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.
BR. JOEL: And I'm Br. Joel. This week, we are talking about the tradition of monastic music. Some of you might have listened to our preview episode on chant and Advent music back in December.
BR. KOLBE: Chant is a huge part of our life and prayer here at Saint Meinrad. Here is Fr. Jeremy King, the community's choirmaster, to kick off the episode with an explanation of chant.
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, our daily prayer service.
At that time, after Vatican II, a lot of other monastic communities were letting go of their 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 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 12th 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? Here is Fr. Columba Kelly.
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. JOEL: Chant doesn't use a meter or a time signature as modern music does. Instead, 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.
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.
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.
BR. KOLBE: It was quite the process and it took many years and the effort of a lot of people, but on May 3, 1967, the monastic community sang Vespers for the first time in English chant.
That's 50 years ago! So what exactly is Gregorian chant? Let's step back a little farther with Fr. Harry for some 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: In the life of the monk, liturgical music is a vehicle for conveying the Word of God since so many of the antiphons, responsories, and, of course, the Psalms are taken directly from the Scriptures.
BR. KOLBE: Fr. Columba teaches us that music, whatever style, however beautiful, whatever its nature, must be subservient to the text. It must serve the text and not dominate it or overshadow it or distract from it. That is why chant is important.
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.
GEORGE HUBBARD: I've not visited that many monastic communities, but of the places I've been and the music I have heard, even on its worst days here, when the cantor has lost its place, and everybody's coughing and sneezing, it's just head and shoulders above most.
BR. JOEL: This is George Hubbard. He is one of the four regular abbey organists.
GEORGE: The prayerful attention with which the monks do their chant is incredible. We all know that's the way it's supposed to be, but it so rarely is. Plus, the splendid acoustics of the Abbey Church enhance that so much.
Sometimes I go in there when there's nobody around, and it's quiet, sometimes in the evening, and you can almost feel the stones singing back some of the hours and hours and hours of music they've absorbed.
BR. JOEL: We're also very fortunate to have a very resonant church. The current arrangement where it's all on one level and there's a lot of hard surfaces, our reverb in the church is something like seven seconds. Much of chant was designed with highly resonant spaces in mind, so that you start out singing a note and you hold it for a little bit or you sing it strongly, and then the chant goes up and you sing another note and hold it for a second. And then when you move away from that note, briefly you can hear both those two different notes at the same time and the resonance.
Chant that's written very well takes advantage of this effect and, even though only one part is being sung at a time, it's one melody line, it will harmonize with itself and sound much fuller and much richer. It's a very neat effect, and the Archabbey Church is designed in such a way that we can take advantage of that effect.
BR. KOLBE: Music at Saint Meinrad will sound different than at any other monastery. We have a style that has been developing since the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s.
BR. JOEL: As we mentioned earlier, when Fr. Columba returned from Rome, he began translating the Latin Gregorian chant to English.
BR. KOLBE: Fr. Samuel Weber entered the community in 1968 and he had a chant background from his childhood. Here's Fr. Tobias.
FR. TOBIAS: Fr. Columba, by the time Samuel entered, was hard at work trying to write all of the antiphons, all of the responsories, and all of the other music that we need for the Divine Office. Others were providing translations from the Latin for Fr. Columba to work with. So Samuel, as a novice, perhaps as a junior, was assigned for part of his work to assist Fr. Columba with that process.
BR. JOEL: Fr. Tobias joined the community two years later and knew Fr. Samuel from high school. Fr. Samuel knew Fr. Tobias was a musician and so he invited him to be a part of the project.
FR. TOBIAS: Fr. Columba, to his credit, was very open to other talent emerging. Because in those days, when you think of it, after the Second Vatican Council and especially with the implementation of the vernacular around the world every place, what were you going to sing? If you were not going to be using Latin fulltime, what are you going to use? We needed to create just everything.
BR. JOEL: Vernacular means people could now pray in their native language.
FR. TOBIAS: So it was exciting to step into the stream at that point when it was really heating up as far as the creative process. Without that invitation, I doubt that I would have ever stepped into the stream so fully. Little did I realize that it would influence so much of the rest of my life up to this point.
FR. HARRY: When I joined the monastery in 1971, kind of a number of people had come together. Fr. Columba had been redoing the Latin chant for 6-7 years anyway.
BR. KOLBE: This is Fr. Harry again. Fr. Columba pulled people together and got them excited about chant. Fr. Tobias, Fr. Samuel, Fr. Colman and Fr. Jeremy all had a hand in creating music in English. Fr. Aurelius, Fr. Vincent and Fr. Harry contributed by creating or translating the text.
