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The Forth in Praise Organists' Blog

The personal views of a Catholic parish organist

March 16, 2014

Chant – why the fuss?

evelyn @ 11:49 pm

A few years ago, a Church of Scotland member of our local Organists’ Society asked some of us to compose something for a small concert he was giving with his choir. I produced a chanted responsorial psalm, which turned out to be a big mistake. Knowing they were not particularly chant-oriented, I had written it out fully with all the time-signatures, rather than using any form of chant notation. Probably another mistake. The singers clearly regarded chant as an alien beast, and were obviously unhappy. They were polite to me, but I can imagine the remarks during practices. Maybe I should have taken a hand in the practices (mistake number three).

Some months later, a similar event took place in my own church, and I did the same psalm with a couple of our cantors, the audience being invited to sing the response. ‘Ah!’, said my friend of the previous disaster, enlightened. ‘So that’s how it should be done!

There’s a lot of talk, and even conflict, among Scottish Catholics about chant at the moment. It’s being talked of as something different and innovative, even ‘elitist’, or old-fashioned and needing revival. However, chant has always been with us parish Catholics, even after Vatican II. For example, the 1982 Bellahouston Gloria had chanted verses, as has the new liturgy St Magdalene Gloria, the current ‘default Gloria’ in my own church. Chant, whether in English or Latin, is simply singing in speech rhythm, rather than in measured bars. Catholics are so used to the idea, unlike our C of S colleagues, that we take it for granted and do it without thinking.

The text of the liturgy has always been rhythmically irregular, and the new liturgy is rather more so. It is difficult to set it convincingly in regular beats (though it can been done, of course – the best example I know is the Newman Gloria, magnificently set from start to finish in a rousing 4/4 metre by, ironically, serious chant-advocate James MacMillan). But the new liturgy texts do take well to the familiar ebb and flow of ‘sung-spoken’ chant. There’s nothing elitist about that (unless you think the old Bellahouston Gloria was elitist). It’s the lingua franca of Catholic liturgical singing.

The ICEL chant offered to us at the time of the new liturgy was, in my view, not the best introduction to chanting the main parts of the Mass in English. The notation, which ICEL appears to have invented, is confusing. Although they have used genuine Gregorian melodies, simplification and brevity seem to have been their main concerns. Thus we have the very boring Gloria from Missa XV and the short Sanctus and Agnus from the Requiem Mass. Did they really think we were too ignorant to recognise the funereal nature of these last two melodies? You don’t have to be old to know the Requiem chants; a familiarity with the wonderful setting by Marcel Duruflé is all that is needed. And I for one have to say I feel uncomfortable singing known Requiem melodies on an ordinary Sunday, let alone on a feast day.

However, James MacMillan is promoting chant very seriously in Musica Sacra Scotland, and now Monsignor Gerry Fitzpatrick, who runs St Mungo Music (and is chairman of the much-discussed National Music Advisory Board), has praised and recommended chant in his most recent newsletter. Chant is now deemed worthy by all parties, and hopefully a greater variety of chanted Mass settings will become available to us.

So as we all appear to be singing from the same hymn sheet (sorry, liber), there should be no reason for argument.

Unless the conflict is about music other than chant. But that’s for another post.

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