07 November, 2007

Plainsong in Crisis

Thanks to In Illo Tempore, I discovered the website Musica Sacra of the Church Music Asocation of America, which has either linked or made available for download a number of texts on plainsong, or chant (are they the same? I don't know). Most of the documents are somewhat old and scholarly, but one is a relatively recent (May 2006) article from the well-known magazine Crisis: An Idiot's Guide to Square Notes. The idea is to inspire readers to try chant in their parishes. It's quite a good introduction, I think; I've been praying using chant for years, and I learned something from the article.

What follows are a few excerpts, with comments:

Our modern notions of what music should sound like are the the great enemy of chant. You have to throw out all stylings that you hear on the radio, or even in classical music. ...Most of all, forget your own personality. The chant is sung as a prayer that is spoken privately—with self-surrender, deference, and humility—except for one difference: it uses music. If you can remember that, the rest will fall into place.
This prayerful character about chant is the reason I like to sing the Divine Office even though I have no interest in joining the parish choir. I can appreciate an oratorio and a number of 19th- and early 20th-century hymns (I grew up Baptist after all). I even like a significant amount of modern-style hymns, including the "folk masses". But chant is very different.

Most of the other music feels like a performance, and it often becomes one even in a church setting. This, I suspect, is one reason people feel compelled to offer respectful applause following a particularly well-done, moving hymn. Chant doesn't come off that way. I've listened to, and participated in, chant on a number of occasions; chant has always accompanied the most spiritual and uplifting Masses that I've attended. Yet I've never felt the urge to applaud the choir afterwards. Well-done chant doesn't inspire applause.

Perhaps this is why I can't usually bear to listen to chant on the radio, or on a CD, even though I often listen to classical music on the radio, and even modern-style music, if it agrees with my taste.
Why not sing the chant in English? The short answer: It's just not the same. Even in the most competent hands, the text cannot and will not work as well with the music. ...Also, the vernacular always introduces struggles over text, many of which can become political.
The authors have a point, but I don't think it's as strong as they suggest. Consider for example Veni, veni Emmanuel. We know this in English as O Come O Come Emmanuel; the Anglican cleric John Mason Neale translated this famous and ancient chant quite competely. I know the Latin well enough to know that Neale diverged a bit ("Emmanuel shall come to thee" vs. the actual "Emmanuel is born for thee") but he captured the essence quite beautifully I think. I would say this about a number of other chants that he and others translated during the 19th and 20th centuries. The hymn continues to be sung every Christmas season even in Protestant churches, although I've never heard it sung in church as a chant, but rather as a 19th-century hymn that preserves the chant's essential melody. It seems to be quite popular, as are a few others.

Here lies a problem. Chant is supposed to be a prayer, not a performance. If we sing it in Latin in a congregation that (a) is accustomed to later musical styles, and (b) has no schooling in Latin, then the congregation is unlikely to join the prayer, and may likely regard it as a performance to hear and appreciate, but nothing more. Most masses I attend lack the character of prayer that is essential for chant.

Singing chant in English, and drawing the people into participation, might help overcome this, the way that I've seen Greek and Russian Orthodox faithful participate in the chants sung in their churches. Then again, it might not. I don't think it would fare any worse than singing them in Latin, though.

There are serious trends alive today that will eventually require Church musicians at all levels to revisit the chant tradition.
I wish I could share their optimism. I don't think chant will die out, but I suspect it will never attain the pride of place that Vatican II wished for it. If it does, "eventually" means a long, long time from now, and I think that's a shame. But, as someone once observed, it's inportant not to confuse personal taste with genuine spirituality.


Clemens said...

Interesting. I agree with you about the English. In the Episcopal Church much of the service is chanted rather than spoken. Since I have grown up with this is seems to say something to me both in listening and chanting.

I also have a CD that I bought at Holy Cross monastery of modern singing (not sure it is really chant) in Arabic, Hebrew, and Aramaic. The more I listen the more I appreciate. I also picked one up of Eastern Orthodox chant done in English. Beautiful, moving, and I suspect within the spiritual compass of most Christians.

jack perry said...

In the Episcopal Church much of the service is chanted rather than spoken.

Is that true of all Episcopal Churches? I was in an Episcopal Church at least once, and I don't recall their chanting much.

...not sure it is really chant...

This is a question I have, too. What is the definition of chant? I think I know it when I hear it (to misuse OWHolmes' phrase) but that doesn't give me a definition.

I also picked one up of Eastern Orthodox chant done in English.

That's another excellent example of chant done beautifully outside the mother tongue. I have never failed to find Orthodox chant moving and beautiful, regardless of the language. I love Latin but we have a problem in the Catholic Church with people who think there is only one way to do chant properly. The result is the insipid culture of hymns we suffer today.