Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Escapades in Early Music, Writing, and Editing

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Lux Aeterna, the Chant of Eternal Light

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This blog post is part of a blog hop on the subject of light and illumination, to celebrate the Winter Solstice. To read other posts that are part of the “hop,” check out the links at the end of my post, or follow this one (after you read my piece, of course):

Casting Light Image

Once a week, I sing Gregorian chant. It’s a wonderful, ancient, simple, deep, and deeply satisfying thing to do regardless of religion. We’re a motley crew with only one practicing Catholic among us, but singing Gregorian chant isn’t about the religious nature of the music. It’s about preserving an ancient tradition, about connecting to the earliest of Western music’s roots, and about being part of a loving community that accepts us all despite bumps and snaggles, regardless of musical experience or education, regardless of religion or spiritual practice. It’s a place where people come to SING.

There are thousands of Gregorian chants. They were collected in many different ways over the millennia, but most who sing Gregorian chant today sing from the Liber Usualis, which was collected by the Benedictine Abbot Andre Mocquereau (1849-1930) at Solesmes, France in 1896. But he didn’t write them—he only collected them in one tidy place. The chants have been heavily used from the earliest days of Christianity, documented by order of Pope Gregory (c540-604) in the 6th century (and from whom they get their name), and performed as part of every Mass and every Divine Office, until Vatican II in 1962 allowed the Catholic Mass to be performed in the vernacular, and chant lost its ubiquity.

In the spirit of the changing light at the Winter Solstice, I thought it would be fun to look at one particular chant, one of my favorites, called Lux Aeterna. It’s the communion piece of the Requiem Mass, and therefore, only something you’d hear at a funeral. But it’s incredibly sweet and it’s about eternal light, which is something that feels absent on these dark winter days.

First, a little background.

In the Beginning

Sometime around the 4th century CE, in Carthage, the practice developed of singing from the book of Psalms in the Old Testament during the collection and blessing of the offering, and during the distribution of the bread and wine in communion. Saint Augustine (354CE-430) mentions this psalm-singing as a new practice, and also mentions that it was the Schola, a trained group of priest-musicians, who did the singing.

The Schola sang a chunk of a psalm, the doxology (Gloria Patri et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto. Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum—if you’ve heard any Christian service, you’ve heard this doxology in some form, in English, Latin, or the vernacular of the service in question. Sometimes it’s sung, sometimes it’s spoken), and then a repeat of the psalm verse. During the singing, the congregation lined up for their individual portions of bread and wine, and if the chant ended, the rest of the people took communion in silence.

In the 7th century or so, the practice of giving individual communion was abandoned, and they also abandoned the need for such a long piece of music. But music was evolving and by the 8th and 9th centuries, the communion portion of the Mass had become an impressive piece of music. You have to remember that music of this time was memorized—music notation wasn’t invented until the 10th century (for more on this, see my post on the History of Music Notation), so a long and complex chant was exciting on many levels. It might be different every time you heard it.

At first, the communion chant was sung as a responsory, with the congregation singing back certain predictable phrases to the Schola. But it evolved into something more complex and interesting, a chant worthy of contemplation and consideration by the congregation during this holy portion of the Mass service.

By the 12th century, only the initial verse of the psalm and the doxology remained, with psalm tones (verses sung on a reciting note) included to lengthen the piece to accommodate the entire congregation stepping forward for communion. Eventually, even the psalm tone disappeared, except in the Mass for the Dead, which uses Lux Aeterna, the subject of this blog post. (Yay! I’m finally getting to it!)

A Look at the Chant

The Requiem Mass, as you might imagine, tells stories of life eternal, of peace and light being part of a permanent slumber, and offers comfort to the survivors. And the Communion, the last piece of the Propers (the music that changes daily, as opposed to the Ordinaries—the Kyrie, Credo, Gloria, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei—that are part of every Mass), is the final opportunity to impart wisdom.

This is what the chant looks like:

Lux Aeterna

The neumes that make up the notes have been used since the late 11th century and people who sing chant today still use them. There’s a lot of information there: the intervals between the notes, the duration of the notes in context of the rest of the notes (not rhythm, just length), when to change notes and how the text syllables line up, when to breathe, and what mode the piece is in (for more on modes, read my post on Church Modes), and there’s even a cool little thing called a custos, that tells the singer what the first note on the next line will be. I don’t know why this little gem didn’t make it into modern music, as it’s incredibly useful.

You can see that the notes all have similar shapes, mostly square blocks, some with dangly bits, a few diamond-shaped notes, and the occasional squiggle. There are some vertical lines that break up phrases, and others that group the neumes into groups of two and three notes. There are only four lines on the staff (modern staves have five), and the clef, the one that tells where the scales begin and end, is only roughly similar to a modern clef. In truth, this early music offers all the information you need. Modern notation adds key signatures, another staff line, rhythmically countable measures, and a greater variety of note types and lengths, but those things weren’t necessary before about the 13th century, when polyphony began to develop. (You can read more about polyphony in Chords versus Polyphony.)

