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Ever Ancient, Ever New

Rediscovering the Beauty of Chant

Few sounds are as evocative of contemplation and prayer in the Christian imagination as the sound of plainchant, the music that was born in the ancient church. Its purpose was to glorify God, lifting up the hearts of those who sing and of those who hear it. Just as the Western church has inherited a vast legacy of Gregorian chant, which is the basis of written Western music as we know it, rich traditions of cantillation as a spiritual practice also exist in many other faith traditions.

Plainchant, the chant of the Roman liturgy, possesses a timelessness—not only in its ability to transcend the ages but in its very musical make-up, since it has no set meter. In chant, music serves text as a vehicle, exalting prayer and lifting it up to God. In this marriage of text and music, the natural speech rhythms of the text drive the melody, while the beauty of the sung melody gives the text new life.

The monophonic nature of chant (a single melodic line) has a unifying power, bringing those who sing it together in one heart and one voice. Chant fuses the human voice and the breath with musical praise. A sample of plainchant can be found at tinyurl.com/plainchantvid.

In a Word

Cantillation: originally applied to the chanting of Hebrew scripture by the Jews, with its own set of symbols to suggest what note to sing, cantillation is now used interchangeably with chant. A sample of cantillation can be found at tinyurl.com/cantillationvid.

Chant is meant to be sung by an assembly as a communal musical expression. It is the collective song of the body of Christ gathered together in his name. Encouraging our choirs and congregations to engage with chant creates a timeless atmosphere for worship, promotes the song of the collective, and provides us with a viable link both to the past and to other denominations. By singing the evocative modal melodies of the chant repertoire or new pieces based upon chant-style singing, our congregations can benefit from and be enriched by the ever-ancient, ever-new beauties of chant.

Chant is a deep well from which the contemporary church can draw and be refreshed. The beauty of it is that introducing (or reintroducing) chant into our liturgies need not be a daunting task. Here I’d like to demonstrate the variety of ways that chant can be incorporated into the musical life of many a church in many a circumstance. Chant can become for your music ministry and your congregation what it is—timeless, powerful, and eminently singable.

To that end, I offer four diverse settings of chant, suitable for the reflective, penitential Lenten season and the Easter season of joy and celebration.

Attende Domine

“Hear, O Lord, and have mercy on us, who have sinned against you.”

The “Attende Domine” chant, with origins in the Mozarabic rite of the 10th century, is a confession of sin and a prayer for mercy and healing (Treasury of Latin Prayers: www.preces-latinae.org). This adaptation of the original chant by Fr. Cyprian Consiglio couples a penitential character with an expression of deep trust in God’s mercy. To modern ears, the major tonality of the piece adds to the comforting effect, grounding our confession of sin in the context of hope, forgiveness, and trust in the new dawn that our compassionate God offers to sinners. The unmetered, freely flowing chant, supported by open-fifth tonalities, creates a reflective, meditative mood conducive to simple, heartfelt prayer. A recording of the full Latin chant, with accompanying Gregorian notation and English translation, may be found at tinyurl.com/attendedomine.

The stanzas express trust in the abundance of the Trinity, praising each person of the Trinity. Confessing that we need God’s mercy and sustenance, we are returning to the relationship of love at the core of our being. By virtue of our very existence, we are held, guided, fed, and bathed in the unfathomable love of the Triune God. The heart of God is mercy. Though sin alienates us, by turning back to God’s abundant heart in our brokenness we can experience wholeness again. Singing this prayer with the gathered assembly acknowledges the social dimension of sin—our collective woundedness—and helps put us back into right relation with one another.

A cantor or unison choir may introduce the refrain, which the congregation takes over as a communal expression of penitence. The unmetered nature of the piece, as with all chant, allows the text to “breathe.” Let it flow by singing freely, according to the rhythm of the words. Remember that the notation is there as a guide and cannot capture the rhythmic flexibility of chant. Do not be too “metronomic” about the timing as notated, as this will make the chant sound unnatural.

When introducing this piece to a choir or congregation, have them speak through the text slowly and naturally, pausing at commas and other punctuation and accentuating the stressed syllables. The text is the foundation on which the chant sits, so once it is in place, singing can easily follow. The contours of the melody, the tempo, and the expressiveness of the musical phrases are shaped by the natural rhythms of the text so that music and word are seamlessly interwoven.

