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On Singing Gregorian Chant Artfully (part 2)

Last week’s article discussed the importance of dedicated practice, the benefits of “metering” the chant in rehearsal, the music peak, the ending of chant periods, proper pacing, expressive notes, and breathing. Today I begin with the relationship in chant between text and music.

  1. The Marriage of Text and Music

In rehearsing and executing chant, devote attention to seeing the different levels of organization, or better, of prayer, in the chant. The words must always be your starting point, because the words are the inner core, the beyond-musical purpose of the music: the finality in chant is the divine locution, or perhaps better, the illumination of the locution.

Precisely because the words are of a different order of reality than that to which the music belongs, they are not to be placed in competition or even in a strict hierarchy; I think they must be apprehended as distinct and self-justifying, yet also as mystically one, even as Christians have individual baptismal dignity in the sight of God but in the Sacrament of marriage two are called to be one and thus to become fruitful beyond themselves. The goal of the chant is in fact the perfect unification of text and melody, leading to the fruit of prayer; but this will never happen if the nature of one is forced to submit to the nature of the other. Because they are inextricably bound together, there will always be questions of how to balance the requirements of the one with those of the other.

The old Solesmes answer was fairly simple and, I think, entirely correct: let the music—its melodic shape and motifs and dynamism—show you how the text is to be rendered musically. Because the text is being sung, it puts on the grammar of music while retaining its textual grammar. The text is to be preserved and respected in itself; but the text sung, or more precisely, the text while being sung, is in another world, the kingdom of music, and flows along with the rules that govern musical pitch and rhythm and structure. Text and melody are irreducible, but music (by definition, I would say) translates the text into another manner of being, a different kind of language. One cannot pretend that one is speaking the words when one is singing them. Either you speak them or you sing them; you cannot have it both ways.

The music of Gregorian chant respects the autonomy and special character of the Latin language; the melodies and Latin grew up together, were wedded at a young age, and are now inseparable. This intimacy means that the music already contains in itself the necessary accommodations that need to be made to the rules of Latin speech; for its part, the Latin speech lends itself extremely well to being sung in the fashion of modal melodies. There is no need to speak of “reestablishing” the text’s primacy in the chant, since the words already have their primacy, and it is precisely as sung that their primacy is assured in the very different world of music (which, as we know, need not be word-based or textual at all, and can even be so far removed from song that no words could conceivably be attached to the music: think of movements from Romantic period symphonies, concertos, or tone poems).

My point is this: Gregorian plainchant came into being as Latinate, subtly reflecting the language’s own laws of pronunciation and emphasis. There is no warring dichotomy between text and melody: they are one, indissolubly, at peace in their union.

The words provide the starting point for meditation on how the music itself, or rather the anonymous composer, has chosen to set the words. If one does not understand the meaning of the Psalm verse (or whatever book of Scripture the liturgy drew the text from), one will not be able to appreciate the musical structure, the peculiar beauty or fittingness of the melodic interpretation of that text. Often the medieval composer does with a text what we might least expect a composer to do—and that should get us thinking about why. What is the text saying to him; how has he translated his spiritual reaction into a mode, into melodic motifs and rhythmic patterns?

Not every Gregorian chant in the Liber Usualis equally reflects such a process of interchange between text and musical ideas (some of the texts were, after all, retrofitted to already existing melodies that came into being for other texts); and, at times, perhaps the aesthetic ideals of the Middle Ages are not clear to us, or harder to divine. That being said, the majority of the chants, especially the oldest ones, display the result of a meditation that becomes a skilled mediation between the meaning of the text (the way it “speaks to the composer”) and the immensely varied possibilities of musical expression that he harnessed and delimited in light of that textual meaning.

This can be demonstrated from almost any chant in the book: “Look at the way he handles the ‘De profundis’ verse. Can one imagine a more moving, more beautiful song about the soul crying out to God in time of great distress?” If you can hear it, too, I would call that evidence that the composer was acutely and fervently aware of the mediation or interchange of text and melody, and successfully captured it in a form that remains perennially fresh and communicative.

  1. The Priority of the Ensemble

Ensemble singing involves a kenosis or a death to self as regards the strength of the individual singing voice. In solo singing, the point is to project, and the distinctive color and timbre of the voice is a positive good (just think of famous opera singers). In polyphonic singing, the singers already have to pull back to some extent so that there is not a distracting “rivalry” of operatic voices but a well-proportioned collective sound. With communal unison chant, it is even more vital that everyone sing together “as one,” una voce.

