For the past half-century, as technology has advanced and daily life has become inundated with instant and constant information, one group of Palo Altans has made it a priority to study and sing ancient music.
Palo Alto's St. Ann Choir, formed in 1963 and renowned for polyphonic music and also Gregorian chant that predates the eighth and ninth centuries, has been singing every week for five decades. It will celebrate this milestone on Sunday, Oct. 6, with a performance of Renaissance composer William Byrd's "Mass for Four Voices" at the noon Mass at St. Thomas Aquinas Church, 751 Waverley St.
Sung in Latin and a cappella, Gregorian chant and polyphony comprise the traditional music of the Roman Catholic Church. For centuries, Gregorian chant was the only music in Catholic worship, with specific chants corresponding to different parts of the Catholic liturgy.
Over time, however, the Catholic church distanced itself from including Gregorian chant in its services, adopting the use of the vernacular in the early 1960s.
But St. Ann's Choir held fast to the tradition. For many years, it was one of a minority of choirs that chanted as part of Mass, according to its members.
The choir has played a role in the spiritual lives not only of church attendees but also of the singers.
"Music is transcendent to me," choir member Susan Weisberg said. "I am both participant and receiver. It's a fine line to walk; you want to serve others but are also serving yourself."
Several current choir members are founding members and many have been participating for more than two decades. Lynne Toribara joined the St. Ann Choir in 1971 after the beauty of the music mesmerized her, she said.
"It is an oasis, an island of calm in an otherwise hectic life," said Toribara, who also noted the juxtaposition of Gregorian chant, an ancient tradition, and modern life in Silicon Valley. "I find it easy to relax and meditate."
The longstanding personal relationships formed between choir members facilitate their singing of complex historical music. There are 25 members, and most Sundays about 15 sing as part of a service. Choir members attend two rehearsals each week, totaling three hours per week in addition to preparing individually as needed.
When the St. Ann Choir formed, it was one of a few, if not the only, choirs on the West Coast singing Gregorian chant, said William Mahrt, associate professor and director of Early Music Singers with Stanford University's Center for Medieval and Early Modern Studies. He has led the St. Ann Choir since 1964, its second year of existence. Mahrt said he first heard Gregorian chant at worship services he attended in his childhood.
"It was like turning on the color in color television," he recalled.
Today, the choir sings classical Renaissance pieces as well as Gregorian chant. Every year during the week preceding Easter, the St. Ann Choir sings eight services in eight days to commemorate Holy Week. The choir has also sung at special events for Catholic bishops, cardinals and archbishops throughout the country.
But Gregorian chant is not just for Catholics. Toribara is not Catholic, and Weisberg is Jewish.
"Singing and chanting prayers is important in all religions," Weisberg said. "They are beautiful and very moving. Our hope is that our music keeps people in a contemplative place, to enhance their prayers and nourish them spiritually."
Gregorian chant in Catholic worship services is currently undergoing a revival, with other groups adapting the chants by using English, Mahrt said. But, he said, the St. Ann Choir remains committed to preserving the traditional music by singing Gregorian chants in Latin for many more years to come.
Listen to the St. Ann Choir on the choir's website.