Leaving It to Chants

By now, virtually every American recognizes music he would have been unfamiliar with just a year or two ago: Gregorian chant. That's because a recording of chant music reached number 1 on the classical charts and number 3 on the pop charts last year. And the same Benedictine monks who created last year's unlikely hit have now come out with a follow-up CD titled "The Soul of Chant." Why are 20th-century Americans rushing out to buy music composed by 6th-century monks? The appeal of chant music grows out of its historical purpose. Around 500 AD, the Roman Empire fell to barbarians, and Europe entered what some call the Dark Ages: a time of social and political chaos. The only thing standing between Europe and complete barbarism was the Christian church. Its monasteries became outposts of culture, preserving education, learning, and the arts. But in order to hold steadfast against the pressures of disintegration, the church had to adopt a wartime mentality and impose iron discipline—even on its music. The result was the chant. Chants were intended to support the life of the church—to create an atmosphere of prayer and contemplation, focusing the mind on the spiritual meaning of the text. To accomplish that, the monks got rid of any steady rhythm or beat; since a beat invites a physical response to the music, it was rejected as a distraction from the text. Musical harmony was likewise rejected as a distraction, since it gives music its intellectual complexity. Even the melody line was stripped of any sudden leaps and skips that create a sense of musical drama and excitement; instead, the melody moves by small, smooth steps, creating an almost atmospheric sense of peace. In short, the music was pared down to nothing but pure spirituality. In the words of one historian, this is music that "makes no attempt to thrill our senses or entangle our emotions." Which brings me back to my original question: Why are chants such a hot commodity in the contemporary musical marketplace? The answer may be that modern culture bears a haunting resemblance to the time when chants were first composed. As I argue in my book Against the Night, the West stands on the brink of moral and cultural disintegration, just like the Roman Empire in its decline. Once again, the barbarians are at the gates, threatening a new Dark Ages. Once again, Christians must band together into communities of light to preserve the truth. Instinctively, perhaps, we are reaching out for the same music that sustained the church in the first Dark Ages—music that is highly concentrated and focused, pared of distracting elements. Philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre once wrote that as our culture decays, what we need is another St. Benedict. Perhaps we also need the chants that are being revived by the Benedictine monks: music that lifts us out of the chaos and noise of the surrounding culture, to the contemplation of divine beauty.


Chuck Colson


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