On Singing Gregorian Chant Artfully (Part 1)

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This week and next, I will share practical and speculative points on singing Gregorian chant well that I have learned by leading scholas, by participating in them, and by listening to masters discuss what they do and why. My points are not put forward here as “Gospel truths”; they are merely an attempt to put into words what seems to be the common property of schola directors around the world.

  1. Practice, Practice, Practice

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past three decades, it is that plainchant is anything but plain. It is a highly subtle, graceful, and complex art form, challenging to get perfect, although not terribly difficult to get going. An amateur schola can arrive at decent results pretty soon if they put in the work, but true perfection in the art form is elusive and requires a schola singing together for years. The point I would emphasize is that work is needed.

Too many choir directors have the false view that monophony (one-melody music, of which chant is the prime example) is easy, and that their efforts should be focused on hymnody in parts or polyphony. It would be better, all things being equal, to focus on doing the chant as well as it can be done, since this is the Church’s native and custom-fitted liturgical music that is always appropriate to divine worship and never a mere add-on. Such is the repeated and consistent teaching of the Magisterium.

The first schola in which I sang, at Thomas Aquinas College in California, approached each Proper chant in five steps:

  1. solfèging the melody, while ignoring the rhythm (i.e., not holding episemas or quilismas);
  2. counting in two’s and three’s (again, not holding episemas or quilismas);
  3. pronouncing the words, i.e., reciting the words with proper pronunciation and accent, and briefly discussing the meaning of those words (for this, Dom Johner’s book The Chants of the Vatican Gradual [also available as a paperback] is indispensable);
  4.  “metering,” i.e., singing the words without any added expression; and finally
  5. singing the whole chant “with expression.”

Although a time-consuming process, it produces marvelous results: you feel, at the end, as if you’ve broken down the chant into all its component parts, and then put it back together again into a whole. Taking time to go through at least some of these steps will greatly enhance ensemble unanimity. For a schola or choir that has less time at its disposal, the following procedure can work well:

  1. sing the melody, with expressive notes, but solely on a ‘v’ sound (letting the lips vibrate with the ‘v’—it’s good for warming up, and it allows one to focus on the melody); and/or
  2. sing the melody, with expressive notes, using solfège;
  3. sing the whole with the words.

The director can point out anything to do with two’s and three’s to the extent that the interpretation especially depends on knowing the underlying structure. (Yes, I do advocate, at least for practical and pedagogical reasons, sticking to the old Solesmes method.)

In the solfège stage, the melody can be sung through more slowly if it is difficult. In the counting stage, when time is at a premium, the director can run through the chant counting it, while the singers note with light pencil marks the ictus in any place where it’s not obvious to them. If there’s a bit more time available, various members of the schola should eventually be given the chance to count one or more periods of a chant as they learn more about how to group notes into twos and threes. Individuals who get flustered by making mistakes or who need a long period of immersion should be skipped over.

  1. Why Meter the Chant?

The metering of the chant, while not indispensable, can be very profitable, for three reasons.

Firstly, it makes the schola comfortable with the interweaving of text and music. The schola needs to hear exactly how the words underlay the notes, and how the notes animate, breath life into, the words. Although this knowledge is important for every kind of vocal music, it is especially important in monophonic music, of which plainchant is the most noble Western example. Now, to get a sense of the relation of text to music, it is better to sing at first “without expression,” because expressive notes may prevent the singer from keeping his attention fixed on that relation.

Secondly, it enables the chant to be sung through briskly with a kind of march-step regularity, no delaying, no doubling of quilismas, no exaggerating of episemas. To sing a chant through once or twice “without expression” is a good way to improve the rhythmical vitality and velocity of the schola.

Thirdly, metering enables the schola to bring out the elementary groupings of rhythm more clearly. When one meters a chant, one is thinking only about fitting the text to the music according to the binary and ternary rhythms. The director might sometimes ask the schola to bring out the ictus somewhat strongly so that the singers can learn to hear the elementary rhythmic groupings. (Never fear, the schola won’t overemphasize the ‘ones’ when it actually sings the chant, because there will be too many other things to attend to at that time!)

