Friday, 12 December 2008

A Catholic Music Director speaks

This was a blog discussion. I am only thankful I don't live in that parish. Apart from the dubious theology expressed, it is characteristic of the anti-cultural anti-elitism that is so widespread in Britain.

It is also unfortunately the case that the good settings of the English liturgy done by the Anglican church cannot be used as the words are not the same, so we have had to put up with atrocious and banal settings by certain composers whose names are I expect familiar to you.

I know the names of many liturgical composers, but few whose music I would characterize as atrocious and banal. I know plenty of Anglican liturgical settings which I would describe as over-complex, and in opposition to the true spirit of the liturgy, which is never merely performance.

"Active participation" can mean listening attentively as well as performing. In my experience, most people generally keep silent for hymns, which is why we gave them up - it is the Gregorian chant that people are joining in to sing.

If people keep silent for hymns then that is the fault of the music director who has failed to take seriously enough their teaching duty to ensure the active participation of the community. Certainly 'active participation' can include attentive listening, for example to a cantor singing the verses of a psalm setting, but that too easily transmutes into 'passive attendance' when more than a small proportion of the music used prohibits the community from joining in.

But if you want to give up your job, why not ask around amongst the youngsters who are presumably the people who buy the best selling records of Gregorian Chant and might like to sing it in the church instead of just listening to it on their iPods.

I run music days in the parish several times a year which are attended by large numbers of parishioners, including many young people. I have yet to meet a single one with Gregorian Chant on their iPod, much less one who wants to sing it in church. I have occasionally tried using the Missa De Angelis Gloria setting, or the chant Salve Regina at weekday evening Masses where the profile of the congregation suggests that there might be people familiar with them - I was a choirboy myself in the 1960's and 70's so I'm very familiar with that part of the repertoire. I get one or two people who join in, and a sea of blank faces. Of course if your MD loves chant and assiduously teaches it to the choir and congregation then people can join in with it (unlike polyphony). But I keep my antennae tuned to what people in my parish are saying and I assure you that there's no call for a general return to chant here.

My entire point was that if you don't understand and assent to the theology all you can do is appreciate the music. And that music of great beauty and artistic merit may provide a profound aesthetic experience but actually prove distracting from the religious experience which is the purpose of a church service. Personally I'm a big fan of Durufle's Requiem (sorry, can't find the accent for the final e in his name) as a concert piece.

But I wouldn't want it at my funeral: I'd want my friends and family singing Ernest Sand's 'May the Choirs of Angels' and David Haas' 'You Are Mine' in splendidly untidy unison, because in religious terms the feeling and intention of the praying community means everything and the beauty or otherwise of the performance is a triviality, only of interest to those who don't 'get' what is really going on.

Sussex Compline Group

Latin Plainchant and some polyphony - suitable for beginners, music provided.
Second Friday of every month at 8.00 pm, rehearsal at 7.00 pm. For information Michael Kennedy 01273 476432

Monday, 1 December 2008

Do you need chant scores?

I have scanned both volumes of the 1930 edition of Plainsong for Schools. So far as I am aware this is out of copyright so if you would like PDFs or TIFs please leave a message and I can email them.

Sunday, 14 September 2008


Cecilia is the title of the hymn book used by the Catholic Church in Sweden. It is a chunky volume, though not too heavy to handle, and is divided into sections as follows
  • Psalmer och hymner, del 1 (ekumenisk del)
  • Den heliga mässan
  • Kyrialie
  • Psalmer och hymner, del 2
  • Psaltarpsalmer och cantica
  • Kyrkans dagliga bön
The arrangement places the Mass texts and Kyriale roughly in the middle of the book. As these are the most frequently used pages, putting them in the middle has the advantage that the book does not fall to pieces so quickly as it would if they were at the front. On the other hand, it makes them difficult to find. In some parishes, adhesive tabs have been stuck on the pages to help.

The present edition dates from 1986 and the books are getting worn. A new edition is planned, though that is some way off, and an interim book is about to be published.

There are three changes I would like to see. The first would keep the Mass and Kyriale in the middle of the book, to make the books more durable, but to distinguish them in some way, possibly by printing them on coloured paper or through the use of tabs or some other kind of book mark. Alternatively, it might be advantageous to put the Mass and Kyriale in a separate small book. It is worth thinking about.

The second change concerns the Latin texts, the use of which is slowly increasing. For those who do not know how to read music, the Gregorian four line/square note notation is easier to learn, as the neums show the shape of the musical phrases more graphically. It is also the case that information is lost when Gregorian chant is written in modern notation, with a tendency for it to sound flat and boring. It would be advantageous if the opportunity were taken to use the Solemnes settings as printed in the Graduale Romanum or Liber Cantualis. Using scanning techniques, this should add nothing to the cost apart from copyright payments.

