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Gregorian Chant
Archaic Relic or Relevant Revelation?

by Henry Doktorski
copyright 2000

As the director of music at a large Roman Catholic church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I especially look forward to Holy Week. This is an extraordinary time liturgically in which we celebrate the passion, death and resurrection of Christ, but musically it is also an extraordinary time. In our church, it is customary to refrain from playing musical instruments from the Gloria on Holy Thursday until the Gloria on the night of the Easter Vigil, two days later. During this time, all the music (and it is a considerable amount) is sung a cappella. No organ. No piano. No trumpets, no flutes, no timpani. No nothing.

Nothing except the most exquisite, intimate, subtle and beautiful musical instrument in God's creation: the human voice.

We avoid using musical instruments ostensibly to better portray the bitter sorrow of Christ's suffering and death; the last supper, the agony in the garden, the carrying of the cross and crucifixion. Often musical instruments connote a festive atmosphere: witness the boisterous exclamations of our trumpets and trombones and timpani and organ on Easter Sunday. "Let us rejoice and be glad." (Psalms 118: 24) However, the time between Holy Thursday and Saturday's Easter Vigil night is solemn and sorrowful; the altar is devoid of all flowers and decorations. It is a stark and barren setting, and the unaccompanied singing helps reinforce that atmosphere.

Yet, I believe that there is another, more esoteric reason behind the practice of singing the liturgies a cappella during this sacred time. Witness the Holy Thursday procession of the Blessed Sacrament from the tabernacle to its place of reposition. During this time, the entire choir and congregation of Saint Sebastian Church (about one thousand worshippers at this particular mass) sang in Latin the six beautiful verses of the Gregorian chant Pange, lingua, which begins:

PANGE, LINGUA gloriosi
Corporis mysterium,
Sanguinisque pretiosi,
quem in mundi pretium
fructus ventris generosi
Rex effudit Gentium.

S ING, my tongue, the Savior's glory,
of His flesh the mystery sing;
of the Blood, all price exceeding,
shed by our immortal King,
destined, for the world's redemption,
from a noble womb to spring.

This chant, written in rhymed accentual rhythm by St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274); is considered the most beautiful of Aquinas' hymns and one of the great seven hymns of the Church. (St. Venantius Fortunatus, the sixth-century poet and bishop of Poitiers, also wrote a version of Pange, lingua in unrhymed verse; however Claudianus Mamertus, the fifth-century Gallo-Roman theologian, is thought to be the original author.)

During the Holy Thursday chanting of the Pange, lingua at St. Sebastian's, I felt the atmosphere charged with a powerful devotional electricity that I do not experience very often. The song filled the entire church and bathed the worshippers with waves of sound which raised our hearts toward heaven in a marvelous symphony of voices; unamplified and unaccompanied. Deceptively simple, but totally satisfying.

Yet, despite this high-intensity devotional experience, chant has little popularity in these modern times. Most people, including devout Catholics, prefer to listen to music which is more fast-paced. We have become accustomed to fast food, fast cars, fast computers and fast Internet access. We don't like to take our time anymore. We rush to work, we rush to finish assignments, we rush home. Even in recreation, our music has to have a beat, a pulse, something to tap our toe to.

However, chant is not fast; it does not have a beat, and we cannot clap our hands to it. It seems boring and monotonous to most 21st-century Americans; it doesn't hold our attention. Our minds wander; we want something more stimulating. Yet perhaps, in addition to mending spiritual illness, chant may also provide tangible medicinal relief for hypertension, migraine headaches, ulcers and heart attacks. Chant slows our metabolism, it steadies our pulse and our breathing, and it quiets the mind. Chant allows our soul to experience the inner stillness required to know God. "Be still and know that I am God." (Psalms 46:10)

One scientific researcher in particular has documented the effects of chant on the human physiology. The French doctor, Alfred A. Tomatis, pioneered research in the neurophysiological effects of chant on the minds and bodies of listeners (which, by the way, has had far-reaching influence in the modern field of musical therapy). According to his theory, there are two kinds of sound: there are "discharge" sounds (those which tire, fatigue and drain the listener) and "charge" sounds (those which give energy, life and health).

