Sunday, 10 March 2013

Is it worth putting Gregorian chant music into the vernacular?

I have just spent three hours trying to put a Swedish version of Mass XVII for Advent and Lent, into the correct Gregorian chant notation, using the Meinrad font sets. The music is in the new Cecilia as items 516 to 518.

Cecilia, as mentioned in a previous entry, uses a flying egg notation which is not only exceptionally difficult to read, but also wipes out the nuances of the music. The choir noticed this the moment we started to sing these pieces. The sound was dead.

The deficiencies of the new Cecilia is very apparent in the settings of the Latin texts, especially to anyone familiar with the conventional four line/square note system. Musical vandalism, one might say, but it easy enough to get hold of Gregorian chant in the traditional notation. But so far as I am aware, the Swedish settings have never been done. So the job is possible, the music becomes easier to read and the use of the system would lead to a better standard of singing.

Whether it is worth the effort is another matter. It is clumsy compared to the original Latin, and since everyone knows what is being sung and are meant to know it anyway, what is the point of doing the Ordinary of the Mass in the vernacular?

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Four-line rearguard action

The much improved appearance and clarity of neum notation in a setting of text is apparent in this new publication of the English Mass by the Church Music Association of America.

Friday, 8 February 2013

The curse of the flying eggs


Here is a comparison of the beginning of Credo 3 in traditional Gregorian chant notation and in modern notation, both to the same scale. The upper example is from Plainsong for Schools, first published around 1930 and the lower example is from the latest edition of Cecilia. It shows how the traditional notation illustrates the phrasing and rhythm of the music in a way that the round-note style does not. The porrectus in "omnium", for instance, is replaced by three spots, which lacking even the indication of a tie which would help to emphasise the fact that here is a group of notes belonging to a single syllable. It is also slightly more compact, making the words easier to read and saving some paper into the bargain.

The comparison also demonstrates the superior clarity achieved by putting the music on a stave with four lines instead of five. The notes are larger, the spaces between the lines are bigger, and four lines are easier to read than five. A further benefit of the Gregorian chant notation is that it does not forced people to sing at a particular pitch. They might want to start on F or A, not on G, as shown here. Choirs will normally choose their pitch by agreement, and what they choose can be determined by the state of the voices which is affected by facturs such as the time of day or even the weather.

Ugly on the page
And not the least of the objections is that it just looks ugly. The angled spots look for all the world like eggs flying across the page.

Thursday, 31 January 2013

Software for writing musical scores

I have been asked to produce some musical scores. There is a piece of free software called Musescore which works well enough for music written to a time signature, once you have learned how to use it. But it does not work for chant or for chant-like music written in free time. I spent the best part of a day trying to get it to work. I discovered that there is a lot of discussion on the software's bulletin board but it does nothing more than refer to various work-arounds, none of them easy.

Which means that the simplest option is to copy scanned versions of texts that are out of copyright or to compile sheets from scans that are then pasted into a word processor.

If the music is not available, then there are fonts such as Meinrad which can be used on an ordinary word processor, and if all else fails it can be written out by hand. They also take a bit of getting used to and work in different ways, so it is worth trying various ones.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Campaign for real chant

I thought I had seen the last of having to sing chant written in modern notation on a five line stave. My previous choir leader was at first convinced that I was just trying to make a nuisance of myself by complaining. But then she went on a course at Solemnes and came back converted to the four-line/square note system.

Having moved recently, I have been confronted again with having to sing Gregorian chant that has been re-written in modern notation. Why anyone should go to the trouble of doing this I have no idea. I assume that it happens because people with some kind of formal musical training have got involved in making decisions. They even suggest that beginners should start with the modern notation then move on to the "more difficult" four line scores. But for beginners and others who cannot read music anyway, using modern notation for Gregorian chant just adds confusion. It also makes life difficult for those in charge of choirs. four-line scores.

The traditional notation was invented by Guido d'Arezzo in the eleventh century for the specific purpose of writing down the chant, so that people could sing it consistently. Before then, the texts were annotated with curved marks, which were a good guide to the rhythm but gave no indication of pitch. The notation is tailored to the chant. The groups of notes are shown diagramatically, indicating how they should sound. These are known as neums, and give the relative pitch, length and dynamic in a compact and concise way. Each neume is placed directly above the syllable it refers to. The text is spread out just enough to allow space for the neums above, which makes it easy to read and get a sense of the words, which is important since the successful performance of the chant depends on giving precedence to the words, not the music.

The system of notation does not indicate absolute pitch, this being left for the singers to decide for themselves. It is particularly advantageous since the chant is modal ie not written in a major or minor key. It can, however, cause difficulties for accompanists who may find themselves having to transpose, but this is not a serious problem since Gregorian chant can perfectly well be sung unaccompanied.

So what is wrong with modern notation?
Several things. Five lines are obviously more difficult to read than four. The words are all spread out, which does not help with reading and singing it as a text, which is the primary purpose of the chant, as an embellished form of text reading rather than a musical performance. Modern notation also ties the singers to a key, which may not be the one they would like to sing in, since it might be too high or too low for their voices. And there are many subtleties in the chant which are easily shown in the original notation but which cannot easily, if at all, be portrayed in modern notation. The music suffers and the refinements get lost. Ultimately, modern notation destroys the chant.