The Sound of Lux Aeterna

This is what Lux Aeterna sounds like:

  • This version was sung by Giovanni Vianini at the Schola Gregoriana Mediolanensis in 2008: What I like about it is that it’s unhurried; he enjoys letting each note, each word, each phrase float out into the space and resonate there.
  • Here’s another version, sung by a group of men in unison: They hurry a little through each clump of words with long pauses at the end of each phrase, so I don’t like it as well as the solo performance, but the chant is much more likely to be sung by a group than as a solo, and I thought you should hear it.

The words they’re singing are:

           Lux aeterna luceat eis, Domine; cum sanctis tuis in aeternum, quia pius es.

          Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua, luceat eis.

That translates (according to my 1949 Liber Usualis) as:

May eternal light shine upon them, O Lord, in the company of your saints for eternity, for you are full of goodness.

Give them eternal rest, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine on them.

Now here’s the interesting bit. Unlike most chant texts, this one comes from a book of the New Testament that was written in Hebrew rather than Greek and isn’t included in the New Testament of most Christian denominations.

I asked a Bible-scholar friend about context for the text, as the Liber Usualis cites a chapter and verse of a book that none of my Catholic friends had heard of. Lux Aeterna is from the fourth chapter of Esdras or Ezra, my scholarly friend reports, a deuterocanonical work. That means that it was written by Christians to be part of the Old Testament before the New Testament was available. None of the original texts have survived and the only existing copies are in Latin, so they’re all translations from Hebrew. That means that no one knows what words were originally written.

My friend found the chapter in the Latin Vulgate Appendix and in the Slavonic Bible. Its presence in the Vulgate means that it was known to Latin Christendom by the late 5th century, so Saint Augustine (354-430) wouldn’t have read it or heard this specific chant. It’s about a hundred years too late.

The text is purported to have been written by Ezra the Scribe (fl 480-440 BCE), who led a group of Judean exiles from Babylonia and reintroduced the Torah to Jerusalem.

Ezra writes:

I received a command from the Lord on Mount Horeb to go to Israel. When I came there, they rejected me and refused the Lord’s commandment.

          Therefore, I say to you, “O Nations that hear and understand; wait for your shepherd; he will give you everlasting rest, because he who will come at the end of the age is close at hand. Be ready for the rewards of the kingdom, because perpetual light will shine on you forevermore.”

The relevant words in Latin (not the original Hebrew) are these, from Ezra 2:35:

          Parati estote ad praemia regni, quia lux perpetua lucebit vobis per aeternitatem temporis.

Which translates to:

Prepare for the rewards of the kingdom, for the everlasting light shall shine upon you forever.

You might notice that there’s no literal quotation here to match the one I offered earlier. It’s fairly safe to assume that this difference is caused by a different translation—varying interpretations are always a problem with translations.

The story Ezra tells is about going to Israel to prepare the way for the Messiah. He is rejected, and tells the Israelites of the promise of eternal light if they behave themselves. The Liber Usualis version is less of a compelling argument and more of a promise to the already faithful, which may be the interpretation of someone who was convinced that the Messiah had already come—the main difference between Christians and Jews.

A Little Historical Context

At the end of the 4th century, the nomadic (and violent) tribes from the north (such as Goths, Frisians, and Franks) began to adopt Christianity and abandon some of their pagan ways. Clovis I (c466-c511) had a battlefield conversion, and he and his wife convinced other Germanic tribes to convert. By the end of the 5th century, Catholicism—especially monastic Catholicism—had made its way to Ireland and became hugely popular there. Saint Brigit (c421-525) and Saint Patrick (dates unknown, but in the 5th century) were both seminal figures in Irish history, and both embraced a monastic lifestyle.

Also in the 5th century, the Catholic Church held synods that declared Mary the mother of the Christ but not the mother of God Himself. Those who disagreed fled east, eventually forming what we today call Oriental Orthodoxy (the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches—basically Byzantium).

It was at that same synod in the 5th century that Greek was abandoned as the language of scholars and Latin was adopted. Also in the 5th century, the tradition of monasticism, which came from certain strains of Judaism, was refined and broadly adopted—Saint Benedict, who wrote the seminal (and eponymous) Rule, was born near the end of the 5th century.

As you can see, this little Lux Aeterna chant came to being during a tumultuous and interesting time and allows us to peek at a change in attitudes toward Christianity itself.

Listening Corner

The story of this chant doesn’t end there. It’s time to settle yourself into a comfy chair and do some listening!