The third change is that the text and rubrics of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass now need to be included.

Saturday, 23 August 2008

The passive voice

Vox Silentii consists of two women from Finland who have developed, or probably rediscovered, the technique of singing the chant in such a way as to excite the natural harmonic resonances of the building. In this way, the church itself functions as an additional voice. Where this is a large medieval space like the Abbey Church at Vadstena, the sound is out of this world.

I have never heard of such a style of singing before but on reflection, it seems likely that this was the normal way of singing the chant in medieval times, since the spaces were so obviously designed for the purpose. The Brigittine church, with its long echo, was an excellent setting for reciting and prayer chants. Birgitta had issued explicit instructions on the construction of churches, based on her views of the requirements of the liturgy. The proportions of the church (width two times the height of the vault; length two times the width) and sound-reflecting materials seem to favour the resonance of a standing wave.

Monday, 11 August 2008

What is the Graduale Triplex?

The revival of the singing of Gregorian Chant in the early part of the twentieth century owed much to the "Solesmes method" developed by Dom André Moquereau, using new scores including additional marks including the ictus, episema, dot and incise, not found in the early manuscripts.

This led to controversy, which was eventally broken with a new understanding of rhythmic nuances taught by Dom Eugëne Cardine (a monk of Solesmes) in his classes in Rome, and by Dr Mary Berry in Cambridge. Dom Cardine used the term "semiology" to describe his interpretation of the signs (neumes) of the earliest manuscripts.

One of the results of this work was the publication of the Graduale Triplex, a reproduction of the Graduale Romanum with the neums from the Laon manuscript printed above the modern square notes in black, and the neums of the manuscript of the St. Gall family beneath in red. Correct interpretation of the neums is the singer's basis for developing adequate performance of the Gregorian melodies, and this tends to cast doubt on the value of the vertical episema written under a note means it has a mild emphasis, like an accent mark. In my own limited experience, these marks are more of a confusion than a help and if I am preparing scores and have the time, I delete them.

If you are seriously interested in Gregorian Chant or thinking teaching it, it is well worth obtaining a copy of the Graduale Triplex - the book can be purchased on the internet. The Graduale is for the Novus Ordo mass, with the revised calendar. For the Extraordinary Rite, scores may have to be selected, copied and rearranged.

Monday, 4 August 2008

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Plainsong for Schools

It used to be commonplace for children to learn Gregorian Chant, and there was a two-volume book called Plainsong for Schools.

I have scanned my old copy of the two volumes and cleaned up a few pages. Most of the work has now been done and they have come up quite clean after a little bit more work. The volumes could easily be printed by any publisher who wanted to reissue the book, subject to copyright clearance from whoever owns it, if anyone, probably Desclee of Tournai who seem to have licensed it to Rushworth and Draper who are no longer in business.

Not only would the books be good for children - they would also make a good parish hymn book.

If anyone is interested, please pass this information on or contact me.[at]

Friday, 9 May 2008

Mary Berry

Mary Berry, who died on 1st May, is one of a small group of individuals who worked tirelessly to promote Gregorian Chant when it was out of favour with the church. This kept the flame alight during a bleak period, pending the turn of the tide. Those whom she taught are now able to pass their knowledge on to the next generation.

In paradisum deducant te angeli,
in tuo adventu suscipiuant te martyres.
Chorus angelorum te suscipiat,
et com Lazaro quondam paupere
aeternam habeas requiem.

Thursday, 1 May 2008

Corpus Christi - Introit Cibavit eos

This is slightly out of tune

And a polyphonic version by I know not whom

Pentecost Sunday - Introit

Viri Galilaei

The Catholic bishops of England and Wales have decided that because not enough people are coming to Mass on Holy Days of Obligation, feasts including the Ascension should be celebrated on the following Sunday. This is cowardly. What they ought to be doing is encouraging people to attend. When I was working, Holy Days of Obligation were an opportunity to take part in the life of the Catholic community where I worked and not just the one where I live.

Anyhow, here is the Introit for the Mass of the day.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Gregorian Chant at Ängelholm

This one is a surprise as Ängelholm does not have a parish priest of its own. Mass is said by a priest who comes from Helsingborg. But this is a well attended and well performed traditional liturgy with the Ordinary sung by the congregation.

Jag var överraskad att gudstänsten i Ängelholm var så mycket vacker. Prästen kommer från Helsingborg varje vecka. Kyrkan är väll fylld och Latina liturgien sjunges vackert.