Hear the difference!
People say that this is as important as arguing over whether to crack an egg at the pointed end or the blunt end. It is an ignorant comment. You can hear the difference. When Gregorian chant is sung from a score with modern notation, the entire sense of dynamic rhythm is usually lost. A good choir leader will try to recover the situation by getting the members of the choir to mark up their scores, but if they had been singing from a proper Gregorian score in the first place, this would not have been necessary.

How do we know what the chant should sound like?
There are many "right" ways of singing the chant. From the late nineteenth century the Benedictine monks of Solemnes have been studying ancient manuscripts from the period before the present Gregorian notation was invented. A comparison of the different documents with other early scores has shed useful light on how the chant should be sung, with subtle emphases, lengthenings and pauses. These early notations are shown in a special edition of the Graduale Romanum known as the Graduale Triplex. Everyone in charge of a choir singing Gregorian music should have one. Bringing this knowledge to a performance emparts an additional liveliness to the music.

So is traditional notation difficult for beginners?
Gregorian chant is graded. A single note is shown as a little black square. It is as simple as that. The groups of notes are best learnt a few at a time, starting with the two-note neumes and then going on to the three- and four-note neumes. It is useful, though not essential, to learn the names of the different groups. If you are a novice, do not be scared, just start at the beginning with the simple stuff. If you are teaching, please don't bamboozle your pupils with chant written in modern notation.

How to read chant from a score

Friday, 25 November 2011

English in the liturgy - again

This setting of Credo 3 illustrates the real difficulties of the task of adapting Gregorian chant to English texts. The music is written to emphasis the words that are most important. When translating into English, the word order is changed. If the same tune is applied, then the unimportant words are liable to occur at the points of emphasis. Thus in the very first line the word "one" has three notes for what in the Latin is "Deum". A further difficulty is that when the text is put into English, there are generally a few syllables more or less. This means either fitting in the extra ones, and either dropping the extra notes or adding them to one of the syllables.

This too is evident in the first line. The syllables in "Credo in unum Deum" are 2-1-2-2, that is seven syllables. "I believe in one God" has 1-2-1-1-1, six syllables. Whereas the original Latin version has a porrectus (three notes) on the word "God", the three-note porrectus, as mentioned above, ends up on "one" in the the English. Which is a bit strange though perhaps not so terrible.

Despite this difficulty, the overall effect is surprisingly successful but even so it ends up feeling uncomfortable. Whether the discomfort is just due to unfamiliarity or something more fundamental needs to be looked at.

The deficiences are more apparent in the English setting based on Credo 1.

This is less elaborate than Credo 3, and there is more scope for adapting the music to the text. But it has not happened. In the second line, "Patrem" is sung to a podatus (two notes). In English, this becomes "the Father", and logically, the podatus would be used for "Father" and an extra note inserted for "the". Instead, "the" gets the podatus, which is inappropriate as the definite article does not need the emphasis of two notes. This happens several times in this setting. The overall effect is clumsy to the point of absurdity.

The mistake seems to have been to allow the music to take precedence over the words. It might not have happened if whoever was responsible had kept to the correct Gregorian chant notation, when this problem of mis-matching would have been evident from the outset. This would also have made life easier for singers as it is easier to see how the neumes fit the words.

A further difficulty with Credo 1 is that it is full of traps, due to being in mode 4. Even an experienced choir can make mistakes if it is not careful.

The difficulties discussed here are not new. There is no reason why anyone should be struggling with this because there is a perfectly acceptable setting of the Creed together with all the other Mass settings, in the Book of Common Prayer 1550. This was produced by the Anglican John Merbecke, using the translations by Miles Coverdale. These texts are an accurate translation of the Latin and could have been re-issued, with the archaisms brought up to date, as an alternative to the ICEL translation. In fact, one has to ask why the bishops' committee took ten years on the task when most of the work had already been done? Had they simply authorised the Coverdale texts, the musical settings would have come ready-made as part of the package.

What a pity it is that ICEL missed this opportunity.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

English in the liturgy

With the new ICEL translations of the English liturgy have come new texts for the propers of the Mass: Introit, Gradual, Offertory and Communion. These actually form part of the readings and although for the last 40 years it has been the practice to replace them by hymns, this is unsatisfactory. One reason is that there is little tradition of hymn singing amongst Catholics in English-speaking countries. Another is that people have diverse preferences, so someone is bound to be upset by whatever has been chosen.

There are various settings for these new English translations, both of the Ordinaries and Propers. Mostly they are a direct adaptation of the Gregorian chant. Having tried to sing them, my impression is that they are clunky and awkward. It is like trying to walk on an uneven floor - one keeps getting tripped up. It does not help that they have been written out on a five line stave in modern notation.

It seems to me that the underlying problem is that the rhythms of the English language are so different from the rhythms of Latin. This is not a new insight, and the Anglicans solved it by developing a modified version of the chant known as Anglican chant. These are used with the sixteenth century translations by Miles Coverdale.

To what extent they could be used within the new English translations is questionable but the possibility is worth exploring... however, I am beginning to wonder if the Novus Ordo mass has much of a future in the longer term.