Behold the Awesome Power of Medieval Ukrainian Chant

Whilst browsing a discussion forum a few days ago, I came across a thread about members’ favorite music. Much of it was fairly typical — pop music from the last 50 years, mostly, interspersed with some jazz standards, dubstep, folk, etc. — but one person, a quiet sort who grew up behind the Iron Curtain, linked a longish snippet of audio from one of his favorite CDs. The disc included a selection of liturgical chant from medieval Ukraine.

I couldn’t tell whether the singing was in Ukrainian or Old Church Slavonic (my ear’s not that good), but the a capella rendition included what sounded like at least a dozen different melodies playing off of each other. The Orthodox motet contrasted the “noble simplicity” of archetypal Gregorian chant.

This kind of music is hard for the modern listener to appreciate. Most of our popular music is either monophony or homophony; polyphony is just too complex to process without aural training.

I’m reminded of the time, as an organ student, I attended a recital by my professor. The performance was held in late October — the perfect time to play Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor (BWV 565). I had, of course, heard that piece many times before, but watching him play, and in particular noting his use of the pedal division, prompted a reassessment that opened my mind to the underlying structure of the music. Listen to it. Try to simultaneously process every “voice” you hear; in the Bach piece, for example, you’re limited to a maximum of four voices (left hand, right hand, left foot, right foot) and usually you get just two or three. Better yet, find a copy of Bach’s Prelude and Fughetta in E minor (BWV 900) and listen to the fughetta. If you can keep track of it without having first enjoyed training in classical music … you might be a prodigy of some sort. (Glenn Gould’s version is, I think, the standard, but the linked YouTube video isn’t bad although the left hand gets sloppy toward the end.)

Modern listeners rarely grasp that the aspects of favored contemporary hits they like the most may well be throwbacks to a richer musical heritage. There’s a reason, after all, that groups or songs people love to hate achieved the success they did. For example, look at the lyrics to Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe. What do you notice? An internal four-line rhyming scheme with roughly equivalent syllable lengths sung in a manner that approximates a simple plainchant. Funny how that works. Had the songwriter opted for the sloppier but trendier open meter, it’s possible the song wouldn’t have caught fire and we might have been spared months of parody videos.

Anyway, for those willing to experiment with more complex music, the rewards are truly rich.

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