Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Responsorial Psalm reexamined

At the June 2007 Sacred Music colloquium, CMAA President Prof. William Mahrt gave a talk Friday night about the Responsorial Psalm, which is commonly used after Vatican II instead of the Gradual. Some believe that the Gradual was superseded by the Responsorial Psalm after Vatican II. Actually, guidelines currently in effect say that either is permissible.

The Gradual needs to be sung or at least led by a choir. It is proper to the occasion, which means a new one needs to be prepared for almost every Mass. Its form is in keeping with its liturgical function. Coming directly after the Lesson, it seems to be designed to complement it. In the Gradual, a small amount of text is sung to "the greatest number of notes," in tune with its purpose of aiding reflection while the congregation is absorbing the lesson. Prof. Mahrt said that in his experience, white noise stops dramatically after the Gradual is sung, because after the music has done its job, the congregation has effectively become recollected.

For an example of the beauty of the Gradual, Prof. Mahrt had those of us in the women's schola sing the Gradual for the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, which we had been practicing for the upcoming feast day. He contrasted the ornate richness of the Gradual with the relative insipidity of the feast's prescribed responsorial Psalm, for which the congregation sings the Antiphon: I praise you, for I am wonderfully made to an awkward melody.

The antiphonal singing of the Responsorial Psalm engages the congregation in an activity. Its melodies are not interesting or effective. Even though the documents say that its purpose is meditation, Mahrt wonders, since it does not further recollection, what purpose does it have, then? Some liturgists say that it is designed to give the congregation something to do.

In his writings and in his lectures, Mahrt often explains that the post-Vatican II guiding phrase "active participation," which is quoted often to justify keeping the congregation busy by singing in parts of the Mass where the choir used to sing, does not actually mean the congregation must be singing. Active participation can and should be attentiveness and contemplation during the times when it is most appropriate, such as during the opening procession, or when the lessons should be absorbed and pondered, or when the congregation is approaching the altar for Communion.

Prof. Mahrt then gave some well-developed suggestions for gradual (no pun intended) musical compromises that a choir director might introduce in stages that could lead to the full use of the Gradual in a Church's Masses.

Related to this topic, here is a little adventure of mine that reinforced what I'd learned from the lecture. On the last day of the colloquium, I wandered into the upper Shrine of the Immaculate Conception while in last minute search of subjects to photograph. I chanced into the middle of a Mass with multiple concelebrants at the moment when the cantor was leading the people in the day’s simple little antiphon for the responsorial psalm: I will praise you for you are wonderfully made.

And I was struck by the contrast between the loftiness of the Church and the impressive appearance of the multiple vested concelebrants on the one hand and the flatness of the text and the triviality of the melody. Any of the treatments Prof. Mahrt provided in his talk on the Gradual would have been much more in keeping with the solemnity of the moment and the surroundings.

Here is the Gradual sung by the women's schola in Mahrt's Gradual class and at two Masses we sang for the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist.

Since I first wrote this, I found a good discussion on how to include the Gradual by Jeffrey Tucker and a lot of educated comments at the New Liturgical Movement blog.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Hint: Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall. Question: What's an Ember Day?

Reading Apel's Gregorian Chant Chapter Two about the liturgy, I came across the term Ember days. I remember hearing the term when I was a kid, but I never understood them or remember seeing them observed.

What I do know at this point is that Ember days used to be observed during one week at the start of each of the four seasons of the year. During those weeks, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday were set aside for fasting and prayer.

Ordinations to the diaconate and the priesthood occurred on Ember Saturdays. I recently attended the ordination of my brother in Carmel, Lawrence Poncini OCD, on the Saturday after Pentecost, which is an Ember Week. So, it seems that even though the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has downplayed Ember days, and even though their observance has just about disappeared, ordinations are still performed according to the old observance.

The Latin name for those four times was Quatuor Temporum -- which means Four Times. They occurred in Winter during Advent (after St. Lucy's feast on Dec. 13), Spring (after Ash Wednesday, between the First and Second Sundays of Lent), Summer (the week after Pentecost), and Fall (the week after the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.

The term Ember Days evolved from Quatuor Temporum as follows, according to Essays on Liturgiology and Church History by Anglican Divine, Rev. J. M. Neale, D.D.. "In French and Italian the term is the same; in Spanish and Portuguese they are simply Temporas. German converts them into Quatember, and thence, by the easy corruption of dropping the first syllable, a corruption which also takes place in some other words, we get the English Ember." From "Church Festivals and Their Household Words" in Neal Lectures of Litergiology

I found some good answers to my related question, "Whatever Happened to Ember Days?" about the post Vatican II decision to drop Ember days from the Church calendar at Benedictus Deus blog. He references a 2003 meeting of the USCCB discussing and downplaying Ember Days. Also important on this topic is the Ember Days posting at the 1938 Catholic Encyclopedia online, which ends "Some of these lessons [from the Ember Days readings from the Roman Missal] contain promises of a bountiful harvest for those that serve God."

