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When Music was Made for God

by William Orbaugh
perotin-notre-dame

During the month of June, there are several ecclesiastical celebrations for which important musical works have historically been written. Instead of speaking about a particular celebration, I would like to take this opportunity to speak generally on the topic:  

What would music be like for God?

Music directed to God, would be created on codes and elements that perhaps the man does not reach to appreciate and understand, but God would understand, because these codes and elements are based on universal and cosmic parameters. A music that resonates in the universe and that exceeds the aesthetic limits of the merely human.

One can assume at the end of the day any song, even if it is sung without a good voice or a complex melody, would please God, as long as it is sung with devotion.

Suppose you want to please someone and you know that they love the colour purple: if you have the chance to visit them, you would probably go out and get them something in their favourite colour to surprise them with. Upon receiving the gift, they are so happy that you thought of them enough to get them something in their favourite colour that it did not matter what it was;  that you thought of them was the gift itself.  It is the same with God.  He knows how you love Him, respect Him and how much you wish to please Him by the way you hand over the ‘gift’ to him. As long as we put as much of our heart into our action, God is pleased with us.

In the early Church, when addressing God, one would address him in Latin.  Latin was considered the most ‘cultured’ language and the one used for praising God. In addition, God was not spoken to as an equal, but ‘sang’ to.  Songs that had melodic intervals and rhythmically selected modes was the respectful way of addressing God.  This kind of ‘sung talking’ based on intervals and rhythms, principles and the cosmos were used; ‘divine’ canons.  I want to share a work composed under those criteria, by a monk and composer known by the name of “Perotín”, who lived in Paris between 1160 and 1230. He is the most important composer of the so-called period/school of Notre Dame. The work that I will address  is titled “Viderunt Omnes” (Viderunt omnes weekends terrae salutare Dei nostri = All the ends of the Earth have seen the salvation of our God)

Unless you are musicians or are interested in the music of the Middle Ages, you probably have never heard of anything similar: it may seem like another world. Thanks to the marvel of being able to record and reproduce music, these masterpieces can be enjoyed as if you were actually there! In the year 1198 (when it was first sung), from the Cathedral of Notre Dame, men spoke to God in cosmic terms; “All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.” Also within the work, Perotin refers to the numbers 3 (representing the Divine Trinity and everything related to God) and 4 (which represents the Earth: the 4 elements, the 4 cardinal points, the 4 seasons, etc. .) and the amalgam in the “Rhythmic Mode” that he chose for the work: The “Torque Mode” which consists of a 4-beat compass, each subdivided into three parts (ternary subdivision). So in each moment of the song, each of the 4 times of each compass entails a subdivision of 3. There, represented in music, the central axis of the Christian Faith: the concept of the Trinity in unity.

Expressed in musical notes, it would be something like this:  

4-beats

The work is sung in 4 voices, in which the voice of the bass (the deeper toned) uses an ancestral Gregorian chant of the same name (Viderunt Omnes) as the base melody or “Cantus Firmus”. These Gregorian chants (considered sacred) were used as the basis for new pieces, as if they were a religious relic that in turn would make the new work sacred. In the original Gregorian Chant used as the bases, each note would have lasted for approximately a second, so they would have sung about 4 notes in 4 seconds.  However, in the Perotin work, each note of that original melody, makes it last up to a minute or more; thus, singing and holding the same 4 notes could take up to 5 minutes (instead of 4 seconds). The singers are to take turns breathing and the note should not be interrupted’ “What for the human might seem like an eternity, for God will be an instant.”  The author thus composes a music of cosmic and superhuman dimensions.

While the low note resounds, the other voices articulate a litany with the 4 times subdivided in 3 (according to the rhythmic way of which I spoke before) on the syllables Vi – de – runt, etc. . Thus, the text is almost not understood, as the articulation of a single word extends for several minutes. Although we may not understand, it does not matter; all that matters is the beauty given to God. Listening to it is truly amazing, almost disturbing, as if listening to something from another world and as if to let oneself go into a spiritual trance.

Here is the link to the piece I think you would most appreciate:

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