Mike Aquilina

Chants Encounters

Thursday April 20th 2006, 6:30 am

OK, so the screen savers aren’t enough anymore. You want to immerse another of your senses in the world of Christian antiquity. Try hearing next. There’s a lot of ancient chant you can load into your iPod.

My personal favorite is a quirk of history. It’s a recording of Roman chant from the 7th and 8th centuries, Chants de l’Eglise de Rome. At the time, Rome’s native culture was in decline. Byzantine Greek culture was still riding fairly high. A number of the popes hailed from the eastern lands. And entire monasteries from the oriean were fleeing to Italy for refuge from various invaders. So the chant sounds Roman, but you hear deep eastern influences — and I do mean deep. One of the distinctive notes of Old Roman Chant is its sustained bass parts, which make for odd and beautiful harmonies.

Here’s a curiosity: Music from the 5th Century. It’s reconstructed from ancient Coptic manuscripts by an Armenian-American musicologist. He contends that this was the characteristic music not only of the ancient Coptic Christians, but also of the Egyptians, generations earlier, who built the pyramids. I have to admit, my ears have not quite adjusted to this sound.

And let’s not forget our old friend Ambrose, who was deeply influenced by the chant of the East, and wanted to bring something like it to his own church in 4th-century Milan. Augustine himself praised Ambrose’s church for its congregational singing. Listen to Sublime Chant: The Art of Gregorian, Ambrosian, and Gallican Chant.

Does anyone know if there’s a good recording of the ancient Syriac chants of Edessa? As Christians leave that area (in Turkey and Syria), I fear this music will be lost.