Because singing in Latin may be new and thus a bit intimidating, when introducing the Latin refrain be sure to accentuate the stressed syllables and lighten the unstressed:

At-ten-de Do-mi-ne, et mi-se-re-re, qui-a
pec-ca-vi-mus ti-bi.

When the accentuations of the text are firmly in place, not only is the natural musicality of the Latin heightened, but it becomes easier to pronounce and to sing. Remember that the cantor who sings the refrain first is modeling pronunciation, pitch, and phrasing for the choir (in rehearsal) and congregation (in worship).

In this setting, the integrity of the original chant melody is kept intact, and the piece can be sung entirely in unison to great effect. Possibilities for harmony in the refrain, stanza, or both, are also provided. Where choral possibilities abound, try having the alto section or a few altos add the refrain harmony. The stanza harmony may best be sung by a solo soprano, or a few baritone voices (an octave lower than written), so as not to overpower or detract from the melody. Consider performing each of the four stanzas differently. A single voice, men’s voices, women’s voices, the entire choir (in unison or with harmony, as described) can sing the stanzas, with the congregation invited in on the refrain. Once learned, consider using this refrain throughout the Lenten season, following an examination of conscience, or as a response to a prayer of confession, to be sung by the whole assembly.

Conducting chant can be a little unsettling, as there are no bar lines and no meter. Yet there is of course a natural pulse and flow to the music, based on the flow of the text. A leader can help large groups breathe together, carry through phrases, indicate beginnings of phrases, remind the singers of the accentuated syllables, and begin and end together. A word of caution to conductors, however: don’t try to make chant something it’s not! Try not to get bogged down in your gesture by counting beats and adding imaginary bar lines where there aren’t any. A complicated beat pattern is probably not the most effective way to communicate to the singers, anyway. Less is more in this case. Instead, encourage the singers to listen to one another and feel the natural pulse embodied in the text. Allow a comfortable “tempo” to emerge based on the text and the group dynamic.

As for instrumentation, a number of possibilities are available. Rather than leading, the instruments essentially create a tonal “space” or “atmosphere” in which the chant can float. A guitar or piano may play the flowing 16th-note accompaniment figure on a Csus2 chord, a drone-like ostinato which cradles the entire piece. If you have both instruments at your disposal, the piano should play only the rolled chords that occur at the beginning of each phrase, to re-establish the open fifth tonality. Bells or a vibraphone would also be effective in playing these rolled chords and would add a “shimmer” effect. The instruments create a backdrop onto which the chant melody can be “painted.” Be sure that they adopt a supportive, non-intrusive role.

In the Stillness of This Hour

“Be still and know that I am God.” (Ps. 46:10)

(Dan Damon; Hope Publishing)

While the preceding piece retained the unmetered nature of the original chant, “In the Stillness of This Hour” is an example of a piece that fits a slightly altered chant melody into the familiar format of metrical hymnody. The “Adoro Te Devote” chant, originally a French Benedictine plainsong of the 13th century, finds new life as a metrical hymn tune, with a newly composed text and two newly crafted jazz harmonizations by Rev. Daniel Charles Damon. A recording of the full Latin chant, with accompanying Gregorian notation and English translation, may be found at tinyurl.com/RWadoro.

The prayerful text of “In the Stillness of This Hour” speaks of being called back by God to be touched, healed, taught, and transformed. Owning up to our need for mercy, we encounter God’s healing presence in the stillness. Suitable during Lent, this piece would also be fitting for any worship service expressing personal or collective repentance, sorrow for sin, and desire for God’s peace. It is perhaps most suitable as a Gathering hymn or as an introduction to a time of silent prayer.

Here again we have a melody that sounds major to our ears, juxtaposing awareness of sin and a request for mercy with an irrepressible hope in God. The unison melody, derived from chant, should move slowly but steadily, unhurried and meditative. Encourage the choir to sing four-bar rather than two-bar phrases to give direction to the line and prevent syllabic “plodding” through the quarter notes.

