Gregorian Chant

I have just left a comment on Patrick Sheridan’s In answer… on a number of questions of church music. I was brought up in the Anglican tradition at St Peter’s School and a number of parishes in York gravitating around the prestige of York Minster and the inimitable Dr Francis Jackson. Naturally, when I became a Roman Catholic in 1982, I sought to take as much as possible into the world of choirs singing on west galleries, not surpliced and in choir stalls. I took the trouble to learn as much as possible about Gregorian chant and a much different approach than in Anglican cathedral and parish worship.

Roman Catholicism suffered in general from the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, the uniformity movement in liturgy, music, doctrine, pastoral methods, spirituality and everything. What followed Vatican II was an effort to put persons and humanity back into the machine, but it was an equal, opposite and excessive reaction.

People can get awfully pedantic about Gregorian chant and it can all become such a bore! Indeed, I took a long time off Gregorian chant, apart from singing some offices and parts of the Mass on certain days. To a purist, singing in English with Gregorian chant must seem quite unauthentic, but I appreciate it. Some very fine editions were produced in England at the back end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. Many Anglican religious communities trying to revive Sarum liturgical standards at least to some extent produced fine graduals and antiphoners with English texts. Some of us use them to this day.

In reality, Gregorian chant is an important part of western musical tradition, based as it is on eight modes, and not only two (minor and major) as in “modern” music. Bach often played with modes and wrote the famous Dorian fugue.

Many composers were deeply inspired by Gregorian chant, especially in twentieth-century France. I cite Marcel Dupré and Maurice Duruflé as examples among many French organists and composers.

What I wanted to instil in my fellow seminarians at Gricigliano was not to get bogged down in a “method”, but rather to sing the text and the notes accurately, but with humanity and heart. Gregorian chant often became dry and boring like scholastic theology because it was made “mechanical”, dreary, deprived of harmony or any accompaniment. This is only a part of the drama of western Catholicism since the late sixteenth century.

This is my comment that Patrick has published:

You have some good reflections on church music, something in which I have some experience. It all started at the Council of Trent when there was a movement to abolish all music other than Gregorian chant. Palestrina saved the day with the Missa Papa Marcelli.

I was in charge of music at seminary and I made it a matter of pride not to follow the Ward Method for teaching Gregorian chant. My resistance was answered by Fathers Wach and Mora bringing in the “Vamps”, two elderly ladies from France who used the strict Solesmes-Ward method. Instead of hearty chant, it was all “mi-mi-mi”, or “bouilli de chats”, a mish-mash of simpered and insipid singing. I was soon farmed out to a “parish” in Marseille and my organ loft with the old 18th century Tronci organ went to another seminarian who was more compliant with the new directives.

The only positive thing with the Solesmes movement was the restoration of mediaeval notation and its system of neumes as opposed to the nasty style of notation that was introduced in the 18th and 19th centuries. That was something positive which Dr Renwick has used for his editions of the Sarum gradual and antiphonary. The notions of binary and ternary rhythm introduced by Solesmes (Dom Gajard) were quite artificial as are signs like the episema for slowing down in places. I think more priority should be given to the natural rhythm of the text.

I have had a lot of sympathy for Perosi and I have recordings of most of his oratorios. Puccini held Perosi in high esteem, despite Perosi  being accused of plagiarising Puccini. When I come to his church music, much of it is quite nice, but I am an Anglican, and see that he didn’t have a patch on Stanford or Parry among the many other English cathedral organists of the Victorian era. When I installed an organ at the Abbey of Triors in France, I played for high Mass and played Howells Saraband for the Morning of Easter. It was much too flamboyant and Anglican. Those men are used to Nicolas de Grigny and Couperin! I learned many things from that experience.

Many gregorianists disapprove of organ accompaniment of Gregorian chant. I disagree. Harmony gives warmth to the melody as a good sauce prevents meat from being too dry to eat. I always use a soft 8 ft stop and keep the harmony very simple: tonic, dominant, subdominant and relative minor. That also helps to prevent the whole piece sliding down as happens with people singing without good breath and support.

All that seems moot in most places as music is once again based on secular standards and bad taste. You have done well to bring up the subject.

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15 Responses to Gregorian Chant

  1. Stephen K says:

    I am in full agreement and sympathy with everything you’ve written.

  2. The Rad Trad says:

    I find the French chant method effete, nothing like the contemporary Byzantine and Mozarabic chants, the context in which Gregorian Roman chant matured. I cannot fathom, inside the old St. Peter’s Basilica, the district subdeacons whimpering the Resurrexi on the Sunday of the Resurrection as if their nostrils were stuffed with garlic.

