Gregorian chanting in the comfort of your own home
Updated: Dec 8, 2020
Review: Singing Together; Apart: Gregorian Chant Workshop
Bodleian Libraries Event, Friday 4 December 5.30pm – 6.30pm
Live, via Zoom.
Gregorian chanting is a form of unaccompanied religious song, sung by monks and nuns, that has medieval origins. On Friday, Oxford University’s Bodleian Libraries presented a beginners live Zoom class in singing a Gregorian chant. Never having done any Gregorian chanting before, I was extremely skeptical as to whether someone like me, with enthusiam but no expertise, would really be able to do it via a Zoom call and if so, would it be any fun?
The Bodleian had already emailed the sheet music, beautifully transcribed from the stunning original 15th century German manuscript, which you can see here.
We joined the call and found the presenters in three very different locations. First, someone called Andrew, showed us, up close, the original 15th century manuscript of the music we would be singing together. Andrew was based in the Weston Library – part of the Bodleian – in the heart of Oxford. The second location was in the crypt of St Edmunds Hall, an Oxford College, with Professor Henrike Lähnemann dressed in black choral robes along with a reduced choir. The crypt, dimly lit, with the requisite flickering shadows was as about as atmospheric as it gets. The final presenter was Nick Swarbrick, an expert in Gregorian chanting, coming to us from what looked like his study.
I’d assumed that this event would be attended only by experts and hard core enthusiasts in Oxford. From the lovely chat function on Zoom, however, it was thrilling to see around 130 attendees from all over the world introducing themselves, many from the United States.
The event started with Professor Lähnemann talking about the manuscript while Andrew showed it to us up close. It was fascinating to hear the professor talk about how the manuscript was an instruction manual, written by the nuns, for the priest presiding over the service. She was able to point out and explain tiny features in the manuscript, which were able to see courtesy of Andrew. Her anecdote about singing Gregorian chants in a church with a 7 second echo, was magical. Nick Swarbrick also contributed anecdotes and shared his incredible infectious enthusiasm.
Both presenters clearly love Gregorian chanting.
The actual singing was surprisingly easy and natural. The Professor took us through a short section from the music of The Song of Simeon – structured like a verse/chorus. The Zoom audience sang the "chorus" and the professor and her choir sang the "verses". After a couple of repetitions, we found we were able to sing along the whole way through.
It was fun!
Singing Gregorian chanting on a Friday night, after an exhausting week, without inhibitions (our microphones were muted), in the comfort of our own home was such a positive way to start the weekend.
I have watched quite a few online events during lockdown, especially theatre, and often they have left me a little bit sad – it reminds me what I’ve lost. But this event could not have happened in this intimate and relaxed way in real life, so it was nothing but gain.
My hope is that once things return to normal, the Bodleian Libraries keep putting on these types of live Zoom events. This would be something lovely to come from our social isolation.
If you’d like to know about the events put on by the Bodleian Libraries, then check here from time to time.
The Bodleian Libraries.