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


  1. You are so lucky your parish follows a 1 year liturgical cycle rather than the Novus Ordo's three year cycle. In college I was in a N.O. schola, it was much harder because now you have a chant cycle that is only used once every 3 years on Sundays and every other year M-Sat.

    1. This church does use the 3-year cycle, but they seem to be okay with frequently defaulting to the chant propers used in the traditional Roman Rite. For instance, yesterday was observed as an external observance of the Ascension, which, in year B, would have such-and-such an antiphon prescribed for the Communion. Instead, we used year A's, Psallite Domino, as appears in the traditional Graduale.