According to Dr. Tomatis, Gregorian chant may be the most potent sound to promote strength and vitality. In his long practice, he has accomplished seemingly miraculous recoveries and given new life to thousands of patients by his innovative treatments with sound. For example, in the mid-1960s, he was called to a monastery in France which had just been taken over by a new abbot, a young man. The new abbot was something of a revolutionary and had changed the internal rule of the abbey by modifying everything after the Second Vatican Council. He desperately wanted to be on the cutting edge of Christianity. Although he excelled in enthusiasm, unfortunately he lacked in maturity.

He tried to eliminate Latin from the monks' vocabulary and to replace it with prayers in their own native language. Although his viewpoint was not shared by all at the abbey, he succeeded in eliminating chanting from their daily schedule. The Benedictine monks normally chanted from six to eight hours a day, but this abbot succeeded in demonstrating to the other monks that chant served no useful purpose, and that without it they could recapture that time for other more important things. They forgot Saint Benedict's Rule: "Seven times a day will I sing your praises."

However, Dr. Tomatis understood what no one else did at the time: that the monks had been chanting in order to "charge" themselves, but they hadn't realized what they were doing. And gradually, as the days passed, they started to get bogged down; they became more and more tired.

Finally the monks got so tired that they held a meeting and frankly asked themselves what it was that was causing their fatigue. They looked at their schedule and saw that their night vigil and the rhythm of their work deviated excessively from the norm for other men. They seemed to live too differently from the rest of the world, and they slept only a few hours at night. They decided that they should go to bed early and wake up, like everybody else, only when they were no longer tired.

Well, it is common knowledge from physiology that the more you sleep, the more tired you are, and so it was for the poor Benedictines -- they were more tired than ever. So much so that they called in medical specialists to help them try to understand what was happening. They finally gave up on this after a procession of doctors had come through over a period of several months, and the monks were more tired than ever.

They turned to specialists of the digestive system. One of the great French doctors arrived at the conclusion that they were in this state because they were undernourished. In fact, they were practically vegetarian -- they ate a little fish from time to time -- and he told them they were dying of starvation. His error was forgetting that the Benedictines had eaten as near-vegetarians ever since the 13th century, which one would think might have engendered some sort of adaptation in them. Anyway, once they started eating rich and heavy food -- meat and potatoes -- like the rest of the world, things only got worse.

Dr. Tomatis was called by the Abbot in June, 1967, and he found that 70 of the 90 monks were slumping in their cells like wet dishrags. He examined them and began the treatment of reawakening their ears. He insisted that they immediately return to their schedule of eight hours daily chanting. By November, almost all of them had gone back to their normal activities, that is their prayer, their few hours of sleep, and the legendary Benedictine work schedule.

Dr. Tomatis succeeded in giving the monks back their health and energy without drugs or medication. He succeeded by treating them with sound only.

Certainly, our modern fast-paced civilization has brought us many material amenities. Unfortunately, it has also brought us great stresses which were unheard of in the not-too-distant past. Perhaps we should take a closer look at the ancient traditions of our church, such as the practice of Gregorian chant, in order to experience God's perfection more fully in body, mind and spirit.


This article was originally published in the Pittsburgh Catholic Newspaper on May 26, 2000, during Doktorski's tenure as Director of Music at Saint Sebastian Roman Catholic Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The story about Dr. Alfred Tomatis and the Benedictine monks was adapted from an article by Tim Wilson titled A l'ECOUTE de l'UNIVERS: an interview with Dr. Alfred Tomatis, published in MUSICWORKS 35 (Toronto, Canada), copyright 1986, 1987.

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