If the piece is performed by a choir, the three stanzas may be divided up according to voice parts, i.e., stanza 1 sung by female voices, stanza 2 by male voices (or vice versa), and the final stanza all together. In my opinion, a solo voice would not work as well in this context, as the piece uses the plural (“we”) in a collective confession. For this reason, once the melody is introduced, this piece would function ideally as a congregational hymn. Or, as a blend of the two options, consider inviting the congregation in on the third stanza after the choir has sung the first two.

Dan Damon provides two possible harmonizations for the hymn. The first is a realization for the keyboard, very rich in jazz harmonies, with a new chord nearly each beat. If you opt for this version, stick to the suggested 78 beats per minute, as this slow tempo will maximize the effect of the complex harmonies undergirding the simple melody. A solo piano would be most effective for accompaniment. An intermediate pianist should be comfortable playing at this level, and even one without much jazz background should be able to achieve convincingly the contemplative, jazzy mood created by the dense harmonic texture.

The second harmonization features a somewhat simpler harmonic progression and includes chord symbols. Jazzy chords still abound in this version, however. This option may be better suited to any combination of guitar, bass, and piano, depending on your situation. A quicker tempo is suggested for this version (100 bpm), as there are fewer and less dense harmonies. Still, it should not be rushed.

If you have an obligato instrument at your disposal (flute, oboe, violin, cello, etc.), consider featuring it at the beginning of the piece, playing through the melody, and returning during the final stanza. This simple instrumental beginning could be done without chordal accompaniment from the piano/guitar, so that the simple, beautiful chant melody is heard alone, before the complexity of the harmonic underpinning is introduced. The piano/guitar would then enter on the final D major chord of the piece, drawing the singers in. This is also a way to introduce the melody to the congregation, and would work with either of the two harmonizations. If you opt for this, be sure that the solo instrumentalist establishes the tempo that the singers will then take up. (A conductor can help with this.)

The Easter Sequence

“To the Paschal Lamb give praise!”

(J. William Greene; GIA Publishing)

Moving into Easter, we come to the high point of the church year. This setting of “The Easter Sequence” presents a stirring way to mark the occasion and demonstrates again how chant can be incorporated into the liturgy in a way that is both invigorating and accessible for congregations.

The term “sequence” refers to a liturgical hymn that has its roots in the medieval church. Historically, the sequence was sung following (sequens) the Alleluia and before the gospel reading at Mass. The sequence for Easter Day, the “Victimae Paschali,” is an 11th-century plainchant that recounts the glorious resurrection of Christ, the Paschal Lamb. The English translation in this version retains the meaning of the original Latin (ascribed to Wipo of Burgundy), describing the death and resurrection of Christ in cosmic terms as the triumph of Life over Death, and from Mary Magdalene’s human perspective: the empty tomb, the shroud, the grave-clothes, the testimony of the angels, the gloriously Risen One himself. A recording of the full Latin chant, with accompanying Gregorian notation and English translation, may be found at tinyurl.com/EasterSequence.

Dr. J. William Greene does an elegant job of “metricizing” the original modal chant melody, that is, fitting it into a metered context. Doing so requires a few changes in time signature, but because the quarter note pulse remains the same, the result is seamless. The first line of the chant—“Victimae Paschali laudes. To the Paschal Lamb give praise!”—is used as a refrain throughout the piece and can be easily learned and effectively sung by the congregation. Have the cantor sing this the first time, clearly modeling pronunciation. The congregation should be able to pick it up without much difficulty. We have provided the refrain, but the entire piece is available from GIA (Item #G-5053 at giamusic.com)

This piece can be performed effectively in a variety of ways—most basically, with a cantor singing the stanzas and the congregation joining in on the refrain. If you have a choir to work with, the stanzas are set for SATB choir with harmony/descant parts and added Alleluias supporting the chant melody. (Item # G-4780 from GIA at giamusic.com.)

When introducing this piece to the choir, try having them sing through the original chant on a neutral syllable, then with the Peter J. Scagnelli English translation. For the full experience, try the Latin.

With this in their minds and ears, move to Greene’s metered setting of the piece. When the choir receives the score, have them sing the chant melody only, in whichever voice it occurs, throughout the piece.

