Tuesday, May 19, 2015

In case of organ failure: on singing by rote and how the medievals learned Gregorian chant

Calamity struck last Sunday at my local Anglican Use parish. A wild Texas thunderstorm rolled over us, sending the church's pipe organ on the fritz. Since they've succumbed to the modernism of powering the instrument by electricity, rather than by a team of serfs (or parochial school freshmen) at the pumps, the chant schola which sings all the music for the parish's Sunday evening Mass had to go live with nothing but a pitch pipe. There were also delays in practice due to an Evensong which had been sung just prior to the Mass, so while the choirmaster was busy, it defaulted to me to help the other chanters get started with rehearsing the propers.

How an organ works, the old-fashioned way

This is always a lamentable situation because (confession time) I have no formal education in music theory, other than a few years in middle school band.... and there, I played the drums. Most of the other chanters in this schola are young men who have been in the parish school's choral program (which is mandatory for every grade) for many years, so ironically, I'm usually the only person in the room who struggles with identifying the notes on a modern staff without thinking hard about FACE and "Every Good Boy Does Fine". 

On the other hand, I also have the most experience with Gregorian chant in particular. Over the years, I've more-or-less memorized entire Introits and Graduals that get used but once a year in the liturgical cycle. Singing in a Gregorian schola is a uniquely brutal experience because, depending on how ambitious it is (and the schola for the local diocesan traditional Latin Mass, where I also regularly assist, has especially lofty musical aspirations), you can learn up to five intricate, "melismatic" chants per week, only to never use them again until that Sunday recurs the next year. These are the proper chants, which vary by the Sunday or feast: the Introit, Gradual, Alleluia (or Tract in Lent), Offertory, and Communion antiphons. The vast majority of any intermediate-or-above schola's rehearsal time is dedicated to a grueling mode of subsistence where these chants are learned, then immediately forgotten. There's barely any time left over to study new techniques or learn new Ordinaries of the Mass (settings for the fixed parts of the liturgy, such as the Kyrie and Gloria). The choirmasters of the later Renaissance and Counter-Reformation knew this got in the way of mastering the new polyphonic works in vogue in the great chapels and cathedrals of Europe, and that something had to be done. For several centuries, proper chants were simplified into psalm tones or discarded entirely. Today, in the vast majority of Catholic churches, they've been reduced to sentences read aloud by the priest before doing something more important.

When I first joined a chant schola at Ave Maria University in 2007, I had no real singing experience whatsoever; I just thought Gregorian chant was cool and wanted to imitate what I had heard in CD's. I learned how to read the traditional four-line, measureless staff with square notes that still confounds professional singers. I was taught what a "quilisma" was. But I wasn't learning fast enough to join the elite singers who were tasked with cantoring the verses of the Gradual and Alleluia, so I cheated. Rather than spend more time on theory, I simply looked up recordings of those Graduals and Alleluias on the Internet and listened to them over and over again, singing along until I had the melodies memorized. By the end of the semester, I was able to be a cantor for those verses, too. Last Sunday, after eight years of chanting week in and out, I was able to help these better-trained singers get started simply from memory, saying, "follow my lead". Eventually, you just come to know what a difficult phrase in chant is supposed to sound like without having to bang it out on a keyboard because the entire corpus of work is governed by an unwritten set of rules where, if you violate one of the conventions of chant, you'll know it in your heart.

It only occurred to me later that teaching by rote was how plainchant was imparted during its heyday. The four-line musical staff itself, after all, was only invented in the early 11th century by Guido of Arezzo to ease the learning of an art which had been taught orally for six hundred or more years prior. Imagine the daily experience of a novice Benedictine monk: he is thrown into a world where he must dedicate as much as six hours of his day to singing the Divine Office. Imagine, also, that in these earlier centuries, there weren't enough books to go around for every monk in the house.  If they did use books, it was likely to be a giant edition which the entire choir could look upon at once, and even then, only as a memory aid. Therefore, even in those communities which were filled with upper-class boys who already knew how to read and write, the business of learning the psalms was one of memory. A novice of average intelligence was expected to memorize all 150 in about half a year. I expect less than 1% of all priests today could claim such a feat.

