The following article is from David Clayton, artist and lecturer at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in New Hampshire. The Cardinal Newman Society sponsored Clayton's attendance at Sacra Liturgia 2013 in Rome, where he joined hundreds of other participants in the conference that aimed to study, promote and renew appreciation for the liturgy. The Newman Society hopes to help spur on this liturgical renewal in Catholic higher education.
I am not an expert in chant, but at any classes I teach I always insist that the prayers are sung and that we learn to sing the Office. So I am always looking out for helpful hints on what I should be teaching others.
At the end of each day at the Sacra Liturgia 2013 we attended either Holy Mass or Vespers. Each was in Latin with a great choir leading us in a beautiful church that just seemed made for the purpose. All attendees were given well bound, hard book books with the full Latin text, translated into four languages with notation for all the Gregorian chant.
One of the main thrusts of this conference was the importance of Latin in the liturgy (Anglican Ordinariate excepted) and for more recognition that chant and polyphony are the norm for music, as stipulated by Pius X. It was no surprise that many present were experienced at singing chant and were able to sing with the choir.
What struck me and surprised me was how many people who knew the notes did not seem to make any attempt to blend in with the others singing. They sang at the top of their voices at a volume (in the case of a person near to me) that was so loud that I couldn't hear anything else. This meant that he couldn't possibly have listened to others as he sang. People jumped in early or late and then sped through the first syllables until they caught up.
I don't know if this is the right way to do it, but I always reckon that in order to blend in I should aim to sing at a volume that is loud enough so I can hear myself; but quiet enough so that I can hear the cantor or leading choir or (in the absence of these), my neighbours, as I sing. The loudness of my voice would allow me to compare what I was singing with another voice and increase my chances of actually hitting the right notes. On the other hand this was at a low enough level that I just had to trust that although it didn't feel like it, my voice would be adding to the collective unified voice of the congregation. I will admit that at Sacra Liturga I didn't remember to put this advice into practice myself until I noticed what was going on around me and realised that I was contributing to the problem as well.
This does raise the question though, that if even this congregation couldn't be unified, what hope for an average parish? One can never expect perfection and it seems that if we really do want a general practice of congregational singing of chant, then we must accept that they are not going to have the unified voice of a monastic choir that sings together daily. Nevertheless, we might as well try, so, here's a note to choir directors: while we hope for the increased ability to sing in congregations, we can teach people not only to chant but also to chant with others! Also, if we encourage congregations to sing with a choir, the director could explain each time before the Mass or Vespers how we hope to achieve unity - perhaps listening as they sing, or directing with hand signals.
The second thing that struck me was the rhythm with which the psalms were sung. I had heard the maxim 'slowly is not holy' and this choir had certainly adopted this. They rattled through the Latin extending and softening slightly the final syllable of each line. Although the choir was a mixture of male and female voices, the chant was pitched low so that the strong male voices dominated. This gave the sound a good vigorous masculine sound which enabled the amateurs, such as myself, to easily join in. This is in accord with advice I was given when I wanted to introduce a simple chant for the Divine Office at Thomas More College - if you have the male voices dominating then both the men and the women will be able to join in. If you have a female cantor, then only the women will sing along because it will be too high for the men.
The pause between the first and second line of each couplet of the psalms was long and obvious; and so accentuated the contemplative element. Because there were good acoustics in the church, we would hear a feint echo of the voices and it always made me feel that angels were singing with us. The difficulty here was coming in together when we started. As I mentioned, the congregation struggled with this and there would always be one or two voices diving in early. My way of trying to deal with this was to aim to come in with the choir but on the second syllable of each line. So on hearing the first, that was my signal to come in on the second a split second later.
Read David Clayton's earlier articles on: Practical Ways a Catholic College Can Beautify a Campus Chapel and A School of Love: the Sacred Liturgy and Education.
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