Our bodies are instruments, the first ones that were ever played. Rhythm comes from our awareness of the beat of our hearts. Melody is the practiced pattern of chosen pitches, but it originates in the verbal interactions between parents and children. Our baby squeals reached higher and higher pitches. It gave us delight. Our parents lulled us to sleep using peaceful vocal tones.
Here’s another example of a song that has managed the trick of time-travel. Many of you just heard a bit of it last Friday, but didn’t know how ancient it was. I’ll show you the trail from long, long ago.
When Christian religious communities first began, they were voluntary refugees from the world. They prayed, and they chanted. Chant was a continuation of the Jewish tradition of psalmody, the oral tradition of passing on sanctified verses in song form. This singing tradition existed long before writing, as far back as the Age of Bronze, more than thirty centuries ago.
This song first began with the statement (in Latin) “Ubi caritas est vera, Deus ibi est” which means “Where charity is true, God is there.” It originated before written music so we can’t date it exactly, but we can read the text in 10th Century manuscripts. By the 11th Century, the square notes used to chart Gregorian chant accompanied a revised version of the verse saying, “Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est” (Where charity and love are, God is there.)
This form of the song was used for hundreds of years during the part of the mass when the bread is blessed, but before it is distributed. It is accompanied by an internal meditation practice performed by monks and nuns called by the Greek term λατρεία, latreia (adoration). While chant is offered, those about to receive communion contemplate the Seder during which Jesus was reported to have asked his companions to remember him when in future they eat and drink together.
In the thousand years since, the text of the chant has been set to many other melodies, but it also has continued in new arrangements of the original tune. The one I’ve sung most often was composed by Maurice Duruflé in 1960 as part of his Quatre motets sur des thèmes grégoriens.
I was not thrilled at the prospect of having to watch footage of the Royal Wedding over and over. I like rituals, and bright colors and good music, but once I’ve seen it, it’s in my head. I don’t watch my favorite movies or listen to my favorite songs repeatedly. I replay them mentally. After a few years, they fade, and then I can enjoy a new view. So I avoided watching the wedding at first. My wife understood, but she also had heard something I hadn’t.
The groom had commissioned a new version of the old chant to be performed. It’s an adaptation of a love song written by Paul Mealor, a composer teaching at St. Andrews, where William and Kate had been students. Mealor put the text of the old chant to his love song and then (after three verses) placed the original melody to emerge, sung by a solo alto, from within the mist of gorgeous suspensions he had written.
After all the irritating commercialism surrounding the Royal Wedding, the reappearance of the ancient chant enabled me to connect emotionally and understand it as a human and personal event. William and Kate got married not only with a pledge to love and support each other, but also with a public acknowledgement that charity is holy.