Monday, July 02, 2007

Chant Interpretation

This is an issue that has intrigued me, especially in the past year since I started my current job. Solesmes seems to be the preferred method, though the Triplex notation promoted by Dom Cardine (a Solesmes monk of a more recent "school") seems to be at odds rhythmically with the older approach, if I understand correctly.

I've heard numerous interpretations on various recordings, though I haven't done much research into it. What I find funny is the reality that no one really knows (or can know) the "authentic" interpretation of Gregorian chant, yet chant folk seem to get their panties in a bunch when their pet method is challenged.

I had the experience of working with a colleague this past weekend who was asked to conduct a choir in question. He was handed three items of chant to whip into shape in less than 24 hours before we had to record them. He had a tough crowd, as at least 5 members of the choir conduct or had conducted a Schola in the past. I also think it's fair to say that he interpreted the chants differently than the rest of us would have.

My main criteria for chant interpretation (not being a scholar myself) is that it is prayerful. Clearly, I think most of our readers would agree that chant is suited to the liturgy and therefore plays an important role in our liturgical worship. That being the case, I think it has to be a source of prayer for those gathered. Therefore, if the desired effect is brought about by excluding the men, or adding an organ accompaniment, or breathing/not breathing at a quarter bar, so be it. I know some of these things can get under the skin of purists, but that's the way I do it, for good or for ill.

On the other hand, I do feel that it's necessary to have at least a semblance of uniformity throughout the liturgical world when it comes to interpreting the chant. Learning chant has many stumbling blocks for the average Joe: unfamiliar notation, "dead" language, scorn from certain liturgical factions, etc. The last thing we need to do is throw 50 different systems of interpretation at him. Jeffrey made the point in an older post that the Triplex rhythmic interpretations, as intriguing as they are, are just not very practical.* I think it would be a good idea to encourage the "old school" Solesmes method to budding chanters and leave the other interpretations to the specialists and scholars.

Klaus, I'm sure you'll have a differing opinion. : )

* I am actually very intrigued by the Cardine approach and would like to learn more about it. (I'm currently slogging through his "Gregorian Semiology) It's just not a very good entry point for beginners.


At Tuesday, July 03, 2007 6:53:00 AM, Anonymous Cantor said...

Yo PT,

How did the colleague in question’s interpretation differ from how “the rest of you” would have interpreted them?

At Tuesday, July 03, 2007 8:13:00 AM, Blogger Jeffrey Tucker said...

Of course I completely agree. The problem is that for decades now, the practice of chant in liturgy has languished, so academic issues--tentative, fickle, speculative issues--rushed in to fill the void. But now that chant is coming back, so too is the old school of chant practice, and the practice of chant in parishes absolutely requires some sense of the rhythmic pulse as a means of bringing about a uniform sound. The key is to have the pulse in operation always, and reach some agreement on the handling of the episema and the salicus. There is really no need for an unending controversy about this, unless one is working on a dissertation or something.

I was going to close this comment, but let me finally mention the perpetual problem of semiological approaches: the result rarely sounds good when it is attempted more than a two or three singers.

At Tuesday, July 03, 2007 12:40:00 PM, Blogger HilbertAstronaut said...

I think the Solesmes method has an extensive body of public-domain pedagogy associated with it, which is definitely helpful for starters. The CMAA people have scanned a lot of this stuff and posted it on their website. But ultimately, the only criteria are that it's prayerful and "sounds good" :-)

I'm listening to Ensemble Organum singing from the Codex Calixtinus as I write -- their approach is (deliberately) radically different from Solesmes, and it sounds equally convincing and prayerful, even though those guys aren't the best singers cutting recordings out there. Marcel Peres runs Santiago de Compostela retreats in which he trains enthusiastic amateurs to sing Vespers from the Codex Calixtinus -- he seems to get good results, from what I've heard of the amateur choir's recordings. Then again, these are people enthusiastic enough to sign up to take a couple weeks off and travel to France and Spain for rehearsals ;-P

Anyway, the point is, there are a lot of different styles, and also individual variety on the part of conductors. I would never feel comfortable just popping into somebody else's schola unrehearsed and singing a liturgy -- I have to spend a couple rehearsals with them and get to know their particular interpretations of episemas, quilismas, quarter bars, etc. I would assert this would be true even if everyone professed adherence to one style.

At Tuesday, July 03, 2007 4:22:00 PM, Blogger Mike said...