  1. The Musical Peak

When preparing and executing a chant, one must bear in mind where the chant reaches its peak (or peaks—in some chants there can be several, although usually one or another can still be judged the principal one). Having discerned the centermost musical idea, the melody’s fiery core, one is then in a position to see how the rest of the chant leads up to it and follows from it. If the melody is well-written (and how many thousands of well-written chants have we inherited from antiquity and the Middle Ages!), then it will almost always show great sensitivity to the unfolding of the musical idea and the attainment of a pinnacle in the expression of that idea.

Just as a well-written sentence (say, one from Cardinal Newman) builds up gradually until it reaches a climax in the central idea (usually encapsulated in a memorable phrase), and then unwinds or relaxes after that point in order to give balance and shading to that idea, so too in the better chants: their heart is a certain radiant or majestic phrase, to which all else in the chant is connected like so many veins and arteries. It is helpful for the director to point out this musical peak and to discuss how the schola should build up to it and fall away from it. Of capital importance is not “overdoing” the peak, as occurs in opera, but actually holding back a little once it is reached. That is to say, the dynamic crescendo is in the building up; the pinnacle should be handled lightly, letting the arc of the melody speak for itself.

  1. Ending of Chant Periods

Contrasting with the peak moment or moments are the moments of rest or repose. In rhetoric, a “period” denotes a complete thought, fully enunciated. In a Gregorian chant, the full bar indicates the end of a period. At the end, we must slow down in a tasteful ritardando with the mora vocis on the final notes. But there is a difference between the intermediate endings (at half-bars, and at full bars before the last one) and the final ending—as much difference as there is between a city en route to one’s destination and the destination itself. Thus the mora vocis and rhythmic/dynamic decrescendo should be most prominent at the very end, where the whole piece is achieving its rest.

A very particular kind of ending is a piece that rests on the word Amen. Let us listen to a monk of Le Barroux:

This Hebrew word meaning firm, solid, is used very often in the Bible (it is even the very last word of all the Holy Scriptures, for it closes the book of Revelation), as well as in the liturgy. It basically serves three purposes:

  1. An affirmation. At the end of the Credo, for example, our Amen signifies “This is true, I affirm it.” “To say Amen is to put down one’s signature,” says Saint Augustine.
  2. A wish of which the realization depends on God alone (“so be it”); for example, when we associate ourselves to the prayer of the priest for the repose of the soul of a faithful departed.
  3. Our consent. When on the Saturday following the Ashes, we are asked “to faithfully observe the fast,” our Amen means “Yes, I commit myself to that!”

Let us note that in the heavenly liturgy, according to St. John in the Apocalypse, the Amen resounds without end. The life of the elect in heaven is a total adhesion to God in an eternal Amen. (Discovering the Mass, Part XIIb, by a monk of Le Barroux, printed in FSSP Bulletin of March 1997)

With dotted notes at the end of a period, one not only slows down, but lets the voice fade away. It is quite the opposite on the pressus, where one should crescendo—put on some pressure, as if driving forward.

  1. The Proper Pace

Slowness is truly one of the great temptations to resist in the singing of chant. A slowly sung chant, no matter how perfect the vocal unity and timbre, can be a deadly and dull chant, oppressive to the listener, acting like a pall over the liturgy. A briskly-moving, well-animated chant, even if the melodic unity is not perfect, can be successful at accomplishing its liturgical purpose. I am not sure I fully understand why the speed has so much to do with the beauty of the chant, but I am certain of it from long experience with live scholas and with recordings. A chant sung too quickly, of course, will sound comical and ridiculous, like a parody. The art of singing chant properly has very much to do with steering a middle course, a via media, between rushing and dragging, between a frolic and a dirge.