These polyphonic and chordal offerings are based on the Gregorian Lux Aeterna (they’re alphabetically listed by composer, so you’ll be leaping around in time), and you can hear the chant in them:

  • Ivo Antognini (b. 1963) wrote a haunting piece with elements of the chant mixed in with such a full sounding choir that it sounds like an orchestra. The piece resolves in a surprising way. Listen twice!
  • Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986) wrote an incredible Requiem where the chant is very present throughout.
  • Morten Lauridsen (b 1943) wrote an elaborate Funeral Mass and included the Lux Aeterna movement. The total recording is about half an hour, and this is the third 10-minute portion of it, as performed by the Lost Angeles Master Chorale and Orchestra: The Lux Aeterna movement begins at about 3 minutes in, and you can hear the original chant only slightly.
  • John Rutter (b. 1945) has the chant in it as performed by a soloist against more complex large-choir and orchestra backdrop.
  • Z. Randall Stroope (b.1953) wrote this version for women’s voices and organ accompaniment. There are nice nods to the chant, and lots of interesting dissonances. Sadly, an abrupt ending to the recording leaves us not knowing if we’ve heard the last note and it’s musically weird enough that it’s impossible to guess.
  • Guiseppe Verdi (1813-1901) wrote a version, performed here by the Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra. It’s very much based on the chant, until it evolves into something more operatic. Love love love Nicolai Ghiarov, the bass (but they’re all good). So delicious, it felt almost naughty, that’s how much I liked it.
  • Tomas Luis de Victoria (1548-1611, biography to come) wrote a Lux Aeterna movement in his Missa Pro Defunctis. You can hear it performed by the Gabrieli Consort here: In this piece, you can hear each movement of the Mass announced first by chant, and it’s up to you to decide whether he stayed true to the chant in the polyphony or not.

Other pieces by the same name had no chant reference in them at all, but it was an interesting study (again, alphabetical):

  • Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) wrote a chant-like piece, only there’s rhythm (some chants have rhythm, but Gregorian chant never does). This was recorded in the Vatican Basilica.
  • David Briggs (b.1962) wrote a Requiem, here performed by Euphony and members of the Northern Chamber Orchestra It’s chant-like and haunting.
  • Steve Dobrogosz (b1956) uses chant elements, although he doesn’t quote the chant exactly.
  • Sir Edward William Elgar (1857-1934) wrote a movement that’s chant-like, although it doesn’t use the Gregorian chant. Lots of interesting things happen melodically, including a return to the sense of lightness from leaping high notes.
  • Gabriel Fauré wrote a Requiem in D Minor (Op. 48). This version was performed by the Orchetre de la Suisse Romande with the Chorale de la Tour de Peilz, conducted by Robert Mermoud. The Agnus Dei is compelling even though it’s not at all chant-based. The Lux Aeterna begins at about 2:05, and continues the trend of not being based on the Gregorian chant.
  • György Ligeti (1923-2006), wrote a note-clustering style for 16 solo voices that resolves into a familiar chord only occasionally.
  • Clint Mansell’s (b.1963) movie version Requiem for a Dream is repetitive and intense, and frankly, I enjoyed a metal version of it more than the intended orchestral version The Kronos Quartet did a version as well, which I also liked better than the movie version.
  • Fernando Moruja (1960-2004) wrote an exquisite offering that I thought was too short. I want more, but it looks like he had a short life.
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) wrote a Lux Aeterna movement in his Requiem Mass, which he meant to have performed at his own funeral. This version is conducted by Karl Richter: There’s no real evidence of the chant melody in this rather staunch version.
  • Pawel Szymansky (b.1954) wrote a splinky bells, harp, and random vocal notes version that sounds simple but is probably devilishly hard to perform.–mACkxMz8
  • This last one is uncredited. There’s dreadful (in my opinion) organ chording underneath the chant, and then it bursts into thankfully unaccompanied polyphony. When the chant starts up again, so does the organ. Too bad. (I suppose some might like it, but it sounds very wrong to my ears.)

Recordings That Might Interest You

These are some recordings I had on my shelf, so I can vouch for their yumminess. They’re in no particular order.

  • Tallis Scholars “Requiem,” which includes Victoria’s (c1548-1611) Requiem Mass (exceprted above), Duarte Lobo’s (1565-1646) Requiem Mass, and Manuel Cardoso’s (1566-1650) Requiem Mass.
  • Athestis Chorus, conducted by Filippo Maria Bressan, which includes the Requiem in the Venetian Manner, by Benedetto Marcello (1686-1739).
  • Ensemble Organum, conducted by Marcel Peres, on a recording of Johannes Ockeghem (c1420-1497), Requiem, 11th track. Yay. Very chant based, and only barely polyphony, as polyphony was in its infancy.

And now for something completely different: Having (perhaps) nothing to do with the chant, but using the name Lux Aeterna, here’s a nice dance company. There are no credits for music or dancers, but it was intense and fun to watch!


“Gregorian Chant,” by Willi Apel. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1990.

“Liber Usualis,” edited by the Benedictines of Solesmes. Society of St. John the Evangelist, Tournai Belgium, 1949.

