In our Church Music Colloquium led by Drs. Hawn and Anderson, we are preparing some Gregorian chant material to use in a chapel service during SMU's symposium on Olivier Messaien. Messaien was a 20th-century French composer, very influential in his ideas about music and a very devout man. (He is known for his interest – obsession? – in the notation of bird song... but more on that later) How are Gregorian chant and the work of a 20th-century ultramodern composer connected? You'll have to come to the symposium and find out.
It is so amazing to be learning these chants. We are singing them straight from neumes, which are little squiggly ligatures that suggest the melody rather than concretely notating it; this practice would later lead to the flagged notes we're familiar with today. They are meant to be sung in a free, speechlike manner so that they clearly represent the text. Sometimes it's hard to tell if you are supposed to sing a particular figure down-up-down or up-down-up (we sound really great when half of us choose one and half the other). The melodies are modal, and you can just smell the incense curling up towards the ceiling and hear the echo against stone cathedral walls.
In another class today I learned about early music manuscripts and the practice of making parchment and vellum for writing. The professor had a wry way of talking about Bessie the cow who "volunteered" to be a parchment. ("And if you wanted a big manuscript you needed a big cow. France. Big cows they had in France.") Vellum is parchment specifically made from calf skin, and since it was so labour-intensive and expensive it was exceedingly precious. For really special commissions – like for example, a small Book of Hours made as a gift to a king – the vellum would be made from the embryo of a calf, producing material that is almost transparent. Many manuscripts had illustrations which we're used to calling "illuminations", but I learned today that a manuscript is only technically illuminated if it has been laid with gold leaf (of course - what a perfect description).