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Music of the Spheres

By Ray Waddle

I used to listen to Gregorian chant and other ancient sacred choral music. It was relaxing, mesmerizing. Then I stopped. Something was wrong. The purity of the sound was making me wary. It sounded too “perfect,” too otherworldly in its beauty. Maybe that was the point, yet I was impatient and distrustful. I hated losing my affection for the old music, but blues, jazz, country and folk sounded to me closer to the hard grain of real life and spiritual realism.

Recently I revisited Christmas choral music and carols performed by Anonymous 4, the Scarritt-Bennett Singers and others, music that is as much as 900 years old.*

The sounds were beautiful. Instead of making me nervously guarded, the music was disarming. It embodied a welcome restraint, seriousness, discipline, defiance against hurry – priorities that don’t prevail everyday in this jittery, over-budgeted, sleep-deprived, multitasking world we’ve made.

The slowed, liturgical rhythms of the music starkly reminded me how frantic this life gets, and how little I have to show for it. A research study in 2010 concluded that multitasking, our boastful strategy for getting things done in the 21st century, is actually counter-productive and self-defeating. The brain isn’t set up to do more than two things at once well.

Medieval Christmas music, an enduring monument from a distant, faithful, tumultuous civilization, makes a good soundtrack for recovering multitaskers (if there are any).

Such music is calming and stilling, but it is not standstill or inert. It moves. It glides gently into view like a procession or a planet – purposeful, bearing important news across the eons, floating along with gravitational force.

That force is the Christmas story, the music’s inspiration. Christmas is a story about movement and moral resolve – a family on the move to Bethlehem and beyond, the arrival of local shepherds and distant Magi, the coursing of the star, the appearance of angels, the dark plots of Herod. Then Jesus is born, and the Word enters the world, set in motion by divine breath, an arc of holiness ready to penetrate these anxious days.

The music of Advent invites the listener to take a slow breath, pay attention to the notes, the spaces between the notes, and rejoin 20 centuries of belief, the witness of the Son of God, the power of reverence. It becomes possible to hear oneself think again.

At such moments, I take inventory – list the resources I have (convictions, friends, determination) and what I need more of (courage, resilience).

Then, against the winter dark, I hear the melody of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” once more, a signal that the light is moving toward us.

*The Christmas music I have in mind includes these recordings:

  • “The Carol Album: Seven Centuries of Christmas Music” by the Taverner Consort, Choir & Players (two volumes)
  • “Carols from Wightman Chapel,” Scarritt-Bennett Singers
  • “A Medieval Christmas,” Boston Camerata
  • “A Renaissance Christmas,” Boston Camerata
  • “On Yoolis Night: Medieval Carols & Motets,” Anonymous 4
  • “A Star in the East: Medieval Hungarian Christmas Music,” Anonymous 4

--Columnist Ray Waddle is a religion columnist based in Bethel, Conn., and editor of Reflections, the theological journal of Yale Divinity School. He is also the author of two books published by Upper Room Books.

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