“New Revised Standard Bible,” edited by Bruce M. Metzger. Oxford University Press, New York, 1991.

Blog Hop Offerings

Casting Light Image

Visit these other interesting authors!


  1. Helen Hollick : A little light relief concerning those dark reviews! Plus a Giveaway Prize!
  2. Prue Batten : Casting Light….
  3. Alison Morton  Shedding light on the Roman dusk Plus a Giveaway Prize!
  4. Anna Belfrage  Let there be light!
  5. Beth Elliott : Steering by the Stars. Stratford Canning in Constantinople, 1810/12
  6. Melanie Spiller : Lux Aeterna, the Chant of Eternal Light
  7. Janet Reedman   The Winter Solstice Monuments
  8. Petrea Burchard  : Darkness – how did people of the past cope with the dark? Plus a Giveaway Prize!
  9. Richard Denning The Darkest Years of the Dark Ages: what do we really know? Plus a Giveaway Prize
  10. Pauline Barclay  : Shedding Light on a Traditional Pie
  11. David Ebsworth : Propaganda in the Spanish Civil War
  12. David Pilling  :  Greek Fire Plus a Giveaway Prize!
  13. Debbie Young : Fear of the Dark
  14. Derek Birks  : Lies, Damned Lies and … Chronicles
  15. Mark Patton : Casting Light on Saturnalia
  16. Tim Hodkinson : Soltice@Newgrange
  17. Wendy Percival  : Ancestors in the Spotlight
  18. Judy Ridgley : Santa and his elves  Plus a Giveaway Prize
  19. Suzanne McLeod  : The Dark of the Moon
  20. Katherine Bone   : Admiral Nelson, A Light in Dark Times
  21. Christina Courtenay : The Darkest Night of the Year
  22. Edward James  : The secret life of Christopher Columbus; Which Way to Paradise?
  23. Janis Pegrum Smith  : Into The Light – A Short Story
  24. Julian Stockwin  : Ghost Ships – Plus a Giveaway Present
  25. Manda Scott : Dark into Light – Mithras, and the older gods
  26. Pat Bracewell Anglo-Saxon Art: Splendor in the Dark
  27. Lucienne Boyce We will have a fire – 18th Century protests against enclosure
  28. Nicole Evelina What Lurks Beneath Glastonbury Abbey? 
  29. Sky Purington  :  How the Celts Cast Light on Current American Christmas Traditions
  30. Stuart MacAllister (Sir Read A Lot) : The Darkness of Depression

Composer Biography: Carlo Gesualdo (c1560-1613)

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Don Carlo Gesualdo’s noble Naples family acquired the principality of Venosa in 1560. He was born around that same time and was an actual prince (as you will discover, only in title. His personality left a little to be desired). His uncle was Carlo Borromeo, who later became a saint, and his mother was Girolama, the niece of Pope Pius IV. Carlo came from a seriously well-connected and ridiculously wealthy family, and it’s no wonder that he may have felt a little entitlement here and there.

He was a late-Renaissance lutenist, and also played the harpsichord and guitar. From all records, it seems that other than a couple of marriages and a few offspring, he was interested in little other than music. He had few friends and was prone to excesses of food and libation.

But let’s pause for a moment and consider his marriages. Today’s soap operas have nothing on young Carlo.

In 1586, 26-ish Carlo married his first cousin Maria d’Avalos, the daughter of the Marquis of Pescara. When she began a secret love affair with Fabrizio Carafa, the Duke of Andria, she was able to hide it from Carlo for about two years, although everyone else seemed to know. On October 16, 1590, at the Palazzo San Severo in Naples, when Carlo was supposed to be away on a hunting trip, the two were sufficiently indiscreet that Carlo, who’d made wooden copies of the keys to the palace, caught them in bed and murdered them.

He left their mutilated bodies for all to see in front of the palace. Because he was a nobleman, he could not be prosecuted (imagine!), and to hide from the relatives of his wife or her lover, who were likely to want revenge, he fled to his castle at Venosa.

There’s plenty of information about the murders, and it’s clear that Carlo was aided by his servants, who might also have participated in the murders, but who, at the very least, made the copies of the keys. The story goes that Carlo, as he repeatedly stabbed his wife, shouted “She’s not dead yet!” The Duke of Andria died of many deep sword wounds and a shot to the head. When he was found, he was in Maria’s night dress and his own clean clothes were left neatly folded by the bed.

Many poets, such as Torquato Tasso in Naples, wrote salacious verse about the murders. You can see that the story lends itself nicely to such efforts.

After the murders, reports differed. Some say that he also murdered his second son by Maria, who was an infant, because he looked into the child’s eyes and doubted his paternity. (By one report, he swung the infant around until the breath left his body). Some sources say that he murdered his father-in-law as well, in self-defense when Papa d’Avolos sought revenge for his daughter’s murder. But Carlo had hired a bunch of body guards to protect himself, so this seems improbable.

