Rorate Caeli

From Gregorian Chant to Alleluia of the Lightbulbs: The "Notes" of Modern Churches

 On what “Notes” do Modern Churches Arise?

By Stefano Chiappalone   (From Alleanza Cattolica)

A society that is incapable of lyricism can only build edifices that are ascetic.  But a letter written by the author of The Little Prince offers the starting point to reawaken that lost spiritual sense from which sprung abbeys and cathedrals in the light of the nexus between music and architecture.

I was eight or nine years old when I had an experience that could be described in terms of that surreal tone of some of the stories written by the English author Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936). In a small square shaped room of ascetic whiteness, furnished only with two dark armchairs placed in an ordered way, a gentleman wearing a full cape-like garment was making gestures and movements that indicated solemnity on a small table covered with a tablecloth.  These movements and gestures and this gentleman were actually the only recognizable things in that strange place that with the stubbornness typical of a child, I refused to acknowledge that this had anything to do with “church”.  In fact, I refused to link what I saw with “church” That was my first and “primordial” encounter with the modern architectural development in building houses of worship.  That clinical frigidity was light years away from the three little angels of stucco who watched over me in the village where I was born, peeking through the clouds of incense on the high altar of that beautiful church. From those days as a little boy, I have never changed my basic ideas about beauty.

From that time, but I hope with greater awareness, I have never stopped asking myself why some churches of recent construction seem to not be able to be defined as churches.  Is it a simple passage from one style to another, as has happened in the past?  Nonetheless, the Romanesque, the Gothic and the Baroque-including that "country baroque" of the small churches in towns and villages—are styles that are diverse, but they all share in a sacrality that does not seem to be shared by the  “grey new style” .  And if we want to trot out the categories of “beautiful” and “ugly”, excluding all of the spins of words with which the commissioners praise “the magnificent and progressive future” of the new style of religious buildings, is it not possible to at least say that these buildings do not respond adequately to that thirst for the sacred, to that desire for that “elsewhere” that allows even the soul of a secular person to step across the threshold of a world that is “other” than the  world of the every- day?

In asking this question that will never have a final answer, I found an inspired starting point, a pointer and a beginning of reflection on this question in a letter, dated in July, 1943, from the French writer and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900-1944), the author of The Little Prince, who was prematurely lost in a tragic airplane accident.  This letter is so important in that it is a sort of testament-reflection on the present time.  Speaking about the hollowness of a generation in which “every lyricism sounds ridiculous and men refuse to be awakened to any sort of a spiritual life”, the author writes to an unidentified General to whom the letter is addressed:  “General, there is only one problem in this world. One alone.  To restore to men spiritual meaning amidst a time when spiritual yearnings seem to be absent. To shower down on them something that resembles Gregorian chant.  If I had faith.”, continues Saint-Exupéry, “it is absolutely certain that, after this epoch of ‘work that is necessary and unrewarding’, I would do nothing else that to let everyone know about Solesmes.” His reference here is to the famous French abbey that in the 19th century became the heart of the rebirth of Gregorian chant.

The wish of Saint-Exupéry and his mention of Solesmes makes me call to mind that deep connection through which “…architecture and music are heralds, intimately connected with each other, of the spiritual expression of their times”, as affirmed by the German thinker Hans Graf Huyn (1930-2011), who then offers a little florilegium on this point, among which is a letter written by the poet and playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) in which he says:  “I found a page among my papers….in which I define architecture as frozen music.”

If architecture arises from spiritual foundations, although these foundations are ultimately invisible, one can understand something about them also in the “sound track” of a society.  The “white mantle of churches” that was interwoven over medieval Europe was germinated thanks to the showers of Gregorian chant.

In contrast to this, a society that is incapable of lyricism “…is capable to raising large industrial buildings, but does not have the capacity to build neither a palace nor a temple.”, a quote from the Colombian aphorist Nicolás Gómez Dávila (1913-1994).  And it is improbable that there would arise something comparable to vaults and cupolas, when sounds of nature and liturgical hymns (that is to say, that which contributes to the contemplative dimension of a society) are suffocated by the drumbeats of artificial noise and the rhythms of a world where reality is defined by staring at images on a electronic screen. It just so happens that this “crisis” of modern buildings meant for worship goes hand in hand with the abandonment in practice of great sacred music.  During liturgical celebrations there rarely “showers down” on men “something that resembles Gregorian chant” or polyphony or what in general allows something of heaven to shine forth.  What predominates are tunes from a wide diversity, little ditties often strummed, pale imitations of pop music—all this that a professional music like Riccardo Muti does not hesitate to call “strumming along in church”.

If architecture is “frozen music”, one cannot forget that the marble and stone of the splendid times in the past were kneaded with many Kyries, Glorias and antiphons that resonated in those places.  But, looking at our own time, what cathedral can ever rise on the notes of the infamously well-known “Alleluia of the light bulbs”?

Translated by Father Richard Gennaro Cipolla