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Holy Monophony! 

William Tortolano's early-music enchantment

Published December 14, 2005 at 12:23 a.m.

You can't kill a good melody, they say. Gregorian chant, a type of musical prayer established by and named for Pope Gregory I in 590 AD, certainly bears out this adage. While The Beatles' "Yesterday" has had a remarkable shelf life, its timelessness can't hold a votive candle to "Gloria in Excelsis Deo." Dr. William Tortolano, a professor emeritus at St. Michael's College, knows his chant, and he shares his wisdom in a new instructional manual, A Gregorian Chant Handbook. Written in clear, concise language, the guide will help monophony enthusiasts learn, among other things, the difference between a podatus and a quilisma. As director of the Vermont Gregorian Chant Schola, Tortolano leads his venerable chorus in a Christmas concert at St. Michael's College Chapel this Sunday.

Gregorian chant will probably never be heard on MTV. But mainstream music stores have devoted more and more shelf space to early sacred music since the mid-1990s chant craze put more pesos in the pockets of the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos. "There is a resurgence of interest," confirms Tortolano, who is also an organist. "And it's among young people, too. When I do my workshops, I have college-age people and teenagers who attend. And it's not for nostalgia; it's because they know it's good music."

Not a bad comeback for material written before harmony had even been conceived.

In these troubling times -- and what times aren't? -- no one can be blamed for craving soothing sounds. The majestic modalities of Gregorian chant have a meditative effect on listeners, regardless of religious upbringing. "People understand its validity," Tortolano explains. "It's recognized all over the world as a universal language. Just like Bach, you can't destroy it. And it's not just Roman Catholics; Protestants often sing the chant in English. It also has its roots in Jewish music," he notes. "You don't have to necessarily believe in the message to find it comforting, restful and beautiful."

Not to downplay the spiritual substance of the music. Conceived as a way to honor God in song, there are chants for many masses and rituals. "It's been very important in the church," Tortolano says. "There's great poetry and sacred scripture from great authors like St. Francis of Assisi. In addition to the sound itself, chant has a good deal of literary beauty. It's durable."

But chant doesn't have to be sung in moldy European monasteries. Vermont has its own rich tradition of monophonic music making. In the '90s, the Cabot-based vocal group Anima (now defunct) released two albums featuring compositions by 11th-century abbess Hildegard von Bingen. In 1998, St. Mike's hosted an international conference on the occasion of her 900th birthday. Britney Spears should be so lucky.

Tortolano, 75, is a diminutive man with intelligent eyes and a warm smile. He's also a delightful conversationalist, particularly if you're talking about music. He lives in Underhill with his wife Martha Kane, a professional singer. Their three children are all string players, and married to professional musicians. One plays with the United States Air Force Band, which regularly performs at White House functions. Another is in the Virginia Symphony and popular rock/classical crossover group the Trans Siberian Orchestra. The third teaches cello at the Toronto Conservatory of Music. "They're all so very good at what they do," Tortolano says, beaming.

Tortolano first heard chant when he was in college. "It was my undergraduate days," he recalls. "Someone invited me to a monastery, and when I heard it, I was mesmerized. It's been a part of my life ever since." Soon after accepting a teaching post at St. Michael's in 1960, he became involved in the chapel's singing service. "The priests in training had a religious house and that was their monastery, and I taught the chant there," he says.

Chant has had its place at the school even outside the cloister. "All the years I've been here, there has been a chorus group, and they always included it in their repertoire," Tortolano says. "They sang Mozart, show tunes, folk music, Bach . . . But they always performed chant. And this wasn't just because of religious tradition. It's because it's great music."

Chant has acquired many fans, but few have actually sung it. Tortolano believes that performing Gregorian chant is its own reward. "It's a wonderful experience," he enthuses. "It teaches you very good control of your breathing and diction. And, since it's so uniform, you learn how to blend individual sounds as one. It helps with posture, and even attitude. It's a very healthy kind of singing."

Without doubt, chant contains some of the most powerful melodies in musical history. Amazingly, little about the form has changed since Pope Gregory's time. "People ask if you can compose chant today, and the answer is yes," Tortolano says. "But very few people are. There are so many thousands of good melodies that we don't really need more. But you can do it. You'd just have to be really good at it."

Tortolano, who is fluent in Italian and French, published an earlier guide to chant, in 1988 -- his translation of Dom Eugene Cardine's Beginning Studies in Gregorian Chant. Cardine, who issued his version in 1975, was a Benedictine monk at the Abbey of St. Pierre de Solesmes in France. Tortolano's rewording was the first chant textbook to appear in English since 1965. "There had been nothing since [the papal reforms of] Vatican II," he notes.

His latest effort provides basic training along with examples of chants ranging from the simple to the complex. "My new book not only instructs you, but it also contains a good 60 pieces that a beginning choir or congregation can sing," Tortolano says. "It's a practical workbook."

Figuring out ancient square-note notation might be challenging without a competent guide, but Tortolano believes all you need is a little friendly direction. "It's not that difficult, actually," he says. "It has lines and spaces. It does have square notes, but notes can be round or square or diamond-shaped. We're just used to round ones. In the book," he continues, "I try to approach it very simply. I give examples of how each passage would look in modern notation. You just get used to it after a while."

One interesting aspect of Gregorian chant is its lack of time and key signatures. While the intervals remain constant, singers are free to start on any pitch that's comfortable to them. Of course, it helps if they all agree. "For beginners it might be easier to start on a suggested pitch," Tortolano admits. "But you can sing it in any key you want."

Freely rhythmic, chant notation contains markings to indicate the ebb and flow of the melody. "Because it doesn't have a strict meter, it reflects the pulse of the text," he explains. "One sound is not a rhythm, it's a noise. Two or three can be a rhythm. We conduct it like a wave going up and down," Tortolano says.

So how do singers and conductors know they've gotten it right? "We don't, exactly," he concedes. "We know from commentary in ancient books that tell us about how they sang it. We know from whatever vocal traditions continue over the centuries, although some may have been corrupted. From there, we follow our instinct for notation."

Despite his manual's scholarly import, Tortolano didn't write it as an academic exercise. "There was a demand for it," he says. "Otherwise teaching chant would involve using old instruction books, doing it by hand, and endlessly photocopying things." Apparently, there's a healthy market for such a work. "It's doing very well," Tortolano relates. "I'm not going to get rich from it, but it's moving."

The Vermont Gregorian Chant Schola features solely male voices, but there's no rule barring mixed-gender choruses. "If you're singing with a congregation, it's mixed," explains Tortolano. "There's a large group in Worcester, Massachusetts, that features men and women singing the chant. Those looking for the purely traditional sound know that it's better to have just men or just women's voices . . . Of course, if you're in a mona-stery, the choice is made."

An all-male ensemble just happens to be what Tortolano prefers, at least for now. "I love the women, and you can quote me on that," he jokes. "It's just at this moment, I'm interested in achieving this particular sound."

It's one that goes well with the holiday season. The up-coming concert at St. Mike's will be an old-fashioned display of devotional melody in keeping with the spirit of Christ-mas. "The choir will be vested, and they'll come in procession," Tortolano says. "There's a lot of beauty and drama. And in addition to the Gregorian chant, we'll also be singing some Christmas carols. We have an optional donation to the Edmundite Katrina Relief Fund," he adds. "It's going to be a nice concert."


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About The Author

Casey Rea

Casey Rea

Casey Rea was the Seven Days music editor from 2004 until 2007. He won the 2005 John D. Donoghue award for arts criticism from the Vermont Press Association.


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