Forgetting how to sing

Jun 20th, 2010 | By | Category: International

It was the first service of the day and it was in a little country church about five miles from the town.  It was Morning Prayer, a service that has all but disappeared in many places.  “What about the canticles?” I asked the organist.  Canticles are passages of Scripture sung to Anglican chant, a way of singing that is not easy and which is even rarer than Morning Prayer.

“We sing them”.

“Which ones?”

“The Venite and the Urbs Fortitudinis”.  (The canticles are sung in English, but their names are from the Latin versions of their opening words).

The church filled with sound as the Venite was sung, the congregation of twenty people singing words they had known since childhood days. In another generation, they will be forgotten.  The capacity for forgetting is great, we are even forgetting how to read; look at a tabloid newspaper from forty years ago and compare it with an edition of the same newspaper today. Sorting through papers in the basement, there were old newspapers from times when people took a pride in knowledge.

Digging out Des Ekin’s book The Stolen Village which tells of the raid on Baltimore, Co Cork in 1631 in which 107 people were taken away as slaves by the corsairs, it was amazing to read again how much can be forgotten.

Here’s Ekin’s description of a world very different from Western Europe in the 17th Century:

“Compared to European capitals, Algiers was a healthy city. Its cobbled streets were kept clean by an army of workers. In an era when Londoners emptied their bedpans into the street, Algiers had piped sewage and fresh running water – James Cathcart described this as ‘clear as crystal’.

Europeans ridiculed the citizens’ personal hygiene, with one Frenchman deriding the ‘foolish conceit’ of washing before meals.

Islamic medical science was far ahead of Europe, and had been for centuries. In Baghdad, a thousand years earlier, medical students had been taught the basics of modern anatomy, pharmacology and toxicology. From Cairo to Cordoba, doctors had diagnosed diseases as complex as meningitis.

Sophisticated anaesthetics had turned surgery into an art. Abulcasis, who died in 1013, described more than two hundred fine surgical instruments that could remove kidney stones, strip varicose veins, and excise cancer tumours. Islamic surgeons could even extract eye cataracts by suction through a hollow metallic needle.

While Europeans were tackling the Black Death through self-flagellation, physicians like Ibn Khatima had discovered that minuscule organisms could invade the body and cause disease.

And long before Jenner ‘discovered’ vaccination, Turkish women, were routinely using small doses of cowpox to protect their faces against smallpox.

A diet rich in vegetables also helped to promote health. The climate was kind and the fields produced prolific yields. According to the Spanish monk Haedo, Algiers had an ‘infinite number of gardens and vineyards filled with lemon, orange and lime trees [and] flowers of every kind.’

Even the weather was pleasant by North African standards. ‘The climate in this country is remarkably delightful,’ John Foss wrote. ‘The air is pure and serene’.

All these factors had a measurable effect on quality of life and longevity. Even then, Algerines were described as healthier and longer-lived than Europeans . . .

The Algerine slave trade left another type of legacy: the opening of Northern Europe to Islamic influences. Returning captives . . . must have brought back tales of an equal-opportunity society in which wealth and status was determined by ability rather than by accident of birth. These were dangerous ideas. For instance, Islamist ideals of equality may have indirectly influenced the creators of the American Declaration of Independence.

Eastern learning shook western science to its foundations. European scholars pored through Islamic writings, gaining insights into chemistry, mathematics, astronomy and medicine. Again, this was dangerous knowledge. The English academic Dr Henry Stubbe (1632-1676), who openly admitted his debt to Islamic teachings, had his work suppressed and was jailed for heresy.”

It’s not just the singing of canticles that is being forgotten as our civilisation drifts backwards.

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  1. Civilisation going backwards, inequality growing as part of deliberate government policy in many countries especially in Ireland and the UK – and few challenges to this approach. The churches are generally silent on the causes and effects of the economic crisis apart from honourable exceptions like Fr. Peter McVerry. Of course, the Anglican church has more important issues to worry about – after all who cares about increasing poverty, injustice and inequality when issues of human sexuality need to be discussed. I wonder why the phrase “deckchairs on the Titanic” comes to my mind.

  2. Regressive taxation that places an unequal burden upon poor people – a definite slip backwards!

  3. I love singing canticles, but I was taught how to do it at an early age (and then drilled every week when I was in the choir at Lincoln College by organ scholars who had learned their stuff in cathedral choirs). I do prefer using the 1662 texts, though; the newer translations feel clumsy, though this is purely because of the ghost of the familiar rhythms from the older texts bumping along underneath them, not because of inherent ugliness. I prefer chanting or saying canticles to using substitute hymns, which go on longer and tend to have to insert filler words and lines to make up the verses (the same goes for the gloria).

    However, chant done badly can be very, very awful. You have to take it at a lick and sing in speech-rhythm as far as possible, nimbly and lightly. It’s hard.

  4. Oh dear! I must have made you cringe on many occasions.

    The canticles on Sunday were briskly and loudly sung.

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