The sound of Gregorian chant sends the mind hurtling back in time and conjures up visions of medieval monasteries filled with monks laboring over ancient texts. The pure tones from the cloister resonate through dim, arched hallways made of foot-thick stone. Although the vision may be a product of our imaginations, the placement in time is right on the mark.
"Christian chants have their roots in pre-Christian ritual," explains Edward Schaefer, the director of choral activities at Gonzaga University. Chant was part of an early Christian oral tradition, with the texts and melodies being passed on from one generation to the next by ear and memory, he says. "They were first written down around the 9th or 10th century, after a thousand years of development. That was the golden age of chant, although there are textual notations from as early as the 6th century."
Now, at the dawn of the third millennium, music from the first millennium is the focus for an Institute on Chant to be hosted by Gonzaga University. Beginning Tuesday and continuing through Friday, Nov. 17, priests, deacons and liturgical musicians from across the country will convene at GU to explore the history, influence and methods of chant. Each evening, the Institute participants will gather for a sung liturgy, culminating Friday evening in a solemn high liturgy celebrated by William Skylstad, Bishop of Spokane. The Gonzaga University Choir will join the participants in this closing celebration, which will take place at St. Augustine Church with its recently acquired Martin Pasi organ. All liturgies associated with the institute are open to the public.
A chant Mass has been included in the Sunday liturgy offerings at Gonzaga since the fall semester of 1998, thanks to Schaefer's efforts. Each Sunday at 5 pm, Schaefer and a dozen or so singers -- the schola, in chant terminology -- gather in the chapel of Jesuit House on the GU campus, along with presiders drawn from the community and a small but dedicated congregation, to celebrate a chanted Mass.
"The response of the community has been growing, and that's a good thing," says Max Mendez, a member of the GU schola. "I don't think we're going to revolutionize liturgy or the Catholic Church, but chant is an option [for worship] that should be preserved. It's an important part of our history."
The style of chant that we know as Gregorian is named for Pope Gregory I, who was pope from 590 to 604. During his era, one of the earliest schools of singing, the Schola Cantorum, was formed in Rome to train singers for the church, which was the employer of most professional musicians. He is also credited with collecting and organizing the Roman chants of the time according to the liturgical year, although the melodies would not be written down for another 200 years. The Roman style of chant spread across Western Europe, especially after the development of of musical notation.
Soon after the turn of the millennium, though, chant's popularity began to wane. "By the 11th century, it began to decline," says Schaefer. "Society began to change, and music changed and developed. Polyphony -- multiple harmonies -- became the thing. As music became more as we know it today, the chants no longer fit in with the contemporary styles of music at the time."
Despite its disappearance, chant continued to influence later musicians. "Chant was an anchor in the development of sacred music and music of the Renaissance," Schaefer explains. "The Introit of Mozart's Requiem is a chant melody." The chant melodies themselves remained hidden away until late in the 19th century, says Schaefer. "The monks of Solesmes reopened the monastery in France after the revolution, and they took on the restoration of the tradition. Photography was quite new then, but they photographed the chant manuscripts they found. Those photographs have proven invaluable, because some of the original manuscripts have since been destroyed."
Although there's no hard research on the phenomenon, Schaefer has some thoughts on how a musical form dating back over 1,000 years can inspire people today. "I think chant is clearly disconnected with our normal culture," he says, "so it's easy to experience it as connected to the heavenly."
Mendez, who has been a professional singer for 10 years, including several with Opera Pacific in California, finds chant to be a deeply personal form of prayer as well as a satisfying form of singing. "I don't see it as a means of performing," he says. "It's an extension of my prayer and spirituality, a way to escape for an hour and spend some devotional time." The ensemble aspect of unison singing in the schola adds to the experience, he says. "Not only are you singing, but you're listening as well. To get metaphysical about it, there's something about everybody sharing the same frequencies in their bodies."
The spiritual dimension is an integral part of Schaefer's fascination with the music as well. "I want the liturgy to be something that calls me in my humanness to strive toward something more and something higher," he says. "The liturgy calls us to be a counter-cultural people, and chant is a symbolic vehicle to remind us of that call."
& & & lt;i & "Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow: Chant in the Liturgy" runs from Tuesday, Nov. 14, through Friday, Nov. 17, with performances Tuesday-Thursday at 7:30 pm in the Jesuit House Chapel on Gonzaga University's campus just behind St. Aloysius Church. The final concert is Friday at St. Augustine Church, 428 W. 19th, at 7 pm. All concerts are free. There are also workshops during the day. Call: 323-6737. & lt;/i & & lt;/center &