    These chants are from the heart and should be sung from the heart, and the lungs.

      • There don’t seem to be many of them, and one’s voice tends to go wobbly as one gets older. It looks a bleak place in the snow, as does anywhere. I believe it was the community of Thomas Merton.

      • ed pacht says:

        I know nearly nothing of music theory, and am perfectly aware that this is not a perfect performance, but it is an example of just what I am looking for in chant, as Rad Trad said, “These chants are from the heart and should be sung from the heart, and the lungs.” There is a robustness and a power here that is often lacking in Gregorian chanting, that catches my ear in the same way that good Byzantine chant does. Some years ago my wife and I visited Vespers at S.Benoit in Quebec, a daughter house of Solemne. Going on the mother house’s reputation I was expecting to be carried away by the chant. I was disappointed. I think the chant was technically precise n its performance, but both she and I felt it was singularly lacking in life. This, from Gethsemane is quite otherwise.

        And, yes, it was Merton’s house, and had many more monks then than it does now.

  3. Tom L says:

    How would one go about learning to sing (or in my case, at least understand) Gregorian Chant without getting bogged down in methods? Or are teachers absolutely required, and should I just unlearn all the dry stuff after following such courses?

    • It isn’t easy to give you the right advice without knowing if you have any musical background – reading notes on a five-line stave with a G or F clef and a key signature. Rhythm and phrasing are paramount in “modern” music. Gregorian chant is phrased but is more fluid than “modern” music divided into bars with a time signature. Look up “gregorian chant manual” on Google, and you will find plenty of material. Learn about the C clefs (still used for some orchestral instruments like the viola) and the relations between the tones and semitones in the scale depending on the mode. Then there are the neumes, and they need to be learned.

      You can use the Ward method if that proves useful – binary and ternary rhythm like the bars of “modern” music and the Solesmes system of accentuation and slowing. You can also do well to study different methods and see which of them seems to be more “authentic” and aesthetic. Learn the basics, and then you can decide what you want. People who play the organ and the harpsichord often started on the piano. The basics are the same, and then the finer aspects diverge as the pupil progresses.

      Joining a Gregorian choir at a church that still does it can also be a good idea. Practice at home and work with the choir. You might make quicker progress that way. It’s up to you.

      Another aspect is singing with good breathing and support so that you don’t go flat and fail to hear the difference! You don’t have to be Pavarotti, but having a good basis is important.

      • Tom L says:

        Thank you for your advice.

        I have some background in music. I began learning to play the organ many years ago, but time constraints caused me to abandon it after little more than a year. I’ve been meaning to pick it back up again, since I could at least simulate the manual keyboards with a MIDI keyboard. Solfège didn’t go as well as playing the organ, but that might have been partly the teacher’s fault.

        More and more Gregorian choirs near me are disappearing. The one in my student city was disbanded despite being quite active, on the whim of the parish priest who blamed it for low youth attendance.

      • Paul says:

        Are there any other methods written down, besides the Solesmes-Ward and Solesmes-Cardine’s semiology? What do you think of Cardine’s method?

      • I don’t have any opinion on the Dom Cardine method because I haven’t studied it. Here is a link to some informed opinions on the old and new Solesmes methods.

  4. I don’t generally like accompaniments to chant, but Fontgombault does the best job and i really enjoy them.

    • The trick is for the accompaniment to be extremely discreet, on a very soft stop of the organ (8ft stopped on the swell, box shut) and using very simple harmonies with occasional suspensions. Fontgombault was an example for me as I worked on learning to accompany Gregorian chant by harmonising the melody. I did it every day for Vespers and Compline at Gricigliano and High Mass on Sundays and feasts. Chord progressions tend to be between the tonic, dominant, subdominant and relative minor with the occasional modulation of key when one is found in the melody.

      Most Gregorian accompaniment is in D minor / F major, A minor (4th tone) and A major / F# minor, so that the reciting note of a psalm is on the A.

  5. I tend to favor Old Roman chant over Gregorian. That’s about it – I’ve no profound spiritual motivations or appropriate background to make any technical argument.

    • Here is an example, the Office of the Mass for Christmas.

      It is quite reminiscent of Greek chant with the drone voices. Frankly, it is fine in small doses, but polyphony really took off in the 16th century as composers worked out a coherent system of harmony.

      • Like I said, nothing particularly deep behind my preference. I suppose I do like the affinity it has with Greek chant. Then again, I also like Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden and the like. I pivot from droning chant to heavy distortion.

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