His second wife, Leonora d’Este, was niece to Duke Alfonso II of Ferrara, and they married in 1593 or 1594. This was a fortuitous marriage in that it gave Carlo contacts with the musical circle of Ferrara and through them, he met the poet Tasso, who became a friend. Ferraro was the home of the d’Este court and one of the centers of progressive musical activity, most notably the madrigal, which became Carlo’s stock in trade.

The new couple moved back to Carlo’s estate in Venosa in 1597. One has to wonder if Leonora was a little nervous about the arrangement.

Back in Venosa, Carlo set up a group of resident musicians, a kind of academy, to sing his own compositions in the privacy of his own home. No other composers were invited to participate, and he rarely left his castle, making music most of the time. He did a lot of composing during this period, as most of his music was published between 1603 and 1611.

But still, his new marriage was bad news. She accused him of abuse, and the Este family tried to obtain a divorce for her. She spent a lot of time away from the estate (and you can’t help but wonder what kind of jealous psychosis that set off), and there are records of Carlo’s angry letters to her at Modena, where she often went to stay with her brother. One contemporary wrote “she seems to have been a very virtuous woman for there is no record of his having killed her.” Heh. Wry.

When Carlo’s second son by his second marriage died in 1600, he had a large painting commissioned with images of his son, his second wife, and his uncle Carlo pictured underneath some angelic figures. It tidily implies familial bliss in with a nice death threat hanging over them all.

It’s likely that he studied with Pomponio Nenna, a renowned madrigalist in Naples. He studied with other iconic musicians in Venosa, too, including the nobleman lutenist Ettorre de la Marra.

His visits to Ferrara and his friend Tasso linked him to the “mannerist” madrigalists of northern Italy. This was a style committed to humanism and naturalism and was popular across all the arts. Other mannerists that you might have heard of include Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo in his early works.

Gesualdo wrote six volumes of five-part madrigals that were published starting in 1594. He also wrote two books of motets, a book of responsories, and a few keyboard works. There are three distinctive categories for his music: sacred vocal music, secular vocal music, and instrumental music.

His music is distinctive. The melodies vary wildly from fast to slow, and the harmonies are like chromatic scales (all the notes including the half steps, not just a major or minor scale) against the melodies. There’s a lot of passion in the work, and his experiments with chromaticism foreshadow the music that came much later—in the 20th century!

For lyrics, he was fond of contemporary poetry that had strong images, and which he dramatized and intensified with the music. He made sharp contrasts between diatonic (the eight notes of a scale, say, all the white keys between one C and the next on the piano) and chromatic (the 12 notes between one C and the next, including all the black keys). He played with the concepts of dissonance and consonance, waffled between chordal and imitative textures, and used slow-moving and active rhythms against one another. He particularly seemed to enjoy breaking up poetic lines to isolate certain words with the music.

He harbored certain obsessions, and a lot of Carlo’s  music features the words love, pain, death, ecstasy, and agony. Word painting was common at the time, although Carlo kind of took it a bit further than most. The texts he chose are closely wedded to the music, and in each piece, certain individual words are made considerably more conspicuous than the rest.

Unlike other composers of the time, Carlo expected all lines to be sung. Other composers of his time doubled or replaced a voice with an instrument. Yah, that might be part of what I like about his music. He knew what a voice could and couldn’t do, and he wrote for it.

Carlo’s work was occasionally imitated by composers such as Sigismondo d’India and Girolamo Frescobaldi in terms of polyphonic (multiple interesting melodic lines) madrigals. The chromatic nature of his compositions wasn’t heard again until the late 19th century. I suppose in one sense, he’s not the father of the twelve-tone system, but he’s certainly an ancestor.

For the most part, Carlo Gesualdo fell into obscurity until the late 20th century and when there was a resurgence of interest in the madrigal form.

Late in life, Carlo suffered from depression, possibly caused by a combination of guilt about the murders and the isolation he inflicted on himself. There are records about him ordering his servants to beat him daily, and he also tried to obtain various religious relics that were thought to help with mental disorders. Efforts to obtain absolution for his crimes through the church were unsuccessful.

Carlo died in isolation, at castle Gesualdo in Avellino, three weeks after the death of his son Emanuel, his first son by his first wife. Some biographers suggest that his second wife murdered him.

He was buried in the chapel of Saint Ignatius in the church of the Gesu’ Nuovo in Naples. The sepulcher was destroyed in the earthquake of 1688 and the rebuilt church covered over the tomb. They left the burial plaque visible, though.

Several novels and more than a handful of operas have been written based on his life. There was a short TV film made about his life (“Death for Five Voices”), and there are rumors of a biopic yet to come. Interestingly, 21st century jazz musicians consider him one of their own, and have um, re-interpreted the madrigals from books I, IV, and VI of his publications.