Kl.14.00 varje söndag, Ängelholm, Rönnekyrkan, Skolgatan 33

New Choir at St Mary Magdalens Church, Brighton

A choir has now been established at St Mary Magdalen's Church, Brighton. The repertoire will consist of tradtional English hymns, polyphony and Gregorian Chant.

Anyone interested should contact Claire at rehearsal time (Saturdays, 12.00 to 1.00 pm or after 10.30 Mass on Sundays).

The church is in Upper North Street, Brighton

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

The importance of using correct chant notation

I have been accused of being pedantic in wanting to sing chant from texts in square notation on a four-line stave.

Having been issued with chant transcribed to modern notation, I now realise why this should most definitely not be used, except by the accompanist, who obviously would have difficulties in playing a keyboard instrument from Gregorian notation.

First and foremost, some of the transcriptions are plain wrong. Then there are sloppy changes like writing one double note dotted where the square notation shows three individual notes and should be sunq as three separate notes. Then there are subtle details like liquescents and quilismas which have been ironed out. Added to this are problems when musicians expect to find time signatures where there are none because the rhythm is derived from the words of the text.

So the end result when trying to sing chant from modern notation is that it ends out flat, unmodulated and very boring, thereby helping to put off another generation from ever learning it.

There is nothing difficult about singing from chant in square notation on a four line stave. First you read the words several times to find the rhythm. Then you make sure you know more or less what the meaning is. Then you add the intonation to the words. If you can read music it should be easy, if not, the tune has to be learned by heart which was the traditional way in any case. The way the notes are written show how to form the phrases which give the music its form, which should be reminiscent of waves gently breaking on a beach. If you are conducting, the notes actually show what the hand movements should be.

If you are running a choir singing Gregorian Chant, make sure the singers have the music written in proper notation. If you are in a choir, ask your choirmaster or choirmistress to obtain it. If you have got scores using modern notation for chant, used them to find the tunes from a keyboard, but don't try to sing from them.

Saturday, 23 February 2008

Hymn Books and Gregorian notation

Our parish has just bought a new set of hymn books. I was horrified when I saw what was in them, but apparently the edition is the best available, which is worrying. They are full of all the tired old folksy stuff from the late 1960s, though the decent music is there as well, but you have to look for it. The Taize chants are quite pleasant and fine as an introduction to both Latin and part-music, do not amount to much. Also of concern is that what Gregorian chant was in them was written out on a five line stave instead of the proper four-line notation.

The latter point is not a matter of pedantry. It is easier for beginners to read the Gregorian four line notation then music written on five lines simply because it has one less line to pick the notes out from. The Gregorian notation also leaves the words intact so they can still be read, instead of breaking them up with huge spaces in between. More importantly, there are features of Gregorian chant which just cannot be recorded in modern notation. One of the reasons why Gregorian Chant has a reputation for being boring is that performers have been reading from five line staves and the subtleties and detail are ironed out.

The main elements of singing from the correct Gregorian notation can be learned in about half an hour, and it is well within the abilities of the average ten-year-old for whom "Plainchant for Schools" was produced. A good Gregorian music book for congregations is Liber Cantualis, which costs a bit more than the average hymn book but solidly bound and made to last.

There has been a succession of documents from Rome reminding clergy that congregations should be familiar with the simpler Gregorian Chants and it is sad when the clergy lack the will to carry this through.

Monday, 14 January 2008

How to sing Gregorian Chant from a score

Gregorian Chant is written on a four-line stave. The notes, called neumes, are shown as squares or diamonds.

At the left hand side of the stave will be found either a symbol that looks like a telephone handset or a C, which signifies Doh, or else a symbol that looks something like the letter E with the middle stroke pointing to the left, which signifies Fa. But Doh and Fa can be any pitch that happens to be convenient for the singers, depending on the range of the music. This is very handy. If people find they cannot sing the high or low notes, the music can always be sung at a different pitch to suit their voices.

Doh clef

Fah clef

This means that there are no keys in the modern sense of the term. There are, instead, eight modes, each with a characteristic mood or mode, based on a sequence of full tone and half-tone intervals. There is a set of psalm tones for each mode. Mode 5 corresponds to the major keys in modern music and has a bright sound, whereas mode 4 is reflective and sombre.

There is no necessary correspondence between the notes as written on the four line stave and the notes on a five line stave, where each note has a defined pitch.

The notes and groups of notes are known as neumes. It is easier to sing chant from these neumes than from a transcription into modern notation. This is because some of the information about how to sing the music is lost in the transcription, as modern notation cannot describe what is meant. It is therefore important to learn how to sing from the correct notation. Once learned, it is easier, not least because there are only four lines on a stave instead of five.

For more information on how to read Gregorian chant see here