Nov 15, 2006

Are There Lessons for Today in Twelfth-Century Sacred Music?

Online Edition – November 2006
Vol. XII, No. 8

Are There Lessons for Today in Twelfth-Century Sacred Music?

by Father Chrysogonus Waddell

Father Chrysogonus Waddell, OCSO, is a Cistercian monk of Gethsemani Abbey, in Trappist, Kentucky, and a musician of note. Following is his address to the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Convention, September 23, 2006.


At the very end of the eleventh century a group of twenty-one monks and their father abbot set out from their flourishing monastery of Molesme, in the diocese of Langres. They were headed for a swampy bit of property called Cîteaux, not many miles distant from Dijon. The challenge they faced was a considerable one. There they hoped to found a monastery in which the Rule of Saint Benedict could be observed in its integrity, without undue accretions or mitigations. But they were also much concerned for a return to the sources for every aspect of their life, and this touched largely on their liturgy and the music with which they celebrated the liturgy. We, too, in the aftermath of Vatican II, are also faced, liturgically, with enormous challenges. My own conviction is that we who are concerned for, and who love the liturgy and sacred music, have much that we could learn from those twelfth-century monks.

First of all, almost every literate individual in the twelfth century had at least a hazy general idea about the nature of music based on a few texts by the early (fifth to sixth century) Christian philosopher Boethius. For Boethius and the twelfth-century monk, there were three kinds of music. One of these was what Boethius called musica humana, “music of humans”, and I wish to dwell on this kind of music for a moment or two.

Musica humana, musica instrumentalis

Musica humana meant that inner principle of harmony unifying body and soul with all one’s interior faculties; and it was from this interior order based on truth and beauty that outward action was to proceed. There is a wonderful responsory from Saint Bernard’s Night Office, composed a bit before 1174, that illustrates this wonderfully well. The text is impossible to translate; but let me give you at least an approximate idea of what it says.

The responsory begins this way: “The first virtue of the holy man was the habitus of his body — and habitus means not just Bernard’s posture, and not just how he used his body as an instrument of expression, but his body itself as an expression of the fullness of his interior life: body-language in the deepest meaning of the term.

We next read that Bernard acted composite. Composite is a wonderful word. It comes from the verb componere, “to piece or fit together.” In other words, Saint Bernard “had it all together”. Everything he did and said formed a harmonious, coherent, beautiful whole. So also he acted always uno modo, in a uniformly consistent manner, in which exterior expression was like music springing from an interior principle. Everything within him was disciplinatum, in perfect order, functioning at its optimum; everything about him was insigne virtutis, a sign, an expression of his inner strength and virtue and spiritual beauty; everything about him was perfectionis forma, a model of perfection, an example of what it means to be a fully, completely “achieved” human being. This entire responsory, then, is about musica humana, that unifying principle which makes music of one’s whole being. Does this have any relevance for us moderns, distracted and torn in umpteen different directions as we tend to be?

As for Boethius’s musica instrumentalis, that is, music produced by human instruments and voices, “instrumental music” was simply the material expression in sounding ratios and proportions of realities of a higher and deeper order. It’s against this background that we have to understand the monk’s passion for music theory and mathematics.

Saint Bernard’s Reform of Chant

The monk would have agreed with Edna Saint-Vincent Millay, who once wrote that “Euclid alone has seen beauty bare”. This conviction led Saint Bernard and his colleagues to revise the entire traditional chant repertory on the basis of norms taken from the more prominent music theorists of the Middle Ages. We moderns may rightly regret this naïve confidence placed in music theorists, but the intention of these Cistercians was laudable in the extreme: they meant to restore the allegedly corrupt chants to their original, pristine nature in keeping with their own inner truth; for only thus could this music be authentic music, reflecting the order of the divinely created cosmos, and fostering the restoration of our native inward harmony thrown into disorder by the effects of sin. For the Cistercians, a badly constructed melody is not only a bad melody, but a distortion of truth, a debasement of the order of creation. And, obviously, bad music necessarily carries with it a note of moral evil. For music has an ethos, a moral note or qualification, as Plato understood so well. To expose oneself to bad music means to introduce into oneself a disorder fraught with consequences for the spiritual life. Hence, the passionate concern of those early Cistercians, that their music, like all other aspects of their life, should conform to the exigencies of the authentic.