A Dictionary of Early Music: From the Troubadours to Monteverdi, by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche, Oxford University Press, New York, 1981

A History of Western Music, by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, Claude V. Palisca, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010


How I Became a Hildegard von Bingen Addict

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When I was a teenager, someone introduced me to Gregorian chant. I was fascinated by its simplicity, by the strange modal sounds, and by the fact that it was difficult to find out much about it. After Vatican II in the 1960s, even the local Catholic church didn’t produce this music, and the only place I heard it was on a scratchy record that a friend’s mother had squirreled away.

I was already a devoted musician, adoring Baroque music on my flute and singing folk songs with my guitar. But when I heard this ethereal and ancient music, something in me melted.

At college, the earliest music that could be studied was Baroque, but they insisted on modern instruments and modern tuning. I was frustrated. Not only could I not study the music that spoke to me, but I couldn’t even do their music as it would have been performed when it was new.

Then someone in my theory class introduced me to a group called Steeleye Span, who performed Renaissance music, sometimes as intended, sometimes with a modern spin. I was thunderstruck. I’d performed at Renaissance Faires and played in recorder ensembles for years, but at last, someone was having FUN with the music.

That’s when I started noticing an attitude in the music department. People made proclamations, waxing didactic over the slightest dissonance or unresolved chord. They seemed to want to take all the joy out of making music, to squelch the passion. That didn’t seem right to me. Learning about what made music good shouldn’t prevent the music from being good.

So I took a jazz class. I knew nothing about jazz, wasn’t even sure that I liked jazz. But they asked us to improvise, and although there were rules, no one told us that we didn’t do it right and there was a certain joy to making music again. I always felt like I didn’t quite fit in, though. When it was my turn to solo, I tended to play these floating wisps of melodies, more contemplative than exhilarating. I enjoyed it, but I always felt that what was expected from a jazz flutist was something more extravagant and elaborate than my haunting moans. Through these sounds, I brought the baroque sensibility of an internal journey with me, and it didn’t seem like anyone else was doing that. I didn’t stick with jazz for long.

Out in the working world, I tripped over the drone. My refrigerator made a drone, the bathroom fan, elevators, leaf blowers, the distant freeway—I found drones everywhere. I’d sing against them, play my flute or recorder against them, hear them in my head on walks in the wilderness and hum into them. And there was nothing I loved more than a good echo-y cave. I’d sing into it, listening to my my own internal drone like the hum of bees. My friends listened. I didn’t know it then, but I was discovering an ancient tradition.

I began to learn that chant was everywhere, that all cultures chanted, ancient and new, that some used rhythm, some used a drone, some used neither, and some used both. My fascination grew. Somewhere along the way as I bounced from culture to culture in my exploration—and I honestly don’t remember where or when—I heard the songs of Hildegard von Bingen.

What struck me most about Hildegard was that her songs resembled my old meanderings on the flute in jazz class. There was something celebratory about both, something innocent and pure. It was a shared internal journey. I was hooked.

A few years later, I took a week-long course from the San Francisco Early Music Society’s Medieval Workshop. Several things happened there that were life-altering. The first was that someone who already knew a lot about Medieval music asked the teacher, Margriet Tindemans, how something would have been done. Margriet said the words that changed the way I felt about being a musician forever.

She said, with a big grin on her face, “I don’t know.”

It was the most freeing thing I’d ever heard. Here was an internationally known expert admitting quite comfortably that she didn’t know something. She explained that music from this period was poorly documented because music notation was in its infancy then, and so any opinion she might express would just be a guess. What a revelation!

After the pompous know-it-alls at college, I was stunned. How wonderful to be on the cutting edge of knowledge like this! How satisfying that my ignorant and bumbling guess was as likely to be correct as that of a world-wide expert!

Then, I took another class, from Karen Clark, about Hildegard’s “Ordo Virtutum.” There it was again—another expert saying that she couldn’t be certain, but that she sang it in a way that suited her. And when Karen sang Hildegard, my heart stopped a little bit.

I became a Hildegard addict at that point.

At that time, the historically informed early music performance movement was about 15 years old (it was the mid-90s). Recordings, concerts, and generally available writings about it began to be available. The invention of CDs made it easier to obtain.

I became a Hildegard glutton. More than 15 years later, I’m still stuffing myself as full of Hildegard’s music as I can.

Written by Melanie Spiller

March 19, 2012 at 12:14 pm

Musical Misperceptions

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There are loads of things that we all take for granted about Gregorian chant that are fundamentally false. I’ve been collecting these for a little while, and here’s a short selection of them.

• Pope Gregorius did not invent Gregorian chant. Chant was alive and well long before he was born. While he was pope (590-604), he instigated the documentation of chant. There wasn’t any music notation yet, so it was mostly the lyrics and the suitable events that were written down.

• Pope Gregorius also got credit for updating the calendar. But basically, he wanted an accurate way of documenting the various feasts of the year along with the assortment of suitable songs and had a calendar built. The real update to the calendar was done by another Pope Gregory in the 16th century.

