It doesn't have much of a beat, the kids can't dance to it, and it's sung in a dead language, but Gregorian chant seems to be the hottest thing in sacred music right now.
Nearly 200 scholas -- choirs that sing plainsong -- have emerged around the country, many in the last five years, according to the Church Music Association of America. Sacred music seminars that once drew few people now lure musical directors, organists and singers who want to learn more about Gregorian chant, said CMA president William Mahrt.
Religious publishers are stocking and selling large collections of plainsong books and music. Paraclete Press, the Massachusetts publishing house of the Community of Jesus, a monastic, Christian community in the Benedictine tradition, sold 5,000 copies of its "Gregorian Melodies" CD in the first half of this year -- more than it did all of last year.
The style of chant is named for the sainted Pope Gregory I (circa A.D. 540–604) in what was probably an early exercise in brand marketing. Musicologists say the pope most likely didn't invent plainsong, but his name was used to help it spread from monastery to monastery in medieval Europe.
Written records of Gregorian chant date to the 10th century. Over the years, plainsongs' unadorned melodies, sung in Latin to an uneven meter, became somehow suggestive of high religiosity.
"It has an inner pulse like a heart beat, but it doesn't have a regular rhythm," said Jeffrey Tucker, managing editor of the magazine Sacred Music. "The effect is like musical incense. It's always sort of floating and rising."
Here are some CD selections for Christmas stockings or under the tree. CD gifts are also easy to mail.
Gregorian Melodies by the Monastic Choir of St. Peter's Abbey, Solesmes, (http://www.paracletepress.com, $15.26) is an answer to requests for the familiar Latin chants of years past. Taken from the 10th to the 17th centuries, the chants range from Tantum Ergo and Adoro te, to hymns from the service of Compline.
The Chants of Christmas by the Gloriae Dei Cantores Schola (also available from Paraclete Press, $15.26) depicts the sacred mystery of Christmas in the ancient melodies of Gregorian chant.
You'll find at least 25 recordings by Episcopal organists and choirs in the Gothic Catalog. Gothic offers recordings from Loft Recordings, Gothic Records, reZound, Quilisma, Organeum, Priory, Pro Organo and Clarion Records.
Here are a few, all available from Gothic:
Welcome All Wonders! Christmas at Washington National Cathedral, 15.98. Accompanied by the Washington Symphonic Brass, the Cathedral Choral Society presents a new program of Christmas works that benefit from the outstanding acoustics at the Washington National Cathedral. This CD has carols with instrumental accompaniment and solo works for carillon, brass and organ.
Fair with her Firstborn, The Tudor Choir, $15.98. With a choral sound distinctly English, the music on this recording spans many centuries, including 20th-century carols, Tudor polyphony and chant from medieval England's Sarum rite.
Annotated Compline, $15.98. Since its founding in 1954, the all-male choir at St. Mark's Cathedral, Seattle, has sung the medieval Office of Compline in the darkened cathedral on Sunday nights. This recording of a radio broadcast includes excerpts from the Compline Choir's CD, "Feathers of Green Gold," with an annotated version of the Compline service and an interview with music director Peter Hallock about the history of the service at St. Mark's.
Praise the Spirit: Sacred Music of David Ashley White, $15.98. From anthems to hymns, this recording by White and the choir of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston offers a variety of music and texts. The choir has long been associated with White's music and gives the program a polished performance in a reverberant setting.
Greater Love: The English Choral and Organ Tradition/ECU Chamber Singers, $15.98. The ECU Chamber Singers and organist Janette Fishell are conducted by Daniel Bara in classics of the English choral tradition. The recording was made in St. Paul's Episcopal
Church in Greenville, N.C., with its new Fisk organ.
Hymns through the Ages, $15.98. The choir of All Saints', Beverly Hills, provides a sampling of contemporary Anglican hymnody, from familiar tunes with old and new descants to a few first recordings, including a tune by Thomas Foster honoring organ builder C. B. Fisk.