Chant by Colin Touchin 杜程的詩歌
I first delved into the history of chant when studying music at Oxford University some umpty-um years ago. The signature music for this 5-programme series is a plainsong chant Veni Creator Spiritus, which dates from the 9th-century and invokes the Holy Spirit, in Latin, although the original composer was probably German. This sound typifies what “chant” suggests to most of us: a linear melody, sung in unison, with a churchy feel. This repertoire has been referred to under the name adopted from the legend that the 9th-century Pope Gregory 1 collated and catalogued chants used since the 3rd-century AD, leading eventually to the late 19th-century publication by the French monks of the Abbey at Solesmes of the Liber Usualis, containing most of the commonly sung chants in use today.
Some old chant has been resuscitated by concert-hall composers: for example, the 13th-century Dies Irae chant (Day of Wrath) in works as different as Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Holst’s
The Planets, and Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. This motif was incorporated as early as 1490 in contrapuntal Renaissance mass settings. Despite this fairly common and narrow perception, “chant” can also refer to quite other types of music, with rather different intentions and symbology. For example, how might we draw parallels between that opening music and the music of American Indians preparing to do battle?
Religious chant stems, of course, from deep roots of devotional texts, whatever the deity; Eastern or Western, Orthodox or breakaway. Almost all humans throughout history have needed repetitive chant to unite the people for the cause, and perhaps even enable some gentle indoctrination, even if not full-blown mind control.
Many cultures have developed routines, rites, and rituals based on corporate humming or singing of chants passed on aurally and orally, so not always written or recorded in any form. Much of what we hear today representing these older cultures comes from modern performing groups specialising in this repertoire; confident in their delivery, they convince our untutored ears that their research has recreated reasonably authentic imitations of thousand-year-old music and practices.
One common example involves a team response to a soloist ─ in a religious setting the initiator might be a cantor, and the response might be in unison or more complex musically speaking with counterpoint and/or harmony. Sporting events, canoeing, rain dances, celebrations and ceremonies of various kinds all rely upon some such structure: the refrain might be a repeated gesture, as in a simple “Amen”, or “Oh
Lord, hear our prayer” type, or it might be an extension of the initiator’s music, elaborated in length and intensity.
Some cultures have developed more intricate versions of originally simple chant, and the modern “incipit” or opening phrase may be almost identical from one millennium to the next, while the response has become intricately crafted by skilful composers, as in Russian Orthodox music or Renaissance European mass settings, reflecting contemporary compositional skills. Such celebrations, rituals, and enthronements of leaders may invoke a response from the gods or appeal for rain or good harvest.
Primitive singing most likely arose alongside drumming patterns and drones produced on stretched animal skins, pipes and strings, with occasional ringing of bells and cymbals: examples can be found in the didgeridoo in aboriginal Australian chant, songs from the Nile Delta, music from the Sudanese desert, and rituals in Tibetan temples.