Wednesday, August 16, 2006

New chant

One of our readers pointed me to a comment he had made here supporting the idea of composers writing new "Gregorian" chant for the liturgy. Cantor supports the idea as well if I understood him correctly in one of his previous posts (here). I must admit a bit of ambivalence myself for a couple of reasons:

1) There is the implicit assumption that something is lacking in the melodies that we have been given.

2) If there is one thing I learned by spending a week with the renowned Fr. Samuel Weber, it's that I know nothing about the sacred chant even though I thought I did. It seems to me that the only people we would want composing these new melodies are someone like Fr. Weber, who has studied this music his whole life and knows the true spirit of the chant. Yet when someone has reached that point, I would venture to say that they would be dead-set against composing new chant melodies in the sacred latin text. Once you've discovered the genius of the Gregorian repertoire, why would you want to compete with it? It would be like a famous expert on Beethoven announcing that he's ready to re-compose the 5th Symphony.

Heck, if our choirs and congregation are resistant to chant that has survived the test of time, why in the blazes do we think they'll be open to learning chant that hasn't?

If I can be convinced otherwise, I'm open to other opinions . . .


At Wednesday, August 16, 2006 10:53:00 AM, Anonymous Pes said...

Hi PT, it's Pes. Thanks for the comment and the great questions. To respond:

1. I don't mean to imply there's something lacking in melodies we have. I simply think the repertory can grow in size.

2. Competition with the Gregorian repertory isn't the motive. My question is simply whether it's possible to extend the repertory organically.

3. In your view, does the Gregorian repertory represent a final state of perfection? It is glorious, and some can live with it their entire lives and never exhaust its capacity to enrich and inform. But does that mean no one can ever write chants in that style, that the repertory is closed forever?

4. There's another option, which is composing non-Gregorian chant. One of the "Salve Reginas" (the one that starts 13565) is a good example of "Neo-Gallican" chant, one that was composed later. Personally, I find the melody charming and bright and a little insipid, but it has found a place. If we hew to a higher Gregorian standard (now that we have a better grasp of what that standard really is), can't we also contribute something of value?

5. Limiting composition to someone like Fr. Weber seems unnecessary if someone like Fr. Weber were on the panel of judges.

6. I'm not proposing anyone "re-compose the 5th symphony." This frames the idea incorrectly. Beethoven was putting his original stamp on the musical world: the Gregorian composers were Anonymous and had, from what I've read, no pretensions to individual fame.

7. As to choirs and congregations being open to new chant, I should think they'd be more open to new chant than "that old depressing stuff." Granted, this is ignorant prejudice, but a new chant, in this day and age, could really strike people as a better option than sacro-pop. And that would open the door to the entire Gregorian world.

8. What would a "neo-chant" look like? This is a really interesting question. To what precise extent should it be limited to Gregorian practice? That is, should it allow new modes? Modal mixture? Should it permit new interval colors, such as augmented seconds?

Personally, I'm thinking it could preserve the architectural features of Gregorian chant but be more open to different colors, even rhythms. It should have a family resemblance to Gregorian chant, sound like it's a natural part of the repertoire, but also permit some new sounds and effects.

In short, is there no space for growth in monophony?

At Wednesday, August 16, 2006 5:30:00 PM, Anonymous moconnor said...

I agree completely. New chant should not compete with Gregorian chant. The need for new chants is to me more practical. Gregorian chant can be bloody difficult to learn. My goal would be to rid the liturgy of sacro-pop and put in its place a more congregational-friendly chant. Something that has the flavor of our own age (w/o being trite pop) but is pretty easily picked up by congregations. Perhaps a Graduale simplex that relies on a set number of patterns for the Propers melodies that folks could quickly grasp. Gregorian melodies would then be reserved for special occasions (as they are now and most likely will be for some time). Of course this would all be for the Novus ordo, not the Tridentine Rite.


At Wednesday, August 16, 2006 11:13:00 PM, Blogger Cantor said...

1) The Gregorian repertoire is limited to certain texts. It is impossible to update them, for example, to use the Nova Vulgata. (Interesting to read the history of the Easter Introit - basically it’s based on a really sketchy Latin translation of the psalm.) This also means new feast days cannot have new texts written for them - see the thread on TNLM a bit back about the Transfiguration introit.

2) Liturgical tradition is based on unchanging texts and music that is freely adapted to different situations. We must bear in mind that the “Qui habitat” tract, for example, was written for a well-trained singer or group of them.

3) Fr. Weber is (apparently/presumably) an expert in *Gregorian* chant. Other schools of chant have existed, such as the Old Roman chant (which actually postdates the Gallican chant that is the backbone of the Gregorian repertoire that has come down to us).

4) If we are going to have vernacular readings, in a sense it does make sense to have vernacular Propers.

I don’t think the *notes* of the Gregorian repertoire are that important. A congregation won’t suffer a spiritual loss from the Anglican Use Gradual’s adapting Gregorian melodies to the Coverdale psalter.

At Saturday, August 19, 2006 1:21:00 PM, Blogger Todd said...

Plainsong was alive when people were composing and adapting melodies. One might say that when serious musicians turned to polyphony and later styles of music, early music became something of a backwater. I say that as a person who loves early music, so the criticism isn't directed at the music, but perhaps musical practitioners.

People are inspired to compose sacred music in all styles. That's a given. People have always wanted to introduce new music into church:" composers themselves or fans. That's a given, too.

Considering that there's a lot of untouched sacramental territory in the rites, I would say there's a need for new music for these new texts. If people don't compose it in plainsong, then it will be composed in other styles and used.

Maybe it's an evolutionary thing: use it or lose it.

At Tuesday, August 22, 2006 9:40:00 AM, Anonymous Pes said...

"a lot of untouched sacramental territory in the rites"

Can you give some examples, Todd? The only one I can think of in the NOM is the "Prayer of the Faithful," and that is easily adapted to a psalm tone.

"One might say that when serious musicians turned to polyphony and later styles of music, early music became something of a backwater."

Yes, I've read that's true to a point. Of course, many great composers came up through choirs singing chant, and many of their polyphonic Masses use or adapt chants as basic material. The cessation of writing neumatic chants probably had to do with aesthetics more than anything else. There was a so-called "reform" of the repertory in the late 16th century which regarded things like the podatus and long melismas as overly decorative Gothic barbarities. Pope Gregory XIII was convinced of this for example, and his kind of sensibility ultimately led to the Medicean Graduale in 1612.

So arguably it was this prideful Renaissance aggiornamento that drove chant into a backwater by deforming it and obscuring its original nature. We should be glad that the Medicean Gradual had limited circulation within and outside Italy, but it did resurface later in 1848 as the Mechlin Gradual which Pius IX unfortunately declared official.

Thankfully, scholars were able to demonstrate the sheer scale of its corruption, so the stage was set for Dom Guéranger to come along and enact a serious restoration.


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