There's a fascinating citation in the book Medieval Music and the Art of Memory by Anna Berger. In it, she writes:

'Craig Wright has demonstrated that Notre Dame of Paris singers were expected to memorize chant throughout the seventeenth century. He quotes from the Caeremoniale Parisiense from 1662, which specifies: "Things should be sung by memory following the example of the metropolitan church of Paris and other cathedral churches of the realm; in which chruch of Paris the singers always sing by memory whatever they have to sing both at Mass and at the hours including all Invitatory psalms Venite, all responsories, graduals with verses, Alleluias also with verses, and certain other things."' (Medieval Music and the Art of Memory, page 48)

Even well into the 1600's, when manuscripts with musical notation were far more available, the singers at Notre-Dame were expected to maintain the tradition of singing all chants, including the Graduals, from memory. To do this, they surely were taught to do so by a regime of repeating the notes of their choirmasters, taking familiar chant phrases and formulae to heart, for years on end. It seems that, in my own peculiar way, by practicing chant by following along in CD's in the car or recordings from monasteries on the Internet, I've been able to imitate this medieval tradition in a uniquely modern way.

From the Camaldolese Gradual, c.1380

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Lay piety in the Middle Ages: radio hour is now up

Dear readers,

I was invited to speak on the radio for the first time ever yesterday, and the recording for that program is now posted! Noah Moerbeek and I discussed lay piety during the Middle Ages for an hour on a program called "The Shield of Faith" with Matthew Arnold, on Radio Maria. If you missed it or want to hear the program again, please click on this link and either hit the play button, or download the .mp3 file. For recordings of other past programs, many which also feature Mr. Moerbeek, go to this page.

While you're listening, please also have this page open. This was the blog post I created with images related to the things we discussed yesterday. When it comes to the faith of a people so largely informed by the eyes, there's nothing quite like having visual references!

If you have visited this blog for the first time, I invite you to "like" my blog's Facebook page here so that you can keep up with new posts and other items of interest as they come up! 

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Lay piety in the Middle Ages

Here are some images to look at during our talk on lay piety in the Middle Ages. We might not get to all of these subjects and items of interest in an hour, I might forget to mention some of them, or we might possibly go a little out of order.... but please enjoy regardless!

The Mass: source and summit of the faith

An elevation at high Mass within an illuminted initial in the Ranworth Antiphonal, 15th century
Elevation with torchbearers in a window at Doddiscombsleigh, Devon.

The Mass of St Giles; note the altar is fully clothed and surrounded by curtains

A laywoman receiving Communion (kneeling, on the tongue), as shown in a tapestry at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London

The sanctuary and quire of St Helen's, Ranworth, separated by a chancel screen

The Divine Office: the liturgy sanctifying the day

The family of Saint Thomas More by Hans Holbein, all with books of hours in hand?

A page from King Richard III's book of hours, with the Annunciation in the initial

A book of hours produced in Bruges, Belgium. England commissioned and imported many books from the Low Countries; as a bibliophile, Richard III's protectionist trade policies from his parliament of 1484 specifically made exceptions for the importing of books

Pages from the Black Book of Hours

Cults and foci of worship

Pre-Gothic: Christ Pantocrator (all-powerful), judge of the world, in a Romanesque church in Sicily

International Gothic: the Crucifixion is rendered in a way to emphasize the humanity of Christ

Saint Louis IX, King of France, spent twice as much money to buy the crown of thorns from the Byzantine Emperor than to build the entire chapel for it: the Sainte-Chapelle, Paris

The "coat of arms" of Christ: the Sacred Heart and the five wounds

Catholics of the north held up the Five Wounds as banners of war when they rose up against King Henry VIII during the "Pilgrimage of Grace" to restore the monasteries and ancient observances.

Saint James (in the middle column) greets pilgrims to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

Appearance on Radio Maria tonight

If you can, please tune in to Radio Maria tonight at 6pm central time. I've been invited to speak on a program called The Shield of Faith for an hour on the subject of lay piety in the Middle Ages. I hope you're excited. I've never been on a radio program before!

To listen, go to this website, select your region, then find the live stream.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Scenes of peasant life: the Luttrell Psalter Film

A fan on Modern Medievalism's Facebook page shared with me a link to the following video: the "Luttrell Psalter Film".
This is a charming 20-minute short film which re-enacts scenes of peasant life from a manuscript called the Luttrell Psalter. This book, containing the 150 Psalms, the order of Mass, and various other prayers was made for a lord by the name of Sir Geoffrey Luttrell (1276-1345). The psalter is remarkable not only for its religious imagery, but particularly for its many illustrations of Luttrell's peasants working the land. Some are whimsical, such as that of the husband-beating wife. If you have 20 minutes to kill, take a seat, full-screen that video above, and enjoy the show!

