Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Sing the Chant

A reader writes that he is confused. "I thought that we weregetting some place, but what do we do now?" The answer is simply:sing the chant! Not that singing it is always so simple. And notthat seeming difficulties are insurmountable. It is not only a matterof acquiring the proper books (an adequate list of which appeared inVol. 84, No. 1 of Caecilia) which, after all, we are presently boundto use. The impression that we have opined for two generationsthat the book was all we needed will not down.This may lead us to our first point. The most important thingabout singing the chant is singing. It is manifestly absurd to supposethat chant is something quite apart from the broad stream of music,and that the sound vocal procedure necessary to any other type ofsinging does not apply to it. Yet one fears this has been happeningfor too long. Why do Mr. and Mrs. average worshipper not getespecially excited about chant? Because most of its sounds bad. Thishas nothing to do with one chant book or another. Listen to theRequiem Mass from one end of the country to the other. On theface of it, it might be read from fifty different versions, but propervocalization and some musicianship would make amends for a greatdeal else.It is not an uncommon experience to behold chant educatorswho have taught their charges everything but the most basic things.These will know the horrificent names of all the neums and combinationsthereof (the picture, if your please, is more important thanthe name), they are liable to know the minutest detail of emerge andsubmerge in matters chyronomical, and probably can place an ictuseven when it isn't marked. They can, for that matter, know theintricacies of the modes, and have the Vatican Preface at their fingertips.But start singing-and the musical voice, the elementaryrhythm of the neums, and sensible phrasing of text and vocal line ismissing. If one does not have necessary knowledge of voice placementand other tonal matters, what should he do? Either stopteaching any kind of singing or seek to learn from someone who does.The Holy Fathers have been as e:xplicit about sufficiently qualifiedpersonnel as anything. Reading will help-even so small and tidya brochure as Father Finn's "Epitome of the Choral Art". Makeno mistake about it, chant, though unisonous, is part of the choralart, and not an easy part at that. So that one might conclude thisparagraph with a word of caution about professional voice teachers,who manage so often to coach great voices and ruin the rest. Oursis not so much a problem of "training" voices as of eliminating vocaldefects which God did not usually give us.Next in order, and not to be confused with singing the chant,is reading it. It is perhaps not musically unorthodox to remark thatgood singing of bad material is preferable to bad singing of goodmaterial. The contemporary penchant for reading music often ig'nores other important considerations. We are faced with the dis'tressing fact that competent readers are very often incompetentsingers and vice'versa. Having said this, one can, however, stateconfidently that the reading problem is by no means insurmountable.Here, again, without putting up straw men, one is not beyond en'countering college people with decent marks in "Chant I" or "Chant2" who cannot sol'fa a Proper. This is a totally unnecessary stateof affairs. Grade School and High School students certainly canand do read chant. It is the writer's experience that this very simplemanner of reading the chant in chant script is the best approach toreading of any kind. The diatonic scale, like the alphabet, is anadmirable crutch, even if you never get beyond the moveable "do".Grade school children, and not only the bright ones, certainly canmake chant reading part of their existence, and the sky can be thelimit for high school folk. If takes only the doing. You may callthis business of scales drudgery if you wish, but it is nothing like thedrudgery of rote teaching to the not'so'young, and this will be thepenalty for one who has not begun with scales and intervals in thefirst place: a devastating penury of repertoire.The writer has in his possession a collection of chant recordingsof grade school children of a very small rural parish in Wisconsin.They are among the finest he knows, and his own charges sing theproper the year around, with some of the better students singing thesolo parts of the Graduals. Traditions are hard to come by, especiallywhen, as any pastor will tell you, there is a constant tum'over ofmusic teachers. But the fact that they can be established, even ona school level, is indisputable. Why catholic high school studentscannot supply propers is a mystery-unless the song of the church,which ought to have primacy in any music program in the catholicschool-is given niggardly time. Mind you, once a tradition isestablished, once the younger folk hear, read and sing the Propriumde Tempore and de Sanctis year in and year out, the actual practicefor propers need not take more than 15 minutes a week!Now a word about methods and text'books. First of all, theteacher must be both the method and text book. It is less than fairto expect teachers and choirmasters to establish sound traditions ifthey have not been given a chance to drink deeply at the wells ofliturgical song throughout the liturgical year. This need not havebeen in the monastery, the convent, or the seminary. For the Popesdid not write their encyclicals and allocutions only for monks.(There persists too much the notion of transplanting strictly monas'tic elements in the parishes; and religious teachers in diocesan semin'aries have no right to use the monastic rather than the Roman booksin their classes or worship.) In the very first line of the MotuProprio, St. Pius X marks these matters as foremost among thepastoral cares of every individual parish. The teacher, then, musthave assimilated the meat, spirit and directives of the liturgicalbooks, to a point of feeling a necessity to impart them. The bestand only necessary text books are the Kyriale and the Graduale.One may add to these the Vesperale and the "Chants diversa mente".From the point of view of chant education, one might suggest theKyriale for grade school students, and the Graduale for High Schoolstudents. Through their formative years children may becomecompletely conversant with these, and carry them, let us hope, intotheir adulthood. One might use a book like P. Baldinus van Poppel'selementary course, (see Caecilia, Vol 84, No.1) but it is perhapsjust as well to get into the middle of things, using brief home'madeexercises to lead into any particular piece in the Kyriale. Sometimesreading exercises (and vocal exercises) might well be performed onthe material at hand. The results are just as effective, and time issaved.Then let us not forget the overwhelming importance of thetext. It is absolutely essential that the teacher be as resourceful inthis matter as the rest. The texts are not difficult to understand bycomparative study-Father Bouyer has said that the work of theBelgian Benedictines at Bruges (Saint Andrew's Missal) is one ofthe highest contributions to liturgical renewal-and our schools, de'signed primarily for the preservation of the faith and participationin its mysteries, ought not be remiss in teaching the rudiments of thelanguage of these mysteries, even if it finally devolves upon thereligion or chant teacher to do so. It is a fair conjecture thatif the time, energy, and enthusiasm spent on vernacular notionswere applied in the opposite direction we might be happily on ourway. "Sacred music as an integral part of the solemn liturgyshares its general purpose ... and since its principal function is toadorn with suitable melody the liturgical text proposed to the under'standing of the faithful, its proper purpose is to add greater efficacyto the text itself, so that by this means the faithful may be more easilymoved to devotion and better disposed to receive in themselves thefruits of grace proper to the celebration of the sacred mysteries."(Pope Pius X, Motu Proprio)

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