On Wings of Song

Photo: Glenn Matsumura

Within the walls of the picturesque, hundred-year-old St. Thomas Aquinas Church in downtown Palo Alto, a musical counterrevolution is taking place.

On Sunday mornings, a haunting melody that may echo back as far as 4th-century Jerusalem wafts toward passersby on Waverley and Homer. It’s a Gregorian chant, in Latin. Directed by William Mahrt, associate professor of music at Stanford, the St. Ann Choir first performed chant at a Sunday Mass 40 years ago. Today, the 25-member group participates in weekly lauds, vespers and compline, as well as the great polyphonic Renaissance Masses sung on some dozen feast days a year. But the heart of their mission is plainsong, or “the chant,” as they often call it.

This is the same music the crusaders heard and Michelangelo listened to as he brushed away in the Sistine Chapel. But after Vatican II reforms in the 1960s, Latin gave way to vernacular languages, and chant, ineffectually translated, was widely replaced first by folk Masses and then by commercialized sacred music.

“It’s a shame our religious practice doesn’t preserve this,” says Susan Altstatt, who joined the choir in 1967. She considers Mahrt “a one-man society” keeping chant alive. That’s perhaps overstated, but Palo Alto may be the only place in the country outside religious orders to hear this much of it.

Many of the congregants are from the Stanford community. “When I first attended,” says French professor emeritus René Girard, “I assumed that the Catholic Church and the University actively supported this unique contribution to the spiritual and cultural life of the community. The truth is that ever since 1963, Professor Mahrt has been very much on his own in this enormously time-, talent- and energy-consuming enterprise.”

Ironically, in recent years chant seems to have found favor everywhere but the church, as recordings made in the 1950s by Spain’s Santo Domingo de Silos Abbey Monks’ Choir unexpectedly went platinum a decade ago. New-Age aficionados have made it a vogue—although whether it signifies much more than mood music is debatable. Mahrt and his choir members insist the best way to hear chant is within the celebration of Mass, as it was intended.

Church liturgy—with the poetry and music of the chant, the incense, the art, the architecture and the Eucharist—was perhaps the West’s first interactive, multimedia experience. And “music was the art most intimately connected with the action,” says Mahrt, PhD ’69. “It’s the most amazing piece of performance art ever composed—bigger than anything Wagner ever dreamed of,” adds choir member Kerry McCarthy.

Chant’s eerie, otherworldly cadences—pure melody without harmony or accompaniment—clearly have an uplifting, even addictive, effect on the singers, who spend up to six hours in practice and performance every week. “It’s not just a hobby, it’s a way of life,” says McCarthy, PhD ’03. “It gets into your blood. I don’t know what I did before it.” A history major at Reed College in Portland, Ore., when she discovered Gregorian chant, she switched to liturgical music, then came to Stanford in 1997 to study with Mahrt.

Still, chant can sound monotonous to the untrained ear. “One can never assume the chant will coincide naturally with public taste,” Mahrt says. “It has to be learned. You have to grow into it. The rhythm is not regular, not metric. It’s kind of a sprung rhythm that’s always new.”

As McCarthy puts it, “You might get tired of it after half an hour, but you’d love it after a year.”

There was little in Mahrt’s background to predict his passion for chant. He describes being raised in a “small country parish” in Reardan, Wash., with a “little choir of ladies who sang to a harmonium.” His master’s thesis as a pianist was the work of Robert Schumann. But he fell in love with chant in a church choir while studying at the University of Washington.

Mahrt began doctoral studies at Stanford in 1963 and joined the newly formed St. Ann Choir, becoming director the following year. A Stanford faculty member since 1972, he teaches the performance practice of medieval and Renaissance music, directs the Stanford Early Music Singers, leads singing tours to English cathedrals and conducts chant workshops across the country.

In the early ’80s, his work took a new turn when the preeminent Dante scholar John Freccero joined the faculty and gave a seminar on the poet’s Divine Comedy. As Freccero discussed the Purgatorio, Mahrt found himself on familiar ground. The hymns and prayers of Dante’s pilgrims are usually assumed to be biblical verses, when in fact they are liturgical—the same chants the St. Ann Choir sings. For the medieval listener, Dante’s poem would have rung with the music known to everyone in Christendom. It was an area of Dante scholarship that had been overlooked.

Mahrt has since written and lectured extensively on the subject. Later this year, he and some of the St. Ann singers will record Dante’s music for the Medieval Academy of America.

New discoveries have shed some light on where Gregorian chant originated. Pope Gregory I, who reigned from 590 to 604, has been credited, probably wrongly, with writing, collecting and organizing early chant. Little is known for certain. Around 800, Charlemagne, the Frankish king and first Holy Roman emperor, sent singers to Rome to learn chant, as part of his campaign to unify the empire by unifying the liturgy. The Franks adapted the Roman chant to their own style, which is the chant that survives.

More recent scholarship has uncovered correspondences between Western plainsong and medieval chants transcribed in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. The only obvious link is Jerusalem in the 4th century, when Emperor Constantine the Great was transforming it into a flourishing Christian city and pilgrimage center. That date and place would also link Christian chant to Hebrew chanting, since both rely on the Psalms for text.

Perhaps it isn’t so surprising, then, that not everyone who is devoted to plainsong in its religious setting is Roman Catholic. Susan Weisberg, a social worker at Stanford Hospital who joined the choir in 1989, is Jewish, but her attraction to the liturgy is longstanding. “When I was young, growing up in New York in the pre-Vatican II days, I would go to midnight Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral regularly on Christmas Eve,” she recalls. “I was fascinated by the mystery—the words, the music, the incense. This music has always been with me.”

For years, after moving to Stanford with her husband, Law School professor Robert Weisberg, JD ’79, she attended the feast day Masses sung by the St. Ann Choir. Weisberg finally summoned the courage to ask Mahrt if she could join.

“I didn’t know anything about the notation and the liturgy and the Latin: I was a three-time loser. Would anyone with these daunting odds want to continue? Yes,” she says emphatically. “Bill is so knowledgeable, and he’s so enthusiastic about the chant. I’m thoroughly hooked.”

In fact, says Weisberg, “I have to say I know more about the liturgy than my lapsed Catholic friends.”

Cynthia Haven is a frequent contributor covering arts and letters.