Since the goal of the chant is to clothe the liturgical words with suitable music, chant may be called a form of proclamation, and thus, it should keep up an energetic forward motion. The one singing should be looking ahead, as it were, to what is coming, so that one is not “sitting on” the note currently being sung, but stretching ahead to the next and the next, until reaching the end of a period where one comes to a (midway or final) resting place. For singers accustomed to modern music, one of the hardest things to adjust to is the flexi-rhythm of chant, the fact that it cannot be sung to a real or imaginary metronome, but expands and contracts, grows and withdraws, advances and recedes, like an organic, living being. Often when climbing in a melody, one can accelerate a bit; on reaching the crest one holds back a little, and on coming down one avoids rushing. Sharing recordings of a really good schola (some recommendations here) can be pedagogically very helpful from time to time.

Also, the schola should be encouraged to practice their handling of the dotted punctum, where they should be reminded again and again to slow down and fade away: no sudden stops, like running into a brick wall!

When it comes to the various sung responses in the Mass—“Amen,” “Et cum spiritu tuo,” “Habemus ad Dominum,” etc.—the schola has the role of leading the congregation in singing. This means: sing strongly and keep up the pace. Congregations by nature almost always sing painfully slowly. If the schola leads well, the faithful will get their cue and eventually learn the proper pace.

  1. Expressive Notes

How to sing expressive notes is a matter of greatest importance. Don’t lazily double the episema or quilisma and make it a sort of louder dotted punctum. If you must err, err in the direction of underemphasizing, rather than exaggerating. Many chanters seem to take the easy way out and ignore any stylistic differences: the episema sounds the same as the quilisma and both sound just like the dotted notes.

Some people seem to think that plainchant is improved if it is sung in an unvarying monotone without any emotional or “subjective” interpretation. I have heard recordings where a group of men sing through a Gregorian melody without one change in dynamic or tempo. To my ears, trained as they are by years of singing the chant within the sacred liturgy (to which it belongs by right), and accustomed as I am to the beauties available to a subtle interpreter of music from any period, such a monotonous rendering of the chant utterly vitiates its inner spirituality and vibrant musicality.

It helps, I think, for singers to gain an appreciation of the best pieces of the Romantic period—the symphonies of Bruckner, for example, or the piano music of Chopin and Brahms—in order to appreciate the place of interpretive revitalization. On its own, as black inkspots on a page, the chant is dead. The singers must breathe life into it every time they sing it, as God created Adam by breathing soul into the clay. The music by itself is inanimate, an idea, a possibility; the musical performance resuscitates or resurrects the music by giving shape and strength and actuality to it.

Thus we must recover the impeccable Romantic sense for the tempo rubato, as a master like Horowitz or Rubinstein exemplifies it. That indefinable quality called by the English “taste” is important and underestimated; a director with taste can take an ensemble to wonderful places. No less needed is a good measure of sensitivity to subtle emotional shifts in the phrases of a chant, which is like a poem or a short story, having an arc of development within it.

  1. Sneaking Breaths

A good execution of chant has a great deal to do with breathing well, and knowing when and how to breathe. Believe it or not, this topic could make for a post all by itself, but some basic pointers can be made here. Most chants were designed to be sung by a group of singers, a “schola,” who would therefore be able to stagger or alternate their breaths. This allows for the development of those wonderfully lengthy melodies so characteristic of Gregorian chant—think of the Gradual, or of the melismas of the Alleluias—that can sound to those listening as if they are being sung by angels, since they go on and on without apparent interruption for breathing. Yet obviously individuals must breathe. The trick, then, is twofold: first, to pay attention to the singers adjacent to you so that you will avoid breathing at exactly the same time as they do (so, you could take a breath a moment after hearing your neighbor take one); second, to drop out of the melody for a note or two and reenter downstream. If you take a breath and then try to pick up right where you left off, you will disturb the flow of the chant, as the rest of the schola has already moved on a bit.

A helpful warmup exercise in this regard is an unbroken vocalization of a scale—do-re-do-re-do (the last being held as a dotted note), re-mi-re-mi-re, mi-fa-mi-fa-mi, etc., going up the scale, and coming back down again). In doing this, the schola should aim never to have a gap, and the individuals can get used to taking breaths at various places and coming back in again at the right place.

Next week, I will continue with chant’s marriage of text and music, the priority of the ensemble over the individual, posture and position, and, finally, why it is worthwhile to put great effort into chanting well.


Photo by Allison Girone

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