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Monastic Music in Modernity

In the basement of Memorial Church, a single mesmerizing voice floated up from 30 participants in a recreational chanting group. Thomas F. Kelly, Morton B. Knafel Professor of Music, began to lead the group through Latin psalms and hymns taken from the Gregorian chanting tradition.

The members of this group, in their first meeting this past Wednesday, sang music steeped in history. According to Professor Kelly, “[Gregorian chanting is] one of the longest, if not the longest-lived traditions of music in the world.” Dating back to the High Middle Ages, this music was sang for Compline—one of the last waking hours in the monastic day—at the end of every day in monasteries throughout the Holy Roman Empire.

Today, members of the College, the Divinity School, and the Extension School bring the music back to life weekly in this low-commitment group. Ed Post, a student at the Extension School, heard about the group and decided to give it a try. “I don’t have any experience in chanting, but it sounded interesting,” he said. Though these meetings are not counted as a class and there are currently no performances scheduled, there is still a strong interest in this type of liturgical music amongst the group. Members from the first meeting have diverse musical backgrounds and are drawn to chanting for vastly different reasons, according to Professor Kelly. For some, chant is still at the heart of Catholic liturgical music and retains its value as an instrument of prayer. For others, chant is used in meditation as an alluring aspect of the more trendy New Age movement.

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Professor Kelly, the leader of this group, is drawn to chant for its dedication to unity. Gregorian chant does not have harmony, counterpoint, or accompaniment. All choir members, whether monks from the High Middle Ages or modern Extension School students, chant the Latin verses in complete unison. In the age of the Holy Roman Empire, these songs would have been performed in monasteries throughout Europe at the same time. They would unite their voices to become a single community. Professor Kelly hopes to recreate this sense of unity in the new group.

At the beginning of practice, the cantor gave no introduction to the music and no background. One moment he was handing out pamphlets of music, and the next the choral hall filled with the call to Compline. This 12- to 15-minute service marked the end of the day in monasteries. Afterwards, monks would not talk until the sun rose the next morning.

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To teach chanting, the cantor, in this case Kelly, sings a verse of a psalm or hymn and the choir repeats the antiphon, or response. According to Michael S. Cuthbert, associate professor of music at Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has participated in groups with Kelly in the past, “Prof. Kelly has an amazing ability to shape the sounds we amateurs make into real music.” The group represented a wide spectrum of musical experience, and yet all of the members could sing through the 20-minute Compline service by the end of the session. While the musical notation can be complicated and the Latin can be dense, the structure of chanting lends itself well to learning.

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