How they would have delighted in Paul Hindemith’s description of the way we perceive music. He writes in part that when we listen to music, the sound passes through our auditory senses, and that we “co-create” or “re-create”, so to speak, an interior image that corresponds to the exterior sounding phenomenon. The outward music is interiorized within us. The moral is obvious: we should be careful what we listen to, since, in a sense, we become to some degree what we hear. This is a point of view that not all moderns would agree with, but it is surely well worth our consideration.

Saint Bernard was deeply concerned for the moral effects of music. In his Letter 398 addressed to Abbot Guy and the community of Montièramey, he expressed his ideas about what liturgical music should be about. The letter was written to accompany the proper Office written by Bernard and his colleagues for the principal patron of Montièramey, Saint Victor. I pass over the wonderfully descriptive words of Bernard, that sacred music should be resplendent with truth, and should foster within us virtues such as humble-mindedness, devotion, and justice, and should bring about spiritual light and discipline for our sense-faculties. The melodies should be serious, but also attractive, though in no way smacking of the lascivious or rustic; they have to be composed with real musicianship and art.

But the most important thing Bernard has to say, I think, is summed up in his formula, Sensum litterae non evacuet, sed fecundet: The melody “should not obscure the meaning of the text, but should rather make it fruitful, make it fecund”. This, I suggest, is one of the major functions of liturgical music: to make the word more life-giving, more fecund than it is in itself. This is true, I think, even when the composition is purely instrumental, without material words — but this is a separate, though related, topic. Here my main point is that the modern composer of sacred music would do well to write in such a way that his music makes the text more fruitful.

How Music Makes Word Fruitful

Saint Bernard and the monks of his monastery would have been fascinated by what modern philologists are saying about the etymology of the Hebrew term for “word”. Consensus is by no means perfect; but I myself am particularly attracted by the theory which makes the same root consonants D-B-R appear in the words for Temple sanctuary (debhir), for desert (midbhar), and for word (dabhar). Not all scholars agree that what binds these terms together is the basic meaning of D-B-R as the preposition “behind”. For myself, I like to think that there is indeed a link between the terms for “Holy of Holies” (debhir) and for “word” (dabhar). In either instance there is question of the divine presence and action behind the Temple veil, behind the word. God is behind the word, so to speak; and at any moment His presence and His action are liable to break through the shell of the word. We should remember that, in Hebrew, dabhar means both “word” and “event” or “happening”. Wherever God’s word is, then, God Himself is present through that word — present and acting.

For the twelfth-century monk, the most important thing was to interiorize the sacred texts, to take them into one’s deepest self. The twelfth century was still largely an oral culture, so that memorization played an important role in the spiritual life.

Memorization meant interiorization, so that words and music were stored away within the deep recesses of memory as a kind of silent music which, though sub-conscious, was still producing its effects. This might be an important consideration for us moderns, whose senses are constantly being bombarded from without. Perhaps you know Plato’s account in his Phaedrus about the inventor of writing, Theuth, who tried to persuade the King of all Egypt that writing would make the Egyptians wiser and would improve their memories. Replied the King: “The fact is your invention of writing will produce forgetfulness in the souls of those who have learned it. They will not need to exercise their memories, being able to rely on what is written, calling things to mind no longer from within themselves …” In the twelfth century, however, the baneful effects of writing had not yet run their full course, so that monks and nuns were still chanting texts which they drew from within themselves rather than from a printed page. Does this have anything to say to us, with our muzak culture and our virtually total dependence on TV, radio and CDs?

