Thursday, April 06, 2006

Chanting the Psalms

Here is a fascinating quote from Fr. Joseph Fessio:

Now, just a little footnote on the Gregorian Chant. In reflecting on these things about Church music, I began to think about the Psalms a few years back. And a very obvious idea suddenly struck me. Why it didn’t come earlier I don’t know, but the fact is that the Psalms are songs. Every one of the 150 Psalms is meant to be sung; and was sung by the Jews. When this thought came to me, I immediately called a friend, a rabbi in San Francisco who runs the Hebrew School, and I asked“Do you sing the Psalms at your synagogue?” “Well, no, we recite them,” he said. “Do you know what they sounded like when they were sung in the Old Testament times and the time of Jesus and the Apostles?” I asked. He said, “No, but why don’t you call this company in Upstate New York. They publish Hebrew music, and they may know.”
So, I called the company and they said, “We don’t know; call 1-800-JUDAISM.” So I did. And I got an information center for Jewish traditions, and they didn’t know either. But they said, “You call this music teacher in Manhattan. He will know.” So, I called this wonderful rabbi in Manhattan and we had a long conversation. At the end, I said, “I want to bring some focus to this, can you give me any idea what it sounded like when Jesus and his Apostles sang the Psalms?” He said, “Of course, Father. It sounded like Gregorian Chant. You got it from us.”
I was amazed. I called Professor William Mahrt, a Professor of Music at Stanford University and a friend. I said, “Bill, is this true?” He said, “Yes. The Psalm tones have their roots in ancient Jewish hymnody and psalmody.” So, you know something? If you sing the Psalms at Mass with the Gregorian tones, you are as close as you can get to praying with Jesus and Mary. They sang the Psalms in tones that have come down to us today in Gregorian Chant.


scribe said...

The really old Byzantine and Syriac chants sound almost identical to the Jewish chants. These are exclusively chanted by men.

The lovely Gregorian chant isn't the oldest Christian chant, but it is certainly related to the Jewish chants.

Wonder if there is a theology or practice of Jewish music as there is in Christianity?

Michael Dodaro said...

I'm not familiar with chant in Jewish ritual. Many years ago I applied for a job as a cantor in a local synagogue, but I didn't get the job. I was studying Hebrew at another synagogue about the time the first Gulf War broke out. On the subject of our discussion on another thread, it was interesting how disturbing it was for the rabbi to encounter strident opposition to the state of Israel in the liberal church.

scribe said...

Here's a link to a CD from Paraclete Press--"Learning about Gregorian Chant"

Ray said...

I have always understood that Gregorian Chant was at least much closer to Jewish Chant than any other musical style if not nearly identical.

Modal music did have its roots in Grecian music prior to the time of Christ.

And think of this perspective, up until the Industrial Revolution society, worldwide, was primarily agrarian. Habits, norms, mores, changed with glacial speed. Sombody from the 500s could have stepped into the 1500s and not feel that out of place compared to if they suddenly appeared in the 21st century. We live in a throwaway society, last years stuff is trashed and we buy the new and improved to replace it. We are a consumer society. Change is good, it keeps the economy afloat. And in order to convince people to buy new stuff, it must evolve. That includes music.

Look at it this way, from the time of Christ until the early 1800s modes transportation was static. The Apostles would not have been shocked at how people from the 1700s transported themselves between towns using horse drawn carts and carriages. Not that big a change from their time. But, look at the changes since the invention of steam engines, gas powered engines, nuclear power, etc. In a short 200 years we have advanced technologically more than the all the previous millenia combined. It only makes sense that musical tastes and fashions would follow suit.

scribe said...

Here is a history of Byzantine chant:


Based on your observations on the speeding up of our perception of time, I wonder how difficult it would be for any of us to step back into the past where things to creep by very slowly. Perhaps we would get more done.

Whenever I happen to get a rock station on the radio dial, it really sounds frenzied to me. I've been avoiding rock for some years now. But I see a lot of folks in the boomer generation that are still identify with this music. Old rock stars sure look funny to me, and I can't imagine them performing in a nursing hom., But I guess it could happen with the boomers and the generations after us. Yuck.

Ray said...

I have a middle aged 50something boomer friend in MS who loves the Rolling Stones and attends rock concerts put on by aging rockers. I think it's hilarious picturing her at a concert with a bunch of kids acting crazy.

Going back in time would be scary for us too, or maybe just frustrating. We are so used to things happening right now with no delay. Imagine us having this discussion using the mail system even from the 1700s. It would take months to just exchange the 6 posts we have so far on this thread.

scribe said...

Rock music just doesn't age well or allow for aging. It's never grows up. I guess that's why there's so many Peter Pans around.

That fact alone should be enough to discredit the use of rock music in the Church. The Church is ancient, and it is supposed to foster a kind of maturity--rock music is always contemporary and prevents maturity.

"It would take months to just exchange the 6 posts we have so far on this thread."

That would certainly discourage trolls!

Ray said...

Jason.... if you're lurking.... look at Mick Jagger, that will be you in 40 years. Scary thought, huh?

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Ray, your comment about having a conversation like this through 18th century mail reminded me of Ecclesiastes 7:10, one of my favorite biblical passages. The art that is worth keeping around may survive but we can be grateful the rest of the culture that produced those artifacts has changed. I like some Soviet music but I'm certainly glad there's no Soviet Union anymore!

Pinning down what ancient Greek music sounded like has been a fuzzy, fuzzy topic. As Mike has discovered the experts often demur to other experts who themselves are not sure but know someone who has a very good guess. That's par for the course with truly ancient music musicology. I dare any of you to read Aristoxenus even in translation and have a clue what he was talking about! If you do explain him to me. :)

Ray said...

Hatchet, you are right about appreciating the art but not the culture it came from. I listened to a Prokoviev piece on the radio a couple weeks ago that was enjoyable to listen to, but I cannot condone Prokoviev's collaboration with the Soviets. I would love to play some strong Wagner in the orchestra, he wrote fantastic low brass parts. But, Wagner was an anti-Semite. I cannot condone his worldview. But, I can enjoy his art.