Gregorian chant is old school for Luke Togni

By  Elizabeth Steele, Youth Speak News
  • January 15, 2010
{mosimage}HALIFAX - Luke Togni is old school — very old school. Or old schola, if you prefer.

Togni, 22, is passionate about Gregorian chant and refers to himself as “second in command” in a Halifax-based chant group, or schola. Directed by Robert Bruce and together for the past two years, the schola sings monthly at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Halifax, and less frequently at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Halifax.

Togni is the youngest member of the schola. Though he seems to live and breathe chant, he has eclectic taste in music. His personal choices range from 20th-century orchestral music to Russian and Greek Orthodox sacred music, jazz and classic rock. Togni grew up listening to chant, as both his father and grandfather studied it during his childhood. He began singing it with his father’s choir when he was 13, but says that age has increased his appreciation for this ancient form of music.

Chants developed out of the Jewish tradition of psalm-singing, so they can be considered a continuation of the music that Jesus would have heard.

Togni, currently working on a Masters degree in Classics at Halifax’s Dalhousie University, certainly has an appreciation for antiquity. But it’s not the mere age of chant that draws Togni to it. Most chant, particularly the older pieces, is Scripture set to music. Togni explains that chant enjoys far greater musical freedom than most contemporary music, which results in a much closer representation of the words. Chant, he insists, is “prayer speaking in its own voice... If you could rip a page out of the Bible and play it on a record player you would probably hear chant.”

Togni’s chief endorsement of chant stems from its “sobriety.” While he is clear that chant brings him joy, he contrasts it heavily with more contemporary music, music he feels is designed to manufacture emotions within people. Chant, conversely, seeks to illuminate people and their natural emotions. It is music directed to God, not ourselves, so it aims for truth as well as beauty. As director Bruce notes, “Chant is worth doing because of its deep spirituality, its capacity to orient our hearts and minds toward God.”

Togni is a proficient reader of Latin, in which chant is typically sung, but he doesn’t see the language barrier as an issue for anyone. Chant, he says, is less about the exact translation of individual words and more about the overall meaning, which is expressed by the music itself.

While Bruce admits that “the strangeness of the chant, the unfamiliar musical idiom and language, can appear to be a barrier,” he says that “This strangeness can provoke our curiosity and prompt us to attempt to understand it.” Similarly, Togni insists that the unique nature of chant can sound wrong to our ears, but that this “takes us out of the frame of the modern world and draws us to the sacred.”

Though Togni and Bruce both enjoy chant, they also see their involvement with the schola as an act of service. As Bruce puts it, “To have received the great gift of this living tradition... makes us want to share it with others — to me that is what the schola is all about.” Adds Togni, who hopes to continue chant and conduct it, “I want to bring chant to others so God can be well adored.”

(Steele, 20, is a third-year sociology student at Dalhousie University in Halifax.)

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