Musica mundana — of the Spheres

But so far I have touched only tangentially on Boethius’ profound concept of a musica mundana, a “music of the spheres”. This music is the principle that brings order into the whole cosmos as it moves through space and time in its solemn, mysterious dance. We have to be in tune not only with our deepest self, but with the entire cosmos. The whole of monastic ascesis was aimed at reversing the disorder created by sin, so that the individual could once more fall into step, with the help of God’s grace, and enter into the great sweeping rhythm of love and truth which forms the very essence of this musica mundana, this music of the spheres. For us moderns, it is probably more congenial to think of the music that we ourselves create as being rooted, if not in the music of the spheres, at least in a music that comes to us from above.

There are numerous stories from medieval monastic literature which take for granted a connection between our sacred music and the music of heaven. There was, for example, the thoroughly disreputable lay brother from Clairvaux, who three times apostatized and three times was received back by Saint Bernard. His third return was marked by a genuine change of heart; but it was also the beginning of a long and painful illness. As he lay dying, however, he received a momentary foretaste of the life to come. As the chronicler tells it (Exordium Magnum IV, xvi), he “straightway broke forth in a jubilus of high heaven’s praise; and, with face calm and serene, this poor unlettered rustic, who had never learned how to chant or read, began to sing with melody of the sweetest from those new, ever delectable hymns and chants from the canticles of Zion”. And the text goes on to speak of our “cantor” chanting even now, in death, the Alleluia which is being sung in the streets of the heavenly Jerusalem.

I think, too, of the vision of an illiterate monk by the name of Christian (Exordium Magnum I, xxxiv), who saw the community of Cîteaux gathered in choir and chanting the divine praises, while above them yet another choir — this time a choir of angels — was busily singing the same liturgy of praise. This clearly means that the brethren here below were already participating in the liturgy of heaven.

Which brings me to a very similar account from the twentieth century. When the great French musicologist Nadia Boulanger lay in a coma just a few days before her death, Leonard Bernstein came to visit her, despite that fact that any kind of communication was absolutely impossible.

Suddenly she spoke: “Dear Lenny …” He searched his mind anxiously for the right thing to say, and then heard himself asking: “Do you hear music in your head?” Instant reply: “All the time.” Bernstein continued: “And what are you hearing at the moment?” He thought of her preferred loves. Mozart? Monteverdi? Bach? Stravinsky? Ravel? Long pause. And then: “One music … with no beginning, no end.” She was already there, wrote Bernstein, on the other side.

And this is the great challenge for the contemporary composer of sacred music: to write music that already anticipates and shares in that music from above; a music that has no beginning and no end; a music that draws us even now to the other side.

When Art Glorifies the Artist …

The greatest danger for the contemporary composer of sacred music is well expressed by the novelist Thomas Klise, who wrote in his book, The Last Western, “Now art glorifies the artist, affirming the part above the whole”.

In the twelfth century, sacred music was still being composed by anonymous composers. They wrote music that was often utterly ravishing, but also utterly gratuitous: something perfect done with love and supreme skill for love of God, and without any view to permanency. Far from glorifying the artist, their art glorified God and served the faithful, without calling undue attention to itself, and without losing sight of its humble place within the liturgy as a whole.

The contemporary composer of sacred music deserves our sympathy. After all, he or she has to earn a living. These modern composers have to send their two or three kids through college; and this they can do only with an eye on royalties and on their established reputations as serious composers of sacred music. Still, we would do well to look back to earlier centuries as paradigmatic for contemporary practice.

We already have a tradition of plainsong and polyphony that can serve us well as a means of participating in the liturgy of heaven. But this in no way means restricting ourselves to the glories of Gregorian chant or renaissance polyphony. Fidelity to tradition, if this is genuine, always means a creative fidelity. The contemporary composer of sacred music in the aftermath of Vatican II has incredible possibilities, but always in continuity with the best of tradition — which, after all, means the past living on in the present, and leading us into the future. Only let our contemporary sacred music be a sharing in that music from above, a music which is one, without beginning, without end.



Father Chrysogonus Waddell