In the textbook we use at MIT to teach Introduction to Western
Music (21M.011), there are several "Beyond Europe" pockets, intended
to broaden the students' horizons, and also to give those from other
cultures some useful reference points for understanding the new
material. The first of these pockets, keyed to the discussion of
Medieval chant, concerns sacred chant in Islam. Part of the discussion
reads as follows:
"The repertory of Gregorian chants developed in the Christian
Church of the Middle Ages ... is only one of many traditions of
monophonic religious chant... Another highly elaborate tradition
of chant is from Islam, practiced today by about a fifth of the
world's population, and the dominant religion in some fifty nations.
Across all of Islam, the revelations of the prophet Muhammad gathered
in the Qur'an (or Koran) are chanted or sung in Arabic. Muhammad
himself is said to have enjoyed this melodic recitation...
"Qur'anic recitation ... aims, above all else, to convey the Qur'anic
text in a clearly comprehensible manner. Unlike plain chant, it
has been passed along in oral tradition down to the present day.
It has resisted the written notation that came to be a part of the
Gregorian tradition already in the Middle Ages. To this day, great
Islamic chanters sing the whole Qur'an from memory. (Source: Listen,
Brief Fourth Edition, by Joseph Kerman and Gary Tomlinson, Bedford/St.
Martin's, 2000,p. 60.)
Listening to such music reveals to us the central position of
music in all the world's great religions, for purposes of worship
and of elevation of sacred texts to more than mere words - chanting
the texts within a sacred place of worship, with a crowd of worshippers
listening and contemplating their meaning, invests the words with
transformative spiritual power, and helps to remove both the listener
from the everyday. The remarkable thing is that such chants have
always been central to worship in the rites of Judaism, Christianity,
and Islam. The music transcends the language barriers that divide
these religions - barriers that make us forget how very similar
are the sacred texts and moral codes that underlie each of the three
In the religiously diverse culture of the United States, whose
early colonists and founders were mainly Protestants, chants were
not a key musical practice, but hymns certainly were, and they remain
crucial to our cultural identity, as can be heard in such songs
as "America" and above all, "God Bless America." The latter has
been sung so often over the last few days, it is important to keep
in what it means to many of the older generation of Americans who
are singing it: for them it was the anthem during the years of World
War II. It had been composed by Irving Berlin originally for use
in a wartime review during World War I, but he withheld it at that
time and reworked it in 1938. He then had the good fortune to give
it to the wonderful contralto Kate Smith to sing it publicly for
the first time during a CBS radio broadcast on Armistice Day, November
11, 1938. Quickly the song became enormously popular across the
nation, despite almost no "plugging" or promotional acitivity on
Berlin's part. This was an example of the power of radio broadcasting
to bring a song to the public's attention - and of the power of
one man to tap into the "national psyche" at a time of deep uncertainty.
Keep in mind that at the time Berlin thought of "God Bless America"
as a "peace song," not as a wartime anthem; and 63 years later we
can still feel a bond when we hear and sing it, and be particularly
moved by the line "through the night with the light from above."
But the light is that of peace, not war, and of a longing for continued
blessing and tranquility, not for vengeance. I hope that as people
continue to sing this anthem in the days to come, they will keep
in mind what the spirit of the words and music really mean.
(For more about the song, see Lawrence Bergreen, As Thousands
Cheer: The Life of Irving Berlin, 1990 -especially pp. 368-70,
upon which I have drawn for some of the factual details above.)
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