EXHIBITION: Sacred Song: Chanting the Bible in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, New York, Les Enluminures Gallery (23 East 73rd Street, 7th Floor, ph. 212 717 7273), 24 January – 21 February 2014. Opening Hours: Mondays to Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
I. In the Church: in the Choir.
II. Outside the Church: in the Cloister, in the Cemetery, and in the City and Countryside.
III. Apart from the Church: in the Classroom, in the Chapter House, and in the Congregation.
Gregorian chant, the repertory of music used in the liturgical services of the Roman Catholic Church, is the earliest substantial body of music preserved in written form. The lovely idea that this sacred chant owes its origin to a bird – or the Holy Spirit – singing directly into the ear of Pope Gregory the Great (pope from 590-604), is surely legendary, but still reminds us that music and liturgy were inseparable throughout the Middle Ages. Intimately tied to the Bible, chant consists of a vocal, monophonic music composed in Latin using sacred texts from the Old and New Testaments. This is why Gregorian chant has often been called a “sung Bible.” It first appears in written form much later in the ninth century, and it continued as a living tradition through the medieval centuries and into the modern era.
The thirty-some manuscripts displayed in this exhibition and described in the accompanying catalogue represent the different aspects of the chant tradition, as well as other forms of sacred music. They are divided in three groups. We begin with (I) “In the Church: in the Choir.” These often colossal manuscripts present the music for the Mass and the Divine Office (mostly Graduals and Antiphonals). The choir sang from these large Chant Books, the colorful initials of which signaled the beginnings of each feast. Monks and nuns not only sang chant confined within the wall of the medieval church, but outside it as well. Next is (II) “Outside the Church: in the Cloister, in the Cemetery, and in the City and Countryside.”
Music accompanied liturgical processions as celebrants made their way from the church, to the cloister, and into the cities and fields of medieval Europe. Each participant carried his or her own volume, a Processional; these music manuscripts, some of which are illuminated, are small and portable, and often were personalized. A final group of manuscripts reflects the fact that sacred chant, although originating in the liturgy, is often preserved in non-liturgical contexts. A final group of manuscripts, (III) Apart from the Church: in the Classroom, in the Chapter House, and in the Congregation, reflects the fact that sacred chant, although originating in the liturgy, is often preserved in non-liturgical contexts.
The general public may recognize that Gregorian chant is monophonic and sung in Church, but most people probably have no idea what actually is being sung. In fact, the words of Gregorian chant are taken almost entirely from the Latin Bible, usually but not always from the Vulgate translated by St. Jerome near the end of the fourth century.” In Graduals, sung sections called Introits (invitations or openings of a chant), offertories, and communions are almost always biblical. The biblical passages often come from the Book of Psalms and focus on the individual’s relationship to God, his praise of, petition to, repentance, exhortation, and so forth.
The liturgy was profoundly conservative and resistant to change. The text of Choir Books — even books from the later Middle Ages and Renaissance — often preserves biblical verses that come from pre-Jerome versions of the Bible (the so-called Vetus Latina or Old Latin Bible), linking the earliest days of the Church with the Church centuries later. One aspect of Gregorian chant that merits further attention, therefore, is the degree to which it preserves early biblical readings, which readings and why, and what if anything these readings can contribute to biblical studies?
Catalogue: Sacred Song: Chanting the Bible in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, by Susan Boynton and Laura Light, with a preface by Sandra Hindman, Paris 2014 (Les Enluminures), $35.00 (click here to view the pdf).