beautiful beauty

The Contour of Chant

6:00:00 AMChase J. Cloutier

This post is a continuation of my series reflecting on beauty in anticipation of the Hildebrand Project's forthcoming publication: the English translation of Dietrich von Hildebrand’s Aesthetics.

I pushed open the wooden door, dipped my hand into the cool water, touching my forehead, chest, shoulders. As I walked slowly forward into the spacious chamber opening before me, I gazed around the dimly lit church. Somber scenes immortalized in small stones dotted the sides of the abbey. I touched my knee to the cold marble floor, then stepping into the pew. There I sat, in awe of this medieval stronghold of prayer.

The abbey of the monks of Solesmes is nestled on the banks of a quiet river in the French countryside, far away from all the busyness and distraction of city life. It was their music that drew me to them. These monks are masters of Gregorian Chant scholarship and performance. I came to get away for several days — to be silent, to listen, and to pray.
As the time for prayer service approached, everything was absolutely still. A peace, rarely to be found in the outside world, permeated the air. The soft shadows enveloping the sanctuary were pierced by a single ray of bright light beaming in from the sole undraped window. All was calm and quiet. From this silence pregnant with prayer came the warm and welcome sound of the monks’ resonant voices as they processed in for Mass. These modal melodies clearly delighted the monks, for their solemn joy was evident. One could hardly mistake that as their voices rose and fell, they soared to the heights of contemplation and plunged into the depths of prayer.

Their singing was at once formal and organic, peaceful and dynamic, fluid and free. As effortless and life-giving as breathing itself, this chanting of theirs was accomplished with nothing but the primordial instrument — the natural human voice. With no regular rhythm, this music was driven only by
the beating of their hearts. These men sang in perfect unison, their unique and unfaltering vocals molding, blending to form one communal voice. In the song there was no division or separation. The unity of their sound was marked only by the arc and contour of their melody.

In this moment I experienced the delight and grandeur of the human voice as I never had before. In a humble little monastery in a foreign land, I encountered consummate beauty. “When we hear a beautiful melody, we not only perceive its beauty: it takes hold of our heart and makes us happy... It touches our heart and fills our soul with a particular happiness.” (1) This was the most beautiful music I had ever heard. It pierced my heart and
made me yearn for higher realms. Its beauty impacted me in an unprecedented way. I was drawn to contemplate, to revere, to adore, and to love.

File:Candlelight Master Young Boy Singing.jpgWhat led to this experience? For one, the human voice is of a singular nature among aesthetic mediums. In hearing the chant the truth of Hildebrand’s saying was impressed upon me: “the sound of the voice can be the bearer of a completely new beauty.” (2) Unlike any other instrument, the human voice is a fundamental part of who and what we are; we carry around our vocal chords wherever we go. How remarkable it is that singing comes to us almost as naturally as speaking. Because we are bodily beings, we can actualize ourselves on a deeper level through singing. It requires considerable engagement of the mind and coordination of proper posture, breathing, attack, diction, tone, and blending, only to name a few aspects. When we sing well, that is, with all our skill and with our whole mind and heart, we sing with our whole being.

However, on this particular instance visiting the Benedictines, I was struck by the
difficulty of appreciating the beautiful, even the most beautiful things. Some days we are overcome with how beautiful the natural world is: in a blooming garden during a sunny spring day, driving along the snow-capped Alps in winter, or sailing on a glistening blue sea in summer. Yet at times it can be a struggle to respond to various forms of beauty. When we are weary, upset, or sorrowful, it seems as if the world of beauty that surrounds us has been cut off. On days like these, though we may apprehend the beauty of a landscape or a symphony, our hearts are all but silent because our current affective state tends to color our experience.
Having come to the monastery on a long journey, I was fatigued and distracted with the busyness of travel. Over the course of my stay, I noticed a progression in my experience. At first I was distant and aloof. It was very challenging to give my full attention to the prayers. Though I recognized that a noble beauty was present, I was put off by my own condition. My exhaustion significantly impacted my experience. Yet after I took my rest and recuperated, a new depth of beauty was opened to me. Now I could allow the beauty to touch my heart. It is not that the chant was not beautiful in itself, but it was that I was not prepared to respond to it. According to Hildebrand, this is an intimation of the necessary dialogue between objective beauty and observing subject. (3)

The appreciation of true beauty takes both a heart open to encounter and a commitment to wait upon that encounter. It requires receptivity and patience, a listening heart and a discerning mind. In my case, in waiting upon the beauty of music, I realized that beauty was waiting on me. In order to grow in recognition of the beautiful, we must love beauty in all its many forms and continually seek it out. Then perhaps we will begin to discover the contour of beauty whether in paint, poetry, or song.

1. Dietrich von Hildebrand, Aesthetics Vol. 1 (forthcoming publication of the Hildebrand Project) p. 29.
2. Ibid., p. 72.
3. Cf. Ibid., chapter 1. Image 1: Solesmes abbey, Chase J. Cloutier, 2013. Image 2: Le Jeune Chanteur, The Candlelight Master, 1650, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. (source) Image 3: Walking to Solesmes, Chase J. Cloutier, 2013. Video source

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