Gregorian chant and the Acoustics of Churches

A few years ago my parents took my sister and me to Poland to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. We flew first to Austria where we spent a few days exploring Vienna. It was an interesting trip for me, being the first time travelling to a country where I didn’t have at least a very basic grasp of the language.

In the past I had gone on exchange to live in France, but I spoke French. My parents had taken us to Cuba, and I had an exchange in Spain, and while my Spanish was limited, I knew enough to be able to ask basic questions like where is the bathroom, and how much is it. German however, is completely outside my familiarity, and doesn’t really share many commonalities with any of the other languages I speak.

It was a strange experience, having to rely completely on someone else to translate for me. I had never felt that helpless before and it meant a lot less independence than I am used to while travelling.

Our first night there, we went on a hunt for cheesecake. My father, during my parents’ courtship, had had to go to Vienna for some time. While there, he promised that someday he would take my mother to Vienna and they would have cheesecake together. Afterwards we took a moment to look at the streets of the old city at night.

Vienna is beautiful, in daylight or at night. Many of the old streets have modern stores in them, but there are a few places where it is like stepping into another time. My family is Catholic, so they love to look at churches. I love the amazing architecture they present and appreciate a lot of the art that can be found on display there. This is an opinion that often annoys my parents, but I find many big churches to be too gaudy. Many churches are gilded and have a spectacular amount of wealth on display. I’ve always found it to be a bit too much. Still, one cannot argue that many of them are beautiful.

There was one however, that completely blew me away. I cannot remember if this happened when we first arrived in Vienna or on our way out. I do remember that it was a beautiful sunny day. My sister was starting to complain of a headache and some other issues. I suggested it was probably a reaction to the heat. We were somewhere is the old quarter and we ducked into this old stone church to cool down.

The stone was that dark grey brown you associate with really old stone buildings. The ceiling was carved with all sorts of statues of angels, and clouds, all stone. And there among all that stone were three long lines of gold representing both the sun and god’s grace. It was subtle and I remember thinking it was one of the more beautiful things I had seen.

To make it even more complete, while we sat there, we heard monks either celebrating a private mass in the crypt, or practicing, I don’t know. They were singing Gregorian chant. In the dark coolness of the church, with the singers in the background, it was like being transported back centuries. The harmonies filling the church. The acoustics were amazing, so that even though none of us could even see the monks, the voices were ringing out around us as though they were everywhere and nowhere at once.

When I was still religious, when I lived with my parents, I was the cantor at our church. I love singing. I love performing, I admit it. I like the silence that falls when I start singing. I love the way it feels to be on a stage and to have my voice pouring out of me. It’s cathartic in a way that I cannot describe, almost spiritual if there was such a thing. When I’m on stage, it’s different than when I sing just for fun or because someone asked me to sing something. When you perform, when you’re giving a concert, you have permission to just completely abandon yourself to the music. You almost cease to exist. In that moment, you aren’t a person, you are an instrument, a vessel for a sound that takes you over and fills you up and then burst out of you. You become the music. I know that sounds silly and cliché, but I honestly don’t know how else to explain it. My whole body vibrates with my voice and the sound of the music accompanying it. The feeling can even change depending on whether it’s an organ, or a violin, or a flute, or an orchestra.

Being in a place with good acoustics just magnifies the feeling, the same way that the space magnifies your voice.

My dad and I both share that connection in music I think. I notice that he can’t help but play an organ or piano when he sees it, the same way I can’t help but sing in a space that has the right acoustics.

The day of my parent’s anniversary they planned to meet with an old friend, the priest who introduced them, and married them. We were to meet him at the church where they were married. We went down to the church crypt, which was like a smaller church. I couldn’t help but notice how our voices echoed in the space. My father, almost within minutes was sitting at the organ playing.

When he heard me humming along, he began playing Shubert’s Ave Maria. Growing up, I spent a lot of time singing this piece. It is a spectacular piece of music, and one I was often asked to sing at weddings, funerals, and so forth. Even years later, I have both verses memorized in Latin. Playing this song was an invitation for me to sing it. So I did.

The only thing better than the acoustics in a church are the acoustics in an empty, or nearly empty church. Imagine one voice, multiplied in such a way that it fills every corner, every nook. People used to fall silent when I would sing. This time was no different so that my mother, my sister, the priest who came in during the song, my mother’s friend; no one spoke until the song was finished. The last note dying on the air before anyone breathed a word.

As a surprise for my parents, the priest friend invited my parents to the Alter, and there in the same church where they had been married 25 years before, on the same day, in the same church, with the same priest, my parents renewed their vows. My sister stood in for my mother’s maid of honour, while I was my dad’s best man.

It was a really touching moment, and one I was glad to be there for.

Fuck, but I miss performing.

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Gregorian chant and the Acoustics of Churches
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