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The Physical Spell of Gregorian Chant

The Physical Spell of Gregorian Chant

Adolphe, Julia

Discoveries (2008)

Introduction: The dove alighted on Saint Gregory’s shoulder and sang secrets into his ear. It was as if the soft reverberations, sounding within a cathedral at the singer’s pause, evoked the Holy Ghost’s whisper. In this sense, Gregorian chant clearly communicates a religious meditation. Even in the eighth century, when Gregorian chant first emerged, Christians heard the music as stemming from an authentic tradition. It pierces the body with its eerie simplicity, seeming utterly natural. The curving vocal line gently hovers about a tonal center and the smooth motion of the cadence feels more like a sigh than an emphatic conclusion characteristic of Western diatonic harmony. In this sense, the drifting dove is a perfect metaphor for Gregorian chant: it is pure, fluid, and spiritually moving. From the eighth century through the Renaissance, Gregorian chant was heard as the echo of God’s perfection and order lingering in the corporeal world. Chant emerged not merely as a representation of divinity, but as an actual embodiment of divinity. Rooted in Pythagorean conceptions of harmony and balance, Gregorian chant grew from an intuitive awareness of how the ear interprets sound. The music was deemed capable of salvation through its very physical effect on the listener. In this way, Gregorian chant is a beautiful homage to the logical and powerful nature of physics and music.

Gregorian chant strictly adheres to Pythagorean theories of intervallic relationships. The Ancient Greeks divided their writings about music into two main categories. The first comprised systematic analysis and rules of music composition while the second addressed the philosophical nature of music, its effect on behavior, its function within society, and its place in the cosmos. Pythagoras, who lived in the sixth century BCE, discovered that a string divided into segments of small-number ratios would emit harmonious tones when plucked. This fit his belief that the beauty of the universe derived from simple proportions. An octave was found to have a ratio of 2:1, a perfect fifth possessed the ratio 3:2, and a perfect fourth contained the ratio 4:3. Music was considered to embody the concept of harmonia: a pure, structured universe where the parts were synthesized into an orderly whole.

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