Thursday, 19 August 2010

The revised ICEL liturgy

The revised ICEL liturgy is a huge improvement on the old. We tried it out a few months ago, including the musical settings.

Although the texts cannot reasonably be faulted, the same cannot be said of the musical setting for the responses. In the first place, they are written on a five line stave. Apparently, there was discussion about whether to use square-note/four-line notation and it was thought that round note/five line was what most people are used to.

Of course, the latter is what most musicians are used to, but many choir singers are not musicians and are more accustomed to the Gregorian notation, especially for singing that kind of music.

A further difficulty is that music that works in Latin will almost certainly not work in English because the emphasis falls differently in sentences in the two languages. Both the choir and the priest ended up stumbling over the music for the responses. The notes do not fall naturally with the words.

This is something that will need to be revised if the new liturgy is going to be accepted.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Two new composers to watch

M Therese Henderson and Jocelyn Belamide are two young composers who work together and have been making a valuable contribution to the music of the Catholic church. Little of the liturgical music from the 1970s and 80s will be of lasting value, but this collaboration is something else and it is encouraging to know that there are still composers around who can produce good quality liturgical music.

We had a visiting choir from Italy this week, with a very patient choir master who taught some of us a Mass and some other music by these composers, including a beautiful setting of the Panis Angelicus which was not at all difficult to learn.

However, it seems that most of their work has been in Italy and the settings we sang were in Italian.

They deserve a wider audience. I hope that in due course they will set their music to the Latin texts if they have not already done so, and possibly also write settings for the new English translations. If set in Latin, the music would work well with the Gregorian chant settings of the Propers and could be used for Extraordinary Form celebrations of the Mass

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Five lines good, four lines better

Arguments often arise about whether it is better to use four or five-line (modern) notation for Gregorian chant. The advocates of modern notation are usually people who have had some kind of musical training, and they have even been known to suggest that beginners should start with the modern notation then move on to the "more difficult" four line scores.

If you can't read music anyway there is absolutely no point whatsoever in bothering with modern notation for Gregorian chant. It just adds confusion. Start with the four-line scores.

The traditional notation was invented for the specific purpose of writing down the chant, so that people could sing it consistently. The notation is tailored to the chant. The groups of notes, called neumes, give a very clear indication of how they should sound, illustrating the pitch, length and dynamic in a compact and concise way with each neume on the stave directly above the syllable it refers to.

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 be portrayed in modern notation, with the result that the music itself suffers and the refinements get lost. Ultimately, modern notation destroys the chant.

So is traditional notation difficult for beginners?
Not really. Gregorian chant is graded. A single note is shown as a little black square. That could not be simpler. 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

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

The Schola Gregoriana of Cambridge

The Schola Gregoriana of Cambridge is now presenting a full programme of events around the country, to enable beginners to become acquainted with the Chant and for those familiar with it to deepen their knowledge and understanding.

For booking and more information:

Schola Gregoriana of Cambridge (events)