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Singing with Two Lungs

· Safeguarding the musical traditions of eastern Christianity ·

If the Church, as Saint John Paul II wrote in Ut Unum Sint, “must breathe with her two lungs” (54), she certainly must also learn to sing with both. A recent congress in Rome dedicated to “Safeguarding the Musical Traditions of Eastern Christianity” focused on ways to keep the Eastern lung strong and healthy in the years to come.

The congress, the first of its kind to be held at the University of Notre Dame’s Rome Global Gateway located near the Coliseum, brought together scholars and musicians from a dozen countries from May 24th to 26th to discuss the musical traditions of twenty-five Eastern Christian communities. Learning these musical traditions requires highly specialized linguistic and lexicographical training rarely found among young people today due to complex cultural and political factors that threaten the survival of these traditions. But, as the congress demonstrated with live performances by the Nazrani Choir (Syro-Malabar), the Mgaloblebi Choir (Georgian Orthodox), and the Coro dei Papadhes di Piana degli Albanesi (Italo-Albanian Greek), a new generation of musicians has been inspired to study these sacred musical traditions simply by being exposed to their celestial beauty.

The congress, which was co-sponsored by the Pontifical Oriental Institute, also featured an introduction to the fundamental principles of Byzantine Chant by the Axion Estin Foundation of New York. Speakers included Kay Kaufman Shelemay, Nicola Tangari, Peter Jeffery, Joseph Palackal, among others, all of whom proposed concrete ways to preserve the specific strands of Eastern sacred music. The International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property and the Pontifical Council of Culture were both represented at the congress. Scholars and institutions together confronted the challenge of preserving chant as members of Eastern Christian communities spread across the globe in a new era of diaspora.

The UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, signed in 2003 to safeguard various cultural heritages against the “grave threats of deterioration, disappearance and destruction,” served as a springboard for discussion on how to implement the training needed to ensure that these valuable traditions survive. Local Christian communities were encouraged to use this document as a framework for organizing their own efforts to protect and hand on their respective musical heritages to younger generations.

Preserving the musical treasures of Eastern Christianity was indeed the practical aim of the congress, which stressed how music plays an indispensible role in building and shaping communities. The sweeping tide of modern technology, popular culture, and political persecution place these traditions in serious jeopardy, diminishing interest among young people and depleting the professional and educational resources needed to hand these traditions on.

The congress included the participation of forty professors and students from the University of Notre Dame’s Program in Sacred Music, and also served as an opportunity for students of this bourgeoning graduate program to experience the cultural richness of Europe and to share their own talents. The choir performed a concert of Renaissance Spanish polyphony at Rome’s national Spanish church, Santa Maria in Monserrato and assisted at the Papal Mass celebrated at Saint Peter’s Basilica on the Feast of Pentecost. World-class organist Craig Cramer of Notre Dame and his students played historic instruments at Santa Barbara dei Librai and Chiesa Nuova during their time in the Eternal City.

The trip also forged bonds of cooperation between the University of Notre Dame and the Pontifical Institute for Sacred Music. Peter Jeffery, organizer of the congress and a scholar of both Western and Eastern chant at Notre Dame, and Margot Fassler, director of the university’s Program in Sacred Music and herself a specialist in sacred music of multiple periods, are confident that the relationship will benefit both institutions and promote greater awareness of the traditions of chant and polyphony in both East and West and their importance in the Church’s liturgical life. Maestro Walter Marzilli and Professor Karl Prassl of the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music, participants in the congress, also agree that both institutions have a crucial role in serving the musical needs of the Catholic Church worldwide.

“Speaking of the Churches of the East,” Saint John Paul continues in the same encyclical letter, “the [Second Vatican] Council acknowledged their great liturgical and spiritual tradition, the specific nature of their historical development, the disciplines coming from the earliest times … and their own particular way of expressing their teaching. The Council made this acknowledgment in the conviction that legitimate diversity is in no way opposed to the Church's unity, but rather enhances her splendor and contributes greatly to the fulfillment of her mission” (50). Participants in this congress dedicated to Eastern chant came away with the firm conviction that sacred music – sung with both lungs – is a powerful means of revealing God’s splendor and spreading His Gospel.

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July 17, 2019

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