularity that do not require the singers to have the religious sensibility of vanilla custard and the aesthetic sensibility of dirt. Song and word enjoy a symbiosis that anyone can sense, whether or not he can expound it. I suspect that this symbiosis is weakest for the metrical hymns we ordinarily sing in church, and potentially the strongest in chant or plainsong. Contemporary choruses may be a kind of blind lurch in the direction of chant, a sort of pining for something imagined but never actually “missed,” because one has never sung the song one wants most to sing.
What makes this picture less bleak is this: in spite of the loss hinted at above, in spite of the pitiful substitute one finds in contemporary choruses, Christians can still long to sing a song they have never sung, and they have the lyrics already in their Bibles. But, now I’m at a place where I will be covering ground already covered by others, and so I’ll go back over that ground in the next blog when I try to give a freshened up answer to this question: “Why chant the Psalms?”