I disagree. There were plenty of times this past year where I utilized the Triplex notation as a guide for the Schola. Teaching them by the "repeat after me" method worked sufficiently to embed the interpretation I wanted (in those cases where we got to more than just getting pitches down). That was with the extreme rookies I had this past year.

I personally think it takes an unlearning of metrical needs and, more importantly, a shift away from worship and service to the cult of beauty and aesthetics. It's a shift I've seen various people loathe to make or not even realize it needs to be done. Last year I found a particular Orthodox saint writing on this to be very challenging, but now I find I agree with her assessment and I find it applicable to some of the Western Church's current situation. I link to it here, the relevant section is part 3 (aesthetical piety) though it's all worthy of a read.

At any rate, my personal experience is that the Triplex is do-able, even with beginners, provided time is given for the task. Metrical music lends itself to easy reading and recitation. Chant actually takes interpretation and, because it's more rhythmically nuanced, more *humility* from those not leading it. That's where, I think, many fall into the "I hate this style" trap.

My understanding of Dom Cardine's style brings far more out of the text than the Solemes style. I liken the almost strict "ocean wave" style to a triumph of a certain sound (continuous motion/music) over the text and its meaning. This places the purpose of chant on its head. It is first and foremost, communicating the text: Scripture. It is secondly doing so in a beautiful manner.

Changing that order misses the point of everything Gregorian chant is, in my opinion.
-Mike J.

At Tuesday, July 03, 2007 4:24:00 PM, Blogger Mike said...

sorry, the sentence starting the penultimate paragraph should read:

"My understand of the Dom Cardine's style is that it brings far more out of the text than..."

Here I am talking about humility and sounding like it's all MY interpretation. ha.

Mike J.

At Wednesday, July 04, 2007 10:41:00 AM, Anonymous Klaus der Große said...

I fear to tread in this arena because I feel I'm not really competent. (Strange thing for a schola director to say, isn't it?) I am self-taught; I have no music degree nor have I undertaken study with a chant specialist. The best I've ever done was having Fr. Samuel Weber call my interpretation of a particular passage "sensitive." Dom Cardine's method attracts me for the reasons it attracts Mike, among others; take, for instance, the alternate introit for 15 OT, Ego autem cum iustitia. The word "satiabor" is set to a phrase which, according to Dom Cardine's analysis, is a passage of almost all long notes. The feeling of spaciousness and satiety given by singing this phrase more slowly brings out the text very well, and is beautiful and prayerful. (This is but one example; I have several pet examples where the Cardine approach has made more musical sense out of a long melisma than the Solesmes Method.)

Cardine's approach also jives, IMO, with the following passage in Willi Apel's book on chant, which I find sensible:

If, in conclusion, I am permitted to express my own views, I would say that for the overall tradition of the chant the method of Pothier [equalist but admitting of free time variations; the rhythmic principles of the Solesmes Method were not used] comes as close to being a plausible and practical solution as may be expected...I would not, however, advocate a strictly equalistic performance of the melodies. In the neumatic and melismatic chants particularly I would admit subtle nuances of rhythm on the basis of Houdard's theory [every neume is sung on one beat, regardless of the number of notes], the merits of which, it seems to me, have been slighted or altogether overlooked. I would not go so far as to maintain that a five-note neume should be sung in exactly the same time as one of two or three notes, but the idea of subtly varying the speed according to the number of notes found in a neume appeals to me, because it is as simple and natural as the principles advocated by Pothier.

Apel does not describe Cardine's method exactly in the passage I have quoted, but it encourages the kind of nuances Apel speaks of.

At Wednesday, July 04, 2007 10:42:00 AM, Anonymous Klaus der Große said...

The citation for Apel:

Apel, Willi. Gregorian Chant. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1958, p. 130.

At Wednesday, July 04, 2007 1:38:00 PM, Anonymous Klaus der Große said...

And now, for something completely different....

You mention that the choir in question was a "tough crowd" because of the number of seasoned chant people in it, and the divergence of opinion on interpretation. I don't think that quite holds; if the people in question have been well-formed by chant in prayer, they would probably exhibit the humility Mike refers to a few posts back, and follow the director rather than assert their own egos when singing. For myself, if the chant is being led with an eye to good musicality in prayer, I will generally enjoy singing under the director even should I not agree with the school of interpretation he has picked.

At Wednesday, July 04, 2007 2:33:00 PM, Blogger Alice said...