This is required for several reasons: first, that the music can be maximally prayerful; second, that everyone can be focused on the sacred words; third, that the sound will be distracting to no one by drawing undue attention to particular voices; and finally, for the humility of the individual singers. For those who sing well and strongly, it is a real death to self to pull back, to sing more quietly, and to strive to blend so that no one stands out—not even those who are more gifted. If a voice sticks out as too colorful or dynamic, it draws attention to itself, and this can discourage others or even prompt subconscious rivalries among singers.

It’s all very subtle but long experience in seminaries and religious communities shows that the more unified the sound, the more everyone can lose themselves in the prayer of the Church. That the singing of prayer is primarily for the sake of the Word of God and the heart of the believer, not for the external musicality, takes some getting used to. The singing is a vehicle, a vessel, a means, an instrument, but not the end or the goal. Chanting in this respect is really the opposite of “art music” such as opera, Lieder, folk songs, or (obviously) pop songs.

In the schola, listen to everyone: imagine that this collective sound is yours. What the others are singing is as much your song as it is theirs. When we pray the Rosary in a group, it’s as if we are praying as many rosaries as there are individuals in the group; so too when we sing, it’s as if the entire ensemble’s sound is mine, and mine is theirs.

  1. Posture and Positioning

The members of a schola should stand close together, nearly shoulder-to-shoulder, forming a circle with the director. This may seem counterintuitive; after all, that means some singers will not be facing in the direction of the liturgical action. (E.g., in a choir loft, some singers in the circle will have their backs toward the congregation and sanctuary below.) However, it allows everyone to hear each other and thus to aspire to that blended, unified, pure and single sound that is the sonic goal for which we are striving. A schola of even a few singers in an acoustically decent space will certainly be able to fill it sufficiently, even if some are not facing that space.

Posture does make a difference in the quality of the ensemble sound and even in your personal success and satisfaction as a singer. When you are singing, hold the book or sheet music in front of your chest and sing outwards, head up, with the music at a level sufficient to allow you to turn your eyes easily toward the director. Not every director is equally good at directing, but nearly any director is going to have indications you need to see; and the best directors can convey quite a bit with their hands, arms, faces, and body language. A director is there to animate and guide the group, so make his work easier by holding your music in such a way that you keep him at least in your field of vision (the only way you could make him the object of your sight is if you had the music memorized, which is a splendid thing when it can be done, but rather rare).

  1. Why Put Effort into Our Chanting?

When one thinks about all the effort that goes into preparing and executing traditional liturgical music well, one might be tempted to wonder: Is it really worth all the trouble? The answer is yes, if we understand the dignity of the music and privilege of the musicians. Sacred music is consecrated to God by centuries of pious use and approbation; it is a pleasing offering of verbal incense to the Most High; our efforts can be seen as part of the asceticism that belongs to the Christian life, where we deny ourselves in order to perfect ourselves, serve our neighbors, and become an instrument in God’s hands.

Our singing is like the board, the paint, and the style of an icon of Christ. The image is divine—we venerate it, we can burn incense before it, because the honor given to the image passes to the archetype—but the materials are natural and human. And this icon can be more or less beautiful. The iconographer strives to make the most beautiful image he can in order to render honor to its exemplar, and singers do the same with sonic images. The meaning of the music and its perfect integration with the liturgy is like grace, and our efforts are like nature: grace builds on nature, depends on it as a foundation. We singers are privileged to be the ones who provide the words and acts of God with their clothing, their expression, their incarnation.

Your breath, your voice, your tone, your voluntary production of sound, are like the bread and wine we make and offer, that they may become the Body and Blood of Christ. As there is no banquet of the Eucharist without humble bread and noble wine, there is no sung liturgy without singers and song. In a sense, what we offer is turned, by God, into His own worship—for it is Christ our High Priest who leads the worship of His Mystical Body, using us as His willing members. Indeed, the sacred text and its melody are analogous to the words of consecration, in that they are natural but, by God’s power, have an effect beyond their nature.

Those who received divine Revelation were disposed to it by virtues—moral, intellectual, and especially theological. They were ready and receptive to receive God’s Word. The liturgy as a whole, and the chant in particular, are vehicles of divine revelation to us—and through us, to the entire People of God. This is why we need to develop the virtues required for singing: the moral virtues of humility, obedience, fortitude; the intellectual virtues of art (how to chant) and wisdom (lectio divina); the theological virtues of faith in the truths that we are singing, hope in what revelation promises to us, love of the Persons to Whom it bears witness.

Faith is “the substance of things to be hoped for, the evidence of things that appear not” (Heb 11:1). Faith, indeed, “comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom 10:17). We are God’s tools in proclaiming, with becoming beauty, that Word of God which is to be heard and thus to be believed. Words clothed in music therefore have a distinguished place in Christian life and worship (cf. Eph 5:19). This alone can explain the astonishing statement of the Second Vatican Council: “The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as sacred song united to the words, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy” (SC 112).

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