Sacred Sound

A person who is passionately fond of music may quite well be a perverted person—but I should find it hard to believe this of anyone who thirsted for Gregorian chanting.

—Simone Weil

Is there any such thing as a distinctly sacred sound? Can any single sound summon us to the divine? Does any particular one convey the essence of holiness? Lead to the depths?

In absolute terms, no. Sacred sounds are as various as the cultures and the instruments that produce them: a ram’s horn, a kettle drum, trumpet, or sitar. Bells, cymbals, gongs, and bamboo flutes are liturgical tools that speak to diverse peoples of that hidden reality which has no sound. Music and song, rendered in a treasury of modes, are native to worship. And to mystery.

Luca della Robbia. Cantoria, detail (1399-1400). Victoria & Albert Museum, London.
Luca della Robbia. Cantoria, detail (1399-1400). Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Still, for Western Christians no other sound brings the holy to utterance so completely and with such soaring beauty as Gregorian plain song. In Sacred and Profane Beauty, Gerardus van der Leeuw, theologian and musician, lauded the gentle melancholy of it.

He called it “a foretaste of the calm of paradise,” and saw it as an analogy in sound to the visual art of Fra Angelico. Searching for an example of harmony attained—its struggles resolved and no longer apparent—he named Gregorian chant:

. . . [as] the sung prayer which has ascended to God through all the centuries and in all churches, and to which Pius X referred as “praying in beauty.” The Gregorian melody breathes a peace and a clarity, a calm and a self-possession, which makes it comprehensible that the Church, having progressed through the dizzying heights and chasms of polyphony and romanticism, always returns once more to the unison of Gregorian plain chant. Nor will a Reformed Catholic Church music be able to do without it.

Van der Leeuw was writing as a Dutch Protestant in the 1930s. But his comment held prophetic import for corporate worship within Roman Catholicism decades later. Abandonment of chant was a nod to the culture of modernity and its conceits. Gregorian chant did not come into being as an occasion for the expression of personality. Like the majestic severity of Romanesque architecture, it is the purest form of expression of steadfast faith in another order of existence. We sing to our Rock, our Redeemer, in chant.

Square notes, from a 16th C. Venetian manuscript. Rossini Conservatoire, Bologna.
Square notes, from a 16th C. Venetian manuscript. Rossini Conservatoire, Bologna.

Let me illustrate with a story:

A family friend recently attended the funeral of a colleague. An older man with wide professional affiliations, my friend is no stranger to memorial services and funeral Masses. But he confessed that he had never been to any like this one before. Just what was this extraordinary thing? It was a traditional Latin Requiem, the ancient Mass of the Dead that had escorted Catholics to their graves for centuries. Displaced in the Sixties, it has narrowed since into a curio, a fragment of a heritage almost in exile. It was no surprise that this man had never encountered it.

The setting itself was an act of prayer. The draped coffin rested in the sanctuary, below the altar step. The priest was vested in black, our color of deepest grief. No organ played. There was no other sound but the tones of the priest chanting the liturgy, accompanied only by a choir of six voices. No flowers lightened the timbre of mourning. This was Lent; the austerity of the season was in communion with the gravity of death. The exalted serenity of Tomás Victoria’s choral melodies filled the little church. The music lent a resonance and depth to the choreographed movements of priest and servers that non-Catholics attending could discern.

My friend is sensitive to the power of music and gesture. Deeply moved, he confided to me the loveliest thing: “It felt like the service was a call to conversion.” A non-Christian, he did not mean conversion to Catholicism. He meant a change of heart. Metanoia. In that moment, he recognized in the dignity and solemnity of the old Mass—a numinous ballet—a call away from the secular and toward God.

Arguments by apologists go no farther than the reason, that slippery part of us susceptible to blandishments of every stripe. Gregorian plain song touches the soul.