Friday, May 12, 2006

Chant: Simplex is Better
One of last year's frequent St Blog's sparring partners attempted to form a chant schola last Fall. I had wondered how that experiment had fared. I once had a parishioner (a graduate student in voice) who wanted to do the same many years ago. As this opportunity had come with the demise of the parish's organ choir, I endorsed the project and joined up myself. Numbers were small, skills were patchy in spots, and like Rich's schola, nothing very public came of it. Various supporters have offered their advice for the future, and the originator has some apt reflections on his experience. One thing I've missed in the commentary is the suggestion of prayer. First, let me state, I'm sure that Rich and his chantmates were praying--praying at rehearsals, praying for a degree of fruitfulness, praying for inspiration. One writer from his commentariat had an excellent suggestion: For beginners, the monastic Lauds and Vespers services are much easier than any Mass. The music is far more repetitive, as are the psalms. You'll need at least one copy of the Liber Usualis for this, as well as someone who can decipher it, but the book can be had. On that theme, I'd suggest that a beginning chant schola actually pray monastic vespers. It might take a few weeks to get up to speed, but then invite family and friends. Then keep doing it. This music is indeed a treasury, but it's value as treasure is mainly in its liturgical use. Lots of Western music is beautiful. Some of it is deeply spiritual. But music as such is not intended to be preserved on cd's, nor exclusively in monasteries and the very occasional conservative parish wise enough to hire a music director. Last week in Omaha, we used lauds and vespers from the Mundelein Psalter. It was a bit too repetitive for my taste (same Gregorian hymn tune three times) on a twice-daily basis, but as a weekly focus for a small group to sink their teeth into, it strikes me as a worthy vehicle. Two reasons for that: the music is readily singable, and I suspect once a group begins to pray in the style to which they aspire, the effort will bear its own fruits before seeding is attempted in the parish or public at-large. This experience points out why Latin chant will remain a rather exclusive preserve. First, singing in unison is deceptively difficult. Second, the use of Latin will be a huge challenge unless and until a tidal shift in the approach to language studies is effected. Third, musicians must possess a certain pastoral judgment to assess how slow to move. For folks who want progressive heads to roll, and roll last week at that, I doubt that the needful patience will be easy to come by.

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