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Part Two: Gregorian Chant, my Introduction to an Introduction to an Introduction

Today's Points from Apel's Gregorian Chant, Chapter One, Definition and Terminology

Polyphonic (multivoiced) music developed from chant. (This development was illustrated very well for me the first time I saw Professor Mahrt teach, at a Saturday singer's workshop. He began by teaching us to sing a chant whose single melodic line was incorporated into a later polyphonic piece that we then sang together in parts. So during that hour, we sung through the evolution of polyphonic music from chant.)

+ After chant's first one thousand years of vital growth, polyphonic music started to challenge its parent.

+ Beginning in the fifteenth century, organ music too "became a successful competitor."

+ Ideas "arising in the sixteenth century ... led to a revision of the old melodies, a revision actually amounting to a complete distortion of their essential qualities."

+ In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, chant "was only a shadow of its former self, and . . . threatened with extinction."

+ A group of scholars, mostly French, rescued chant by studying the medievel manuscripts and "brought the old tradition to new life." L. Lambillotte was one of the first, and the monks of Solesmes followed.

+ In 1903, chant was "officially adopted by the Roman Church" under Pope Pius X, starting the third millennium of Gregorian chant.

Chant is purely melodic, purely vocal, sung by one or several singers. It does not use harmony, counterpoint, or any other kind of accompaniment. And it does not have strict meter and measure.

Gregorian refers to Pope Gregory I (590 - 604). He played an important role in the final arrangement of the chants. Scholars disagree about the exact nature of his contribution. Sometime, either during or after Pope Gregory, the chants were assigned to specific occasions of the Church year.

To avoid some difficulties, some use the term "Roman chant" instead of Gregorian. But, Apels points out, Gregorian chant is not merely of Roman origin. Another term whose first documented use was in the tenth century and which was "universally employed in the later Middle Ages is cantus planus" plain song or plain chant.

From a footnote:
The original meaning of cantus planus (which means plane chant, with plane meaning lying flat), was used for chants in plagal modes.

Gregorian or Roman chant is one of several that devoped in Western Europe, all using Latin. Interestingly enough, the official language of the Church was originally Greek, not replaced with Latin until the third or fourth century.

Four branches or dialects of Western chant are:
+ Gregorian in Rome
+ Ambrosian (after St. Ambrose) in Milan
+ Gallican in France
+ Mozarabic (or Visigothic) in Spain

Little remains of the Gallican and Mozarabic. But both Gregorian and Ambrosian chant are in use until this present day.

In 1958, when the book was written, research revealed another dialect of Western chant, "Old-Roman" or "City-Roman."

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Gregorian Chant, my Introduction to an Introduction to an Introduction

This is the start of my second year of singing with St. Ann choir, which performs Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony mostly at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Palo Alto, CA.

Not knowing how ignorant I was about this music when I started, I blissfully put out into the deep, and after a year, this fragile barque I've constructed of the flotsam and jetsam of whatever I could pick up in my not so copious spare time is barely keeping me afloat. After reading the first two chapters of a book I recently bought for $7.60 (used but like new) at Amazon, I believe it may help me get my sea legs (or chant legs?). The title is Gregorian Chant, by Willi Apel [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1958].

I want to take use this blog to take notes on the many points from WIlli Apel's book that are striking me as essential for getting the point about chant. I may try to create a slide presentation as an orientation that might benefit other new chantophiles too.

When I asked if I could join the choir, director Prof. William Mahrt, renowned chant scholar and medievalist, asked if I had sung Gregorian chant in the past, and with blithe assurrance I said that I learned to sing chant in parochial grammar school. To my mind then, I knew what I was doing! Besides, Besides, I had some sight reading ability from studying piano for five years as a reluctant student, some experience playing trombone and trumpet. What else would I need to know?

My estimation of my knowledge has gone downhill since then, until now I realize that I know next to nothing, even though I've been reading books and articles and attending extra workshops, beyond practicing and singing with the choir from four to twelve hours a week, depending, of course, on the season of the Church year.

Here is what I learned in the book's preface:

+ Apel pledged to provide only known verifiable facts clearly separated from conjecture and imagination, because, as he wrote, "the reader has a right to know what kind of food he is being given" p. xi. [I wish modern Bible critics and theologians would make the same pledge.]

+ Since a standard three volume Introduction to Gregorian chant (tranlsated from the German title) by Peter Wagner is foundational for Apel's studies, Apel wrote "Since I could not call it [Apels' own book on the topic] an 'Introduction to the Introduction,' I had to resign myself to giving it a name it hardly deserves" p. xi.

+ Apel deplored a then-present trend [in 1958] to setting chant to organ; he saw it as a practice destructive to chant, rendering it something "other than it really is and what it should be" p. xii.

The first principle derived from the above is this: Gregorian chant is unaccompanied singing. A second point, not mentioned in this book but elsewhere, is that Gregorian chant is prayer.

Chapter One Definition and Terminology Main Points

+ Chant is the traditional music of the Roman Catholic Church.

+ "is rooted in the pre-Christian service of the Jews,
+ "adopted distinctive characteristics as early as the third and fourth centuries of the Christian era,
+ "was fully developed in the seventh century,
+ "expanded during the enssuing foundred years,
+ "deteriorated int he sixteenth century,
+ "was restored in the late nineteenth century"

Pre 1958, when Apel was writing, chant was being used "essentially in the same form it had about a thousand years ago."