• Gregorian chant was originally sung in Greek, until the language of the church officially changed to Latin in the 3rd or 4th century. Even then, it was only Latin in Western Europe—all of Byzantium stuck to Greek. It’s from this language digression that the names for the current flavors of chant originate: Gregorian in Rome, Ambrosian in Milan, Gallican in France, and Mozarabic (or Visigothic) in Spain.

• Liber Usualis, long thought to be the ultimate source for Gregorian chant, was only compiled and published in 1896, and is an abridged collection from four other works (the Gradual, Antiphonal, Missal, and Breviary).

• The Mass used to be comprised of the songs of the Proper (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo,Sanctus, Agnus Dei), exemplified by Bach’s B minor Mass in its highest form, and of course, many other favorite composers (Palestrina, Josquin, Brumel, et al). A change of meaning came around 1300, when the songs of the Ordinary (Introit, Gradual, Alleluia, Tract, Offertory, Communion) were added. Songs from the Proper were included as early as the 6th century. It seems that the Ordinary songs originated in Byzantium and spread westward.  Their arrival in Rome wasn’t documented until around the 11th century.

• Not all Propers were created equal. Although current practice offers only a few choices for the Propers, there is documentation for more than 300 versions of Agnus Dei (in chant. There are WAY more options in polyphony and more modern music).

• There are lots of similarities between Jewish and Gregorian chant: absence of regular meter, responsorial and antiphonal performance, prevailingly conjunct motion, psalmodic recitation, syllabic style mixed with melismas, and use of standard formulas. It’s probable that Christian chant was based on Jewish, although it doesn’t seem to be documented.

• Alleluia (hallelujah) does not mean “yippee.”  It’s from Hebrew, translated from Greek and then derived into Middle English, and means “praise ye Jehovah” (or Yahweh).  Its first known use in English was in the 14th century. In the New Testament, it appears only in Revelation 19 (although it’s there four times). It was translated in the Septuagint (the Jewish Greek version of the Bible made in the pre-Christian period) and became “alleluia” in the Vulgate, which was the 4th century Christian Latin version of the Bible.

• Gregorian chant is not sung only by men. In fact, the earliest documents imply that antiphons had women and children singing in response an octave up from where the men sang the first part. This is documented by a fellow called Philo, a Jewish chronicler in circa 60 A.D. That’s right, 60. So around the same time people were starting to document the New Testament.

• The idea some people have of Gregorian chant, where it’s sung on one note with a vacuum-cleaner swoop to begin each new phrase is fairly new. Gregorian chant is super melodic. The single-note thing was invented by Giovanni Guidetti (1530-1592). I don’t know why, though.

• Gregorian chant is not (correctly) sung all at one plodding speed. It was meant for the words of Christ to be sung slowly and on a low pitch, the words of the Jews to be sung fast and high, and a medium pace and pitch for the words of the evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

I hope you enjoyed this little list. Let me know if you have others to add! (I do too, but I’m still looking for documentation for some of them.)

Written by Melanie Spiller

January 26, 2012 at 12:11 pm

Worlds Merging

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Last night my Jewish choir joined forces with my Gregorian chant choir. I’d set it up with the same anxiety that prospective brides have about the two families meeting for the first time. But I needn’t have worried. It was as if we’d all known each other forever.

I’m so proud of all of them—all of us—I feel like I could float.

The Gregorian chant group has existed for about a dozen years, and I’ve been part of it for most of those. We sing from the block note neumes (see my post on the History of Music Notation, if you’d like more about that), and meet every single Monday night except for December, and sing at a proper Gregorian mass on the fourth Saturday of every month except December. Some in the group do not read modern notation and others are accomplished musicians from a lot of eras and instruments.

The thing about the group that is most striking is not musical ability or the music we do. It’s the uniformly sweet temperament. Oh, sometimes we get a bug up our noses about whether there should be a breath here or not, and whether this could be sung with that emphasis or another, but it’s always about the music and never about the person whose opinion we’re ignoring. Some of the sweetness could be that I’m the youngest person in the group by at least a decade and the older we get, the more inclined we are to be sweet, or it could just be that no one is fighting for prominence because we’re all made better by every other person who shows up and we know it.

And some of the people who’ve been in the group but aren’t anymore, some of them are the most special people on the planet too. (And we miss them regularly.) We’ve had a transfer teacher from Poland, a music major from U.C. Berkeley, a math doctoral student, professional translators, editors, peace activists, school teachers, engineers, and cancer survivors. (Rather more of our share of cancer survivors than is comfortable, but I suppose that’s better than the other way around.) We’ve had marriages and babies from among our number, and cried on each others’ shoulders about relationships and politics (a lot about politics) and natural disasters, jobs, health, and just plain being in a bad mood. We’ve had former and current monks and nuns, we’ve had Buddhists, Episcopalians, Jews, and Quakers—oh and a few Catholics, while we’re at it—we’ve had people who wanted to chant as a form of worship and people who wanted to chant as a musical expression and people who just wanted something interesting to do on a Monday night.