Instrumental accompaniment is flexible here, too. This triumphant setting would work beautifully on organ or piano, depending on the circumstance. Brass parts are also available, two trumpets in B-flat or C, or two horns in F, to add a majestic dimension to the sound. (Item # G-4780INST from GIA at giamusic.com.)

On one end of the spectrum, then, we have the simple cantor/assembly version supported by piano; on the other, a full organ, brass, SATB choir extravaganza! Depending on your resources and situation, either could be fittingly joyful and uplifting.

The sequence joins in the good news of the Easter proclamation: He is risen! Whether as a choral anthem or a solo piece incorporating the congregation, this piece might be used in a celebratory, proclamatory way to usher in the Easter season at the beginning of worship or to conclude an Easter Sunday service. It would also be effective as a musical response to an Easter gospel reading from Matthew 28, John 20, Luke 24, or Mark 16, echoing the angels’ testimony and Mary’s encounter with the risen Lord. Consider also, if possible, situating this piece in its historical liturgical position right before the gospel.

Risen Christ

“Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” (Eph. 5:14)

(Christine Manderfeld, OSB; Hope Publishing)

This final offering is a newly composed homophonic chant for the Easter season. Sr. Christine Manderfeld has created a simple, beautiful SATB piece that offers a heartfelt prayer to the risen Christ, encouraging us to be aware of the splendour of his presence in our midst.

The piece is authentically a chant in that it should be sung freely, that is, not according to a set meter, but to the natural inflections of the text:

Ris-en Christ, let us walk in your pres-ence.
Let us live in the light of your shin-ing.

No tempo is marked, since this is determined by the way the text flows. The momentum and expression of the piece are driven by the natural speech rhythm. Make the most of this by having the choir speak this text in rehearsal, feeling where the weight falls naturally. This determines the movement of the phrase when sung. Avoid the tendency, when you make the transition to singing, to make every quarter note equal, and don’t forget to lighten non-stressed syllables (like the “-ing” of “shining”).

“Risen Christ,” only four lines long, would make a good response to a prayer or set of prayers, and might be used throughout the Easter season, adding continuity. Alternatively, it could be used in a meditative setting, repeated (in the manner of a Taizé chant) to deepen reflection on and through this sung prayer. Because the text speaks of walking and living in the presence of Christ, it would be an effective way to close worship, sending the assembly out to bring Christ to others and encounter the world assured of Christ’s continuing presence.

As the text drives the piece, it is perhaps best sung a cappella. A keyboard can still be helpful in teaching pitches, but should eventually drop out as the singers take ownership of their musical lines. If you decide to have some instrumental support, this needs to be done sensitively. The keyboardist should act like a singer, playing as though the keyboard has text to articulate, being careful to pause at breath marks and to follow the inflections of the text. Conductors, be wary of over-conducting. Trust the singers to “go with the flow” while, if necessary, reminding them of pauses, cut-offs, and syllabic stress.

As music director, when teaching the parts to a choir, quartet, or to the assembly (why not foster four-part singing from the congregation?), experiment with having different pairings sing their parts together: soprano and bass, soprano and tenor, soprano and alto, bass and tenor, bass and alto, etc. This allows the singers to develop an ear for the way parts come together and to listen sensitively to the whole picture. If desired, encourage the congregation to enter at “let us walk,” following the first “Risen Christ” incipit sung by the top three voice parts of the choir. Entering here (as the bass part does) creates a surge in energy and a sense of collective engagement: “Let us walk!” If four-part singing is not yet in the congregation’s repertoire, encourage them to sing the soprano melody line (an octave lower for men’s voices).

Chant Then and Now

Some things never get old. These four diverse pieces exemplify the variety of creative ways that chant might be introduced to our choirs and congregations and incorporated into our liturgies: accompanied or unaccompanied, metered or unmetered, faithful to the original chant, or something entirely new. Though this may be unfamiliar territory to many, arrangements and settings like these, sensitively introduced, can allow your congregation to benefit spiritually from the timeless beauty of chant.

In closing, let us take to heart the words of that ancient proverb (often attributed to St. Augustine): Bis orat qui cantat—The one who chants prays twice.

For additional reflection and other resources, consider reading Zac Hicks’s article “Incorporating Chant into Worship” (tinyurl.com/HicksArticle).