My main criteria for chant interpretation (not being a scholar myself) is that it is prayerful.

During the liturgy chant should not just be prayerful, it should be prayed. Organum, organ accompaniment, alternations between men and women, and the like change the aesthetic, but they do not change what goes on in the heart of the chanter. Aesthetic may move the heart, but the performance should not draw attention to itself.

The hope is that the congregation is moved to join in heart (if not in voice) in the prayer of the Church instead of having a good atmosphere to pray the Rosary or listen to the music. In the words of Pope St. Pius X, we want the congregation to "not pray at Mass, but pray the Mass."

At Wednesday, July 04, 2007 3:14:00 PM, Blogger Mike said...

"...if the people in question have been well-formed by chant in prayer, they would probably exhibit the humility Mike refers to a few posts back, and follow the director rather than assert their own egos when singing."

Humility is one of those virtues we all strive for... unfortunately I don't even know if I attain to it in the measure I desire it in others!

I suppose if I blended in, then I succeeded. If not, mea culpa.

At Thursday, July 05, 2007 11:50:00 PM, Blogger PrayingTwice said...

Glad to see my post has stimulated a bit of discussion. I have responded privately to Cantor in regards to the first comment, but let me address a couple others.


I may have been unclear in my post in regards to the Triplex interpretations. I was trying to convey my opinion that I don't see this method as very "user-friendly" to a chant beginner. Yes, I agree that our group was able to add a couple Triplex interpretations into our Solesmes method, but a complete shift to Triplices and using nothing but the ancient notation with them would have been disastrous, I think. I think your approach was the best: teach the Solesmes style, but throw in an occasional Triplex interpretation when it seems appropriate. I think it's very possible for beginners to do the Triplex interpretations, just not to read and then to interpret them skillfully.


I'm not saying we couldn't all suppress our egotistical tendencies and participate in a spirit of humility; still, I'd call that a tough crowd! Whenever I direct a group of choral conductors, I can't help but think I'm being examined critically, even if that's not the case. I think it's human nature to assess a situation, compare it to your own interpretive grid, and then to notice similarities and differences. It's what you do after the differences have been manifested . . .

At Friday, July 06, 2007 11:15:00 PM, Blogger Mike said...

I agree: don't put the Triplex into the hands of the beginner. Perhaps an emphasis on sight-reading skills is also something that needs to be "unlearned" a certain amount though.

This is actually why I prefer giving people the square neumes in the pews: they *don't* know how to read it. It takes all of 3 seconds to see that the notes denote rough pitch assignments, but lets face it: they learn by repetition. Hang onto a note a little longer everytime you do it, and they start to do the same. That the folks downstairs kept up on the various Ordinaries we did, I think, is a triumph of this system.

Really, the difference is subtle and nuanced. It's raw neumes with either a focus to blending through sounds or a focus on naturalizing the language and lines (actually, my personal opinion is that some of the really lengthened sections are there to point out what the authors/chanters thought had a lot of fruit for contemplative prayer, so it's more of a guide to the praying of the chant to hold out certain neumes/phrases in my opinion). It's not usually as obvious as saying something sarcastically or not but it's akin to that difference and subtlety.

Really, it doesn't need to be much different from asking people to remember an alteration in dynamics and phrasing with modern music.

By the way, Gregorian Semiology is much easier to get through/digest if you have a Triplex or some example chants to work through as you go.


At Friday, July 06, 2007 11:26:00 PM, Blogger Cantor said...


That’s interesting. I gave my choir square note neumes to read a few rehearsals before Holy Thursday for the foot washing antiphons, and they about passed a collective kidney stone. It took an hour-plus for them to reach a still-uncomfortable state with it.

At the next rehearsal I handed them modern notation, and we chopped through it in 15 minutes or so, with solid singing resulting therefrom.

Maybe my mistake was giving them new notation shortly before the Triduum, but I do think we should consider that most people in the pews, at some time or other, have indeed been taught how to read modern notation.

At Tuesday, July 17, 2007 12:09:00 PM, Blogger Dad29 said...

For what it's worth...

After having read through Cardine, the preface to the Liber Usualis, and a couple of other shorter reference works, AND having listened to a number of recordings, I was privileged to meet with Roger Wagner.

We got somewhat blitzed.

So, with courage of Black & White scotch, I asked him 'how does one actually sing Chant?'

To which he replied, "Sing it as though it were MUSIC."

Perhaps that's the easiest way to think of it.

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