Yes, some of the best people in the world have sung with that little group over the years. And I, for one, am made better for it.

Now, the Jewish group, they’re new. This is their third year (I think—it might only be their second). They sing music from all eras, the only rule being that it’s either by a Jewish composer or expresses Jewish sentiments. Again, I was astonished to find the nicest people on the planet in their rehearsals. Like the chant group, it’s a diverse crowd in skills, age, and faith. I knew a few of the members before I showed up for the first time, so I felt quite welcome from the start. But others have joined since, and I can see that that is just their way—they are a very nice bunch of people.

The thing that struck me from the beginning was how alike the two groups are—in skill, in musical focus, in temperament. So it was natural that when the Jewish group took the summer off, I invited them to sing with the chant group (they rehearse on the same night and I’ve had to alternate which group I rehearse with). Things went swimmingly, with people saying whether they could or couldn’t come, and if they were interested in hearing the chanted mass rather than singing it. And I didn’t have any doubts at all until I was driving to the rehearsal.

Then I had a moment—what if this is the night one of us is having a bad day? What if it’s harder to sing from the neumes than I made it out to be? What if we get locked out of the hall for some reason, and have to stand on the sidewalk until someone can find the priest to let us in? What if no one shows up after I talked it up so large????

But then, people started to arrive. People who’d never met each other before hugged. There were smiles and laughter. And when we went in to sing, there was focus and fun and a lot of good music. The Jewish group sang as if they’d been reading the neumes all along and the chant group was helpful and welcoming and—all those things I went on and on about in the earlier paragraphs.

I’ve made a lot of music in my lifetime. It’s one of my favorite activities. But that rehearsal made the best music ever: the music of love and friendship and a common purpose.

Maybe I am actually floating.

Written by Melanie Spiller

July 12, 2011 at 5:31 pm

Posted in Music, Thoughts

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A Medievalist in a Modern World

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I’m sort of a semi-Luddite, I suppose. I mean, I really enjoy modern things like stoves and electricity and such, but I’m annoyed by our culture’s obsession with the Next Great Thing.

I took a long walk last Saturday, for instance, wandering through a popular neighborhood in downtown San Francisco, and I could easily count the number of people who did NOT have a phone being scrutinized or sprouting from their ears. Maybe I could count them on one hand.

I used to have the same thought about iPods and other MP3 players: Can’t people just enjoy their own thoughts about their surroundings without being plugged into something and constantly entertained?

There’s a little bit of resistance to change going on here, but it’s more than that. It’s dismay at what I perceive as a kind of corruption of our ability to process information as individuals, to be entertained by whatever is in front of us, whether that’s a bird landing in a tree, traffic passing by, or something more traditionally considered entertainment, like television or a movie or a book. And to appreciate what came before as much as what will come next.

This thinking crosses over into people singing along at concerts. I can understand the pleasure of singing along, believe me. It’s just that you kind of spoil the listening aspect of a concert for everyone near you, even if you’re some sort of singing genius. People paid to hear the people on stage, right? There are proper sing-alongs (for classical music, anyway), and if you want to sing along to more modern music, the radio or a recording in the privacy of your own home or car seems like an ideal place to do that. Even worse, if I shush you, I’m the bad guy, even though everyone else is glad to hear the live performance instead.

Lately, some of the groups that I sing with have taken to doing modern music. These are groups filled with classically trained musicians; I’m not saying that they should not forage in the wilderness of modern classical music. It’s just really odd to see a bunch of formal-gowned, tuxedo-laden prim and proper people singing spirituals and cereal commercial jingles, you know?

Most of us are not inclined to sing jazz or spirituals—that’s why we joined the groups that sing classical music. What bothers me is that there is some amazing music that isn’t going to get performed if, say, the gospel groups, the spiritual groups, the pop groups, and the classical groups are all doing spirituals. And just as someone trained to sing opera is going to have trouble singing motets or blending in a choir, someone who really feels classical music might struggle to sing pop. A whole gaggle of awkward pop singers is not a beautiful thing.

It is very interesting to do pairings of related music (perhaps all based on the same Gregorian chant or Biblical passage or poem)—Palestrina and Polenc with Lauridsen or Whitacre or someone else who is still writing music today. I’m not suggesting that classical groups pick an era and stick to it (although I love that). I’m suggesting that they stick to a genre. Or hold auditions to replace the whole choir, if the conductor has other ideas. (Or maybe replace the conductor?)

I am a bit of a musical Luddite, then. I prefer to do truly ancient music, and I get all grumbly when I’m asked to sing something I can’t relate to those good times.

Written by Melanie Spiller

April 21, 2011 at 3:24 pm

Posted in Music

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