Tag Archives: music

#19 — Plainsong

My first, indirect exposure to Catholicism was in a friend’s living room in Knoxville, Tennessee sometime in the early 1990s. Several of us were staying over with this friends family, and as we sat talking that evening, she put on Enigma’s debut album,¬†MCMXC a.D. It was the first time I’d really heard plainsong, though it was layered under so much sampling and shallow lyrics that I really didn’t know the power of what I was hearing. But I was curious: I wanted to hear pure chant, without all the drum machines and pan flute melodies.

It seemed such a simple idea: a single melody, often limited to a handful of individual tones, sung by dozens of voices. No harmonies; no differentiation whatsoever. Polyphonic choral music– the famous SATB — seemed overly complicated in comparison.

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#16 — Bach’s B Minor Mass

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#6 — Polyphony

Sacred music is without a doubt one of the most beautiful things Catholicism has given then world, and polyphony is the most perfect form of that music. Five, ten, fifteen, even forty individual melodies blended into a single composition that can only be described as angelic. ¬†Strictly speaking, composers of sacred music did not “invent” polyphony, and many in the church at first balked, considering the harmonies superfluous. However, the vast majority of polyphony that I am familiar with is sacred in nature.

I first heard polyphony in “Man and the Arts,” a unique course I took as an undergrad that blended a historical overview of art, music, and philosophy. Our professor played for us a portion of Thomas Tallis’s “Spem in Alium,” a forty-part Renaissance motet, and I was instantly addicted.

Listening to this makes it difficult to believe that we are merely bags of fat and chemical reactions.


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