Spousal abuse: prime comedy in medieval times.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Gothic revival workplace

I'm about to transition from menial labor in a nondescript office environment, to a temporary work-from-home situation, then finally to the last, glorious stage of complete unemployment (at least for a little while). There isn't much natural about the modern condition of being corralled together for eight or nine hours at a time with people one has next to nothing in common with, but since that's the reality of our current economy, it would be nice if the architects of our workspaces could at least design some buildings we would actually like to toil our short lifespans away in.

I have a small obsession with designing the ultimate Gothic revival office building. I would post my sketches of such a feat if I could, but since I lamentably failed to develop any skills in architectural drawing thus far, the best I can do is share pictures I've collected of Gothic revival office buildings around the world. All of these are exteriors; sadly, very little attention has been to the interior furnishing and décor of these structures. As much as possible, I'm limiting these to office buildings which are neither collegiate, nor courts of law, nor legislative houses or official state palaces.

The Tower Life Building, begun in 1927, was San Antonio, Texas's tallest skyscraper for several decades. The first six levels housed the city's first Sears/Roebuck store.
The Confederation Building, Ottawa, also begun in 1927. This might be cheating since it's a government office next to the Canadian Parliament...

The Woolworth Building, New York City (photo as it appeared in 1903), designed by renowned architect Cass Gilbert. It had a 17-year run as world's tallest building. This tower was the inspiration for Gothic revival skyscrapers across America. Just imagine: the "cathedral of commerce" was corporate headquarters for Woolworth's, which would eventually become Foot Locker! Yes, Foot Locker headquarters was probably nicer than your diocese's cathedral.

The summit of the Woolworth Tower (the penthouse condo is just $110 million!). Coincidentally, I've been privileged to visit one of Cass Gilbert's other buildings, Battle Hall at the University of Texas campus in Austin, where the school's architecture library is housed, to check out a book on Augustus Pugin.

The Federal Realty Building, Oakland, California. Seems needlessly skinny, though.

The Tribune Tower, Chicago was modeled after the "butter tower" at Rouen Cathedral.

The Tribune Tower's tip, with unusual use of buttresses in a modern structure.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Complicated weddings

Our wedding photo series (here) remains the most popular article series on this blog. It's a shame I didn't think to add the following entry from the Low Churchman's Guide to Solemn High Mass to our programs.....

Complicated Weddings 

It goes without saying that loyal churchmen do not allow their children to marry ritualists. Sometimes, however, two persons of a ritualist persuasion will marry each other. Such marriages are deeply unfortunate, since two ritualists who share a home will only confirm each other in their fanatical extremism. One shudders to think of the children produced by such a union, for whom even such horrors as Compline and the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin would be accepted as everyday occurrences.
When two ritualists make plans for their marriage, their first priority will be to organize an elaborate wedding ceremony; indeed, in many cases it may appear as though the marriage itself is a mere pretext to arrange this service. Ritualists are especially eager to hold such complicated weddings because marriage provides a pretext to trick their family members and social acquaintances into attending ritualist worship, as it were by stealth. It is not clear whether Ritualists view such wedding invitations as an opportunity to make converts to their cause or as a form of abuse; if the latter, they are notably successful. The loyal churchman, aware of such stratagems, will refuse all wedding invitations as a matter of course unless he has been assured that the ceremony will contain no ritualist elements.
The English church, in its infinite wisdom, has appointed a brief Office for the Solemnization of Matrimony, which if performed soberly and without such irrelevancies as processions or music can be concluded in twenty minutes without difficulty. There is no need to affix this nuptial office to any of the other services of divine worship, which are meant to be celebrated separately: that which the Prayer Book hath put asunder let no man rashly join together. Among Ritualists, however, the marriage service is not considered complete unless it is preceded by a Grand Procession with confraternity banners and followed by a Solemn High Mass, a Solemn Angelus with Benediction of St Ursula, a Te Deum, the Rededication of a Lightly Used Monstrance, the Conditional Rebaptism of the Oblates of St Januarius, and the Requiem Dance of the Seven Virgins. By the time the bride and groom emerge from the cloud of incense in which the service had begun six hours earlier, they are typically greeted by an empty church, as all their guests are in an adjoining room being treated for smoke inhalation and heat exhaustion.