MARGUERITE MULLEE DUNCAN, music director at Holy Apostles College and Seminary, guides seminarian Scott McKee through a Gregorian chant lesson recently. McKee, from Albuquerque, N.M., is studying for the priesthood at Holy Apostles in Cromwell. "It's deeply spiritual," McKee said of Gregorian chant. "There are people who listen to chant and are not Catholic, but they feel something in it that touches them." (MARK MIRKO / November 15, 2007)
And The Chant Goes On
By Charles Proctor
Staff Writer - The Hartford Courant
November 24, 2007
On Thursday nights they gather here, in this basement classroom with whitewashed walls, a banged-up piano and a wooden crucifix perched above the chalkboard.
They are five men, four in black suit jackets and white collared shirts and one in the slate gray habit of a friar. They come from places like South Dakota, Kansas City and California. All want to be priests.
With their teacher and the rows of empty chairs as their audience, they fill their lungs with air and sing the sonorous chants that are centuries upon centuries old.
Or try to sing them. Tongues trip over lyrics crafted in a dead language. Their lungs give out under syllables meant to be held for seven, sometimes 10 seconds.
But the men, all seminarians at Holy Apostles College and Seminary, are devoted to it. This is a class in Gregorian chant, one of the world's oldest musical traditions.
And, as any of its disciples would tell you, there's nothing quite like it in the world.
"It's supremely beautiful. It's deeply spiritual," said Scott McKee, 46, a member of the class who is from Albuquerque, N.M. "There are people who listen to chant and are not Catholic, but they feel something in it that touches them."
Gregorian chant has been a part of the Catholic Church's heritage for over a millennium, written in a Latin text with tones that rise and fall to a cadence formed before the ninth century. There are enclaves in Connecticut where it is still practiced regularly.
But classes in the ancient art are rare. Yale has held them and plans to again next year. Specialists traveling in the state sometimes host chant seminars.
The class at Holy Apostles is unique in that it trains future priests both how to chant and how to teach it to the laity. Students learn to conduct and compose. This year's midterm, for instance, asked students to write their own chants.
The goal is to graduate seminarians who will safeguard and spread an age-old church tradition, one that scholars say was, until the 1980s, in serious danger of tumbling into irrelevance.
"We are the Latin rite Roman Catholic Church," said the Very Rev. Douglas Mosey, president and rector of Holy Apostles. "We don't want the parishes to lose their rich Latin heritage. We don't want our language and our music to just drop out of consciousness."
The most recent threat to chant came, inadvertently, from the church itself, experts said. In the early 1960s, the Second Vatican Council decreed that priests could incorporate the vernacular, or native language, into the liturgy.
Suddenly, pastors in Latin America could lead prayers in Spanish. Priests in Uganda could celebrate the Mass in Swahili. Meanwhile, ceremonies performed in the traditional Latin declined in popularity. And Gregorian chant went with it.
In addition, groups that wanted the church to adopt more progressive ideas encouraged it to shed some of its orthodox roots. Latin became synonymous with everything that was inaccessible and outdated about the church.
"The Latin liturgy and the chant unfortunately become a game of political football," said Margot Fassler, professor of music history and liturgy at the Yale Divinity School.
The trend began to turn around in the last two decades, when traditionalists rallied to reintroduce the Latin Mass and chant.
They found an unexpected ally in the New Age movement. People interested in spirituality and meditation sent the album "Chant," recorded by the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos in Spain, to the No. 3 spot on the Billboard charts in the 1990s. Suddenly, Gregorian chant had rock-star status.
Most recently, Pope Benedict XVI in July gave parishes the autonomy to decide whether to celebrate the Mass in Latin. The announcement paved the way for more priests to bring Latin back into the church.
The upshot has been an increased interest in chant today among the laity, especially youths, said Marguerite Mullée Duncan, Holy Apostles' music director and professor of liturgical music who teaches the chant class.
"There is a hunger for it," she said. "People realize that this is not a museum piece. This is a living art form."
Mullée Duncan has taught chant at Holy Apostles for nine years now. She also leads chant seminars around the state, and this summer plans to take a small group to a chant workshop in Barga, Italy.
Given the amount of ground she has to cover, her chant classes at Holy Apostles tend to evolve into part vocal coaching, part music theory and part language.
At a recent session, for instance, the students spent several minutes debating whether the "h" in Latin is pronounced. (Consensus: It isn't.)
Of course, the class's emphasis is still mostly on singing. Mullée Duncan opens every class by singing a simple Latin invocation: "Benedicamus domino." Let us bless the Lord.
To which the students sing back: "Deo gratias." Thanks be to God.
What happens next varies from class to class. The students sometimes sing as a group with either Mullée Duncan or another student leading them. Other times, students troop to the front of the room one by one and sing individually.
Occasionally, Mullée Duncan will accompany a singer on piano to help him find the right tune. More often, she watches from a corner and praises, cajoles and critiques. But she doesn't hesitate to take more hands-on measures.
At a recent class, when one of her students struggled to get the right rhythm, she stood behind him, gripped his right arm and swept it up and down as he sang.
"I know it's odd to be singing and have someone grab your arm," Mullée Duncan apologized to the student afterward. But it seemed to work.
The students, who range in age from late 20s to late 40s, cheerfully plunge into the unfamiliar music. They know that when they become priests, singing will be a necessary part of their duties.
Not that that makes it easier. Especially because many of Mullée Duncan's students readily admit they have had almost no musical training.
"It's hard," said Steve Jones, 48, from Thousand Oaks, Calif. "This is an older modality of music, and you have to first learn how to hear that. It's very different from the music I grew up with."
To make the ancient and alien familiar, Mullée Duncan draws analogies to the everyday. When conducting chant, she tells her students, their arm should move like pulling taffy. When singing it, the words and tones should flow like maple syrup, she says.
Her students race to digest that before their final exam on Dec. 6, which will be a public performance by the class of the "O Antiphons," a traditional chant usually sung the week before Christmas.
They also try to cram chant into whatever time their schedules allow. Some meet daily before 6 a.m. to practice. In the evening, they will often seek out spots on campus to stretch their vocal cords, not always an easy task given Holy Apostles' relatively small size.
"The stairwell in the dorms is pretty good," offered Brother Daniel Williamson, 35, a member of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, during one class. "The acoustics are great."
But, added McKee, "We don't really have a place we can go and just belt it out."
Except for this classroom on Thursday nights, where the five men sing chant to the empty chairs and the cross-bound Christ figure on the wall.
To see video of Holy Apostles College and Seminary's Gregorian chant class, visit www.courant.com/gregorian