Monday, May 01, 2006

Chant interpretation

In my upcoming job, there is an expectation that Gregorian chant will be used often during the mass (Thank God!). As exciting as it is to be in a place where this is already established and I don't have to ruffle feathers by introducing chant here and there, I must say it has brought the question of interpretation to my attention.

Now I'm no chant scholar by any means but I've been a part of a couple of schola's that have sung chant often, so I am quite familiar with the basics and the "usual" method of chant interpretation. But I'm also aware that there are disagreements in the scholarly community about historical performance practice pertaining to this genre of music, though I'm not well-read on the subject.

One experience I can bring to the conversation though is a service I was a part of with an ensemble in which I currently participate. In was an Advent service in a local monastery with a group of monks who alternated chant with our choral selections. Lovely service to say the least. Anyways, I must say I was taken aback by one of the monks who sang some solo chant. He sang a few pieces in which he took the written line and improvised upon it with a style reminiscent of a heavily ornamented chorale prelude of Bach. Lots and lots of extra notes in a very rapid manner; the opposite of what you expect chant to be.

I wish you were all here in my study so I could vocal-model a bit of it for you, but I will just say that I was completely turned off by it. The armchair musicologist in me found it intriguing for historical reasons, but for spiritual ones, I found it lacking.

Maybe it would grow on me in time, though I doubt it. I must say that I like my chant like I like my beer: smooth, with a nice aftertaste. Give me that meditative, no vibrato, Solesmes-sound any day of the week over Joe Scholar's latest historical interpretation.

Now don't think I'm opposed to the historically-informed performance practice movement. I love my Bach recordings by Gardiner and Parrott among others. I love the sound of those period instruments, the brisk tempos, the clean sound from the choir, etc. But I think it's important to know your audience; people in the pews in Sunday are uninterested in matters such as these when it comes to music. They want to be inspired by the chant and have their hearts "lifted up." I don't feel that the previous example I brought up does the job that is required of the music.

So to conclude, unless I am convinced otherwise, I think it's safe to say that I'll stick pretty closely to the traditional interpretation of the Ordinaries and the Propers with my future choir. In other words, don't expect me to drop some coin for a copy of the Graduale Triplex anytime soon.


At Monday, May 01, 2006 3:36:00 PM, Anonymous brandon field said...


I heard through the grapevine where your new job is, and let me say that I'm excited for you.

At Monday, May 01, 2006 4:44:00 PM, Blogger PrayingTwice said...


Thanks for the kind words. I assure you I am very excited as well.

BTW, wouldn't "Praying2ce" come out as "Prayingtoose" :)

At Monday, May 01, 2006 5:03:00 PM, Anonymous moconnor said...

You said:

"But I think it's important to know your audience; people in the pews in Sunday are uninterested in matters such as these when it comes to music. They want to be inspired by the chant and have their hearts "lifted up." "

While I agree that ornamented plainchant is heading back down the wrong road, your reason for not liking it is eerily similar to the reasons that so many folks like Haugen/Haas. "It's uplifting music". They will say that chant is dreary and always seems to be in a melancholy mood. Just thought I would mention it.

Good luck with your new job! My new job will have a chant component as well, but I have to start a schola from scratch.


At Monday, May 01, 2006 6:32:00 PM, Anonymous Klaus der Große said...


The Triplex probably wasn't the foundation for the ornamented performance you heard; in fact, your description sounds like one of the more out-there historical recreations, with less hard evidence to back it up. The numbers of notes indicated in the Triplex and the Vatican Edition are pretty much the same; the only differences are in groupings of notes and rhythmic nuance. I use the Triplex with my schola, and the only difference you'll hear between our performances and those of Solesmes fifty years ago are rhythmic nuances. We get no complaints from the pews, or at least we haven't thus far. :)

Personally, I like Cardine's system; it often makes sense out of what might otherwise be a formless melisma (I have in mind one particular one in the Iustus ut palma-type graduals that always felt a little odd in the square notes but makes sense in the ancient notation as ornamentation of a particular pitch), but does not yield the kind of histrionics you are quite rightly objecting to.

At Monday, May 01, 2006 6:58:00 PM, Blogger Cantor said...

moconnor: Any resources for finding a church music position where at least the pastoral staff is amenable to traditional music? (I’m thinking the NPM list is not going to yield much.)

At Monday, May 01, 2006 10:52:00 PM, Blogger PrayingTwice said...


Not the best choice of words, especially since I am actually interested in having a Triplex on my shelf for nerdy reasons.

The poing I was trying to make is I don't foresee myself making a huge fuss over miniscule details just for the sake of "well, this is how the 12th-century monks in Rome did it."

At Monday, May 01, 2006 11:33:00 PM, Anonymous Klaus der Große said...


Point well understood, and I mostly agree with you as to the minutiae of historical reconstruction. I'm just standing up for my homeboy Dom Cardine. ;)

At Tuesday, May 02, 2006 12:57:00 AM, Anonymous ScholarChanter said...

Wow, such a scholarly discussion in here. I was taught by my voice teacher that the notes of a chant are grouped in groups of 2 or 3 notes in terms of phrasing. Hopefully such groupings are notated in whatever edition you use.

Aside: Eastern rite liturgical chants (Byzantine, especially) contain some amount of ornamentation.

At Tuesday, May 02, 2006 1:54:00 AM, Anonymous Klaus der Große said...


It depends on which system you're following. The two- and three-groupings are one of several levels of interpretive cues in Dom Mocquereau's system, which relies on the square notes alone. If you're following the 9th/10th-Century notation as laid down in the Graduale Triplex, you have occasional four- and five-note groupings. You may also have motifs which are grouped one way in the square notes and another in the ancient notation. For instance, a torculus + clivis (3 + 2) in the square notes, where the final note of the torculus and the first note of the clivis are the same, is occasionally a pes + pressus major (2 + 3, with a rhythmic nuance in the 3-group) in the ancient notation.

Mmm...Byzantine chant. Next on my list of things to learn about.

At Wednesday, May 03, 2006 2:48:00 PM, Anonymous moconnor said...

Finding a position where they don't ask how well you play guitar can still be a challenge, but I have found that most places will welcome a trained musician to lead the music. You do have to take the temperature of the place by asking some questions, though. If the parish is big, there is bound to be some room for one of the masses to be a bit more traditional. Once people start coming to that mass in numbers, then you transform one of the others. I never really had much opposition (thankfully). My main issues related to how much I let the younger folks do at mass. My philosophy is that adults leave the church when they realize that it's ALL ABOUT THE KIDS. Why be part of something that you doesn't offer more as you mature?



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