It’s fascinating how parts of what we are grow out of seeds that were sowed in the distant past of our lives, left buried and forgotten for years and years then sprouting out and taking hold as if they had been there all along.
When I was a kid and went to Church I remember that I never liked the mass, even though I was supposed to because that was all part of the religion. I found it tiresome and irritating, not because I could not understand most of the words but because it sounded like such a bad piece of music. I remember that whenever the chanting stopped to read a piece from the Bible I felt relieved because that was plain speaking and far preferable.
During that time a group of Gregorian monks recorded and released a CD with chants from their abbey sessions. It was called “Chant” and it had one of those ridiculous covers that people made in the 90s, where they had just got their hands on the Photoshop thing and just cut and pasted stuff on top of each other. This one had a sky-with-clouds background and equal parts bricks and Gregorian monks floating in it.
I never got the CD – I had only seen the cover of it in the pages of the local TV guide magazine which as it happened, had a couple of pages dedicated to new music releases. I remember being drawn into it because of the mystery that surrounded it….I mean, it had monks in thick long robes with hoods, the kind of robes one could see on TV shows with knights and kinds and all that, which it to say proper robes. And the fact that these were chants from a distant and most importantly foreign past only made it even more alluring.
Around that time – maybe before and maybe after – I also happened to watch The Name Of The Rose on TV. I still don’t remember how that came about. But what I do remember is that It had left me in awe, not because of the acting or direction or any of the more usual aspects of a movie but because of its setting; it is a movie above all clad in darkness; and all the characters and all the buildings and all the action that connects them seem to live inside it, to begin and end inside its depths. I had never before seen such an otherworldly place. And as it happened this was a world with particular visual symbols; the robes of the monks and the gothic shapes of the abbey.
Nothing happened after these two random events; life plodded along, finishing school, finishing the army and going to university. It was there in the UK during a walk that I had the experience of actually being right next to a Gothic building, to touch its stones, to see its spires and pass through its arches. And when this happened I remembered the movie and I remembered that CD. And I went back to my room and downloaded some Gregorian chants. And when I played them for the first time I remember thinking that this really was music, and beautiful music at that. I had no idea that the human voice could sound so good on its own. Maybe I hadn’t even heard polyphonic music until that moment, apart from the chants in our churches. I remember thinking then, why couldn’t we have such chants in our churches? Why did we keep on listening to those awful chants of ours? When the Western Christians had this all these centuries?
And it was from that moment on that my fascination with the Middle Ages grew and grew. From my searches for Gregorian chants I learned about the history of the order; from going deeper into the history of the order I went deeper into the history of Europe at the time; from the history of Europe at the time I learned about Gothic architecture and then from there about the society the beliefs and customs of the era.
And if now I consider myself an amateur Medievalist I can all trace it back to a single CD and a single movie.
So now you know that too.