FR. HARRY: And during that year, 1971 to 72, Fr. Samuel began sending text off to Fr. Columba, who would then put his chicken scratch of notes over the text. And then Fr. Samuel would, with a ballpoint pen, carefully make square notes and reproduce this English chant. And within that year, we had kind of a large foundation of English chant.
There were some things that were before that, but they tended to be more simple. While in 1971, it began to develop and become kind of a larger, more substantial English chant.
BR. KOLBE: The early '70s were formative years. Since then, we have continued to build on the development from that time.
BR. JOEL: There are several factors that led to Saint Meinrad preserving the chant tradition. At the time of Vatican II, Saint Meinrad had a lot of talented musicians, and several who specialized in chant. We used our resources, our talented musicians, to create our style of music while other communities used the resources they had. Here's Fr. Jeremy.
FR. JEREMY: I think what a lot of people did and a lot of places did was just go to contemporary Catholic music from the national scene or they had well-trained musicians within their communities, both men's and women's communities, and they just had them compose some liturgical music, but it wasn't chant. It was more contemporary style and metered music.
BR. KOLBE: As we mentioned at the beginning of this episode, when Fr. Jeremy was choirmaster in 1986, Fr. Abbot Timothy asked him to preserve the chant tradition during the Liturgy of the Hours. It is important to have superiors in the monastery who are interested in keeping the chant tradition alive.
BR. JOEL: When Fr. Harry was the novice master, he asked Fr. Columba to create a Latin chant schola so the young monks could see what English chant was built on. Introducing monks who are joining the community to the chant tradition is also a factor in its preservation.
FR. HARRY: I wasn't interested in going back exclusively to the Latin chant. On the other hand, the Latin chant is the product of certainly the monastic tradition in the eighth and ninth centuries. One of the very famous Graduals, the books that the cantor used while standing on the steps, is a manuscript that's at Einsiedeln, the monastery we're founded from.
We have a facsimile of that manuscript. So the roots of Saint Meinrad, that Einsiedeln and our roots and a kind of a large music tradition that is very expensive and very rich at Einsiedeln, and so to some extent we continue to carry that on here at Saint Meinrad.
BR. JOEL; A schola is basically just a choir. In the monastery, when we talk about the monks' choir, that means all of the monks together singing in the church, in the choir stalls. That's the whole monastic community, but not every monk is a super-proficient singer.
FR. HARRY: What we do in the church is kind of what a community of monks can do. So they can do fairly elaborate, but not super elaborate, things. While a small group that's well trained can do these very elaborate chants that can take you out of yourself when you know what it is and where you're going and then you just let it fly.
BR. KOLBE: One other interesting thing that keeps chant alive and kind of modernizes it is that Fr. Harry created a chant font, just like you have Times New Roman, Arial or Helvetica. It's a way to write the chant notation out on the computer. Chant no longer has to be handwritten.
BR. JOEL: The main thing that we do to keep chant relevant and alive is to sing it well. I think that's the best that we do. We use it every day, and we practice. Brother John Mark leads the chant schola now. Occasionally, we use the more elaborate Latin chants, but we do work on it really hard.
Sometimes chant can be performed and it's very robotic and kind of lifeless. The way we sing chant here, we strive to make it very dynamic and have a nice rolling flow to it. It can be very satisfying and a very spiritual experience to sing it that way, too, because it helps the text come alive. It is a prayer, and to put the text first that way helps us to treat it as a prayer and to sing it as a prayer, and also to sing it well musically.
BR. JOEL: Thank you for listening to this episode on the tradition of monastic music at Saint Meinrad.
BR. KOLBE: This podcast was edited and 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.
BR. JOEL: Thank you, Br. John Mark Falkenhain, for helping choose the other music we included in this episode. Music came from theGregorian Chant for Advent and ChristmasCD and theGregorian Chant for Lent and EasterCD. We also used recordings of Psalm 90 andTe Lucis Ante Terminum, which we sing during Compline.
BR. KOLBE: We want to give a special thanks to Fr. Columba Kelly, Fr. Harry Hagan, Fr. Jeremy King, Fr. Tobias Colgan, and George Hubbard … and thanks to everyone who helps keep the chant tradition alive.
BR. JOEL: Listeners, you can subscribe to this podcast on iTunes, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts. 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 an extra story about the chant font Fr. Harry developed and all of our past episodes on our blog at: saintmeinrad.edu/echoes.
BR. KOLBE: We do a lot of rap as well. Quite a bit of rap. Some beat boxing and then a little Lady Gaga. It's just magical.