Music History 101 tried, really it did. But try as it might, the Donald J. Grout textbook-inspired course had its dry and dusty moments, centuries-old European traditions seemingly a million light years away from the small-town Ontario music school I attended. Some elements grabbed me more than others, usually to do with composers whose work I was learning or had already performed, and tying up the historical facts with audio samples certainly had its rewards.
But the dullest, most head-bangingly boring unit was on Gregorian Chant. What we learned were the facts about this ancient form of music; the samples we listened to were old and scratchy, out of place in our 1970′s-era lecture hall with its grey cement walls and purple chairs.
I had the great fortune of spending the following year of my undergrad as a music student in that historic epicentre, Vienna. Shortly after my arrival, a Viennese friend offered to take me on an excursion outside the city. The day was clear and bright, the trees the colour of honey (one thing Austria “does” almost as well as my part of Canada is autumn colours, with the added bonus of a glass of New Wine at aHeuriger when you’ve reached the half-way mark in your walk in the Vienna Woods).
We walked a short distance before coming upon a small, austere church, with slits for windows set high up in the walls. Inside it was unadorned, painted white with simple wooden pews. Instantly I could feel the history, the spirituality that had permeated the building for centuries. My friend whispered to me that the church had been built in the eleventh century AD.
The eleventh century! For a Canadian girl this was a difficult concept to process. My own country has only been a country since 1867; the oldest church in the city where I now live was built in 1750. The eleventh century seemed impossibly distant, yet here I was, standing in a church built nearly a thousand years ago.
The monks arrived. They walked single-file along the walls, wearing plain white robes tied at the waist with rope. They were singing in unison, their deep voices as unadorned as the church, rising and falling in the chant I had yawned my way through at university in a cement-walled room with purple chairs. But this was different; this was alive. The hairs stood up on the back of my neck. As I watched threads of sunlight shining through the window slits above, the monks’ voices reached deep inside me and lodged there.
For me this was an awakening to the realness of history, not as a textbook subject, but as a continuing part of real life. Since that moment, Gregorian Chant has held great meaning for me, if not on a sacred level, then certainly on a spiritual one. It’s a medieval art form worth a good, concentrated listen, should Dear Reader ever have the chance.