Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Lumen Christi Simple Gradual - from Adam Bartlett

This is a wonderful new resource for the Mass in the vernacular...and perhaps the EF too?

Adam Bartlett is the composer who created the Simple English Propers that have been featured on this site regularly and I am an enthusiast of his past work. I was pleased to learn, therefore, that he had produced a new set of chant propers and to receive a copy of the new Lumen Christi Simple Gradual recently.

It comes attractively bound with one version for choir and one for congregation. It turned out to be more than just propers: it has three sections. The first is the Order of the Mass in which there are scores for all parts that could be sung by priest or congregation. When some of those parts that might commonly be sung in Latin even in a predominantly English Mass, the chants in Latin are given as well - eg dominus vobiscum/ et cum ...

The second has eighteen Mass settings - most of which are the commonly sung gregorian Masses in Latin covering the main seasons and feasts of the year. There are four English chant Masses, the first is the ICEL Mass, there are two composed by Bartlett and one by his mentor Columba Kelly. This inclusion of the Latin chants is consistent with the mission of not only producing something that is good in itself for English, but something that is derived from and points to the greater tradition of chant of the Church. My hope for the future is that we see a true flowering both of the vernacular liturgy and the traditional Latin.

The third section is a set of propers, more complex than the Simple English, for the complete liturgical year - Introit, Offertory and Communion antiphons, with psalm meditations.

There is also a very well written introduction in which Bartlett explains the reasons for the production of the book and gives very helpful suggestions as to how to sing the chants for those with relatively little experience; and practical ways to introduce them gradually in congregations that might have had no exposure to chant at all.

In the end, the test of quality of this music will be time. If the music it contains is beautiful enough then congregations and choirs will want to sing it, and if it is simple enough for them to do so, they will. I can only give my personal sense so far in this regard, but for what it is worth, I think Bartlett has hit the mark here. I have had a chance to sing some of the propers in a Mass. The response of my choir and the congregation where was sang it has been positive so far.

I sing in a choir run by my friend Tom Larson, which he calls his Catholic Basics Choir. We are a choir of adults and children from our families and most of us had little experience in singing chant before they joined the choir. Until recently, we have had a program of singing the Simple English Propers and then the Latin gregorian. Our experience of this has been very good. The SEPs are easy to learn, allow for a clear articulation of the text so that the congregations can understand it, and are modal so that they connect musically to the gregorian which follows in Latin. Doing it in this way, we found that congregations are introduced to the Latin in such a way that they are less likely to feel intimidated by being presented with text they don't understand, and instead meditate on the English they have just heard, while listening to the gregorian.

Recently we have been singing these new propers. Compared to SEPs they are a step up in both complexity and beauty. They retain the advantages of the SEPs, they are still easier to learn than the gregorian if you have not done chant before; and the melodies fit the text very naturally and easily allowing for clear articulation.

In these new propers I was struck particularly by how the examples we sang anticipated the gregorian proper, not just by being in the same mode but also by using echoes of the patterns of the melody in the gregorian chant. In our case it is 'anticipated' because we learn and sing the English first. I mentioned this to Tom afterwards and he agreed. He put it like this: these are perhaps 25% more difficult to sing, but the return on the effort in terms of beauty is much more than that. 'He has nailed it with these! ' he said. Tom is not easily impressed and has been a proponent of Latin chant for years. He actually said to me that for the first time, if he went somewhere and they only did English, if they did these chants he would be happy. There is an even greater endorsement, and that is to see our soprano section, average age 7, singing both the English and then the gregorian Latin and picking them up very quickly under Tom's guidance with the help of these chants; and enjoying it!

St Augustine famously said (in his commentary on Psalm 32) that the beauty of the music can communicate a truth that words alone cannot. This is only true when the melody is of the highest calibre and when music and text are in harmony. I dare to suggest based upon my experience of these so far that these propers do this. There is as sense that the melody itself is an interpretation and illumination of the meanings of the words. 

Resources such as this used well in our parishes will not only deepen our active participation in the Ordinary Form of the Mass, but by their connection to the Latin tradition, will also open the way to a greater appreciation of the Extraordinary Form. However, as I sang these I wondered if there might be another possibility also. In a sung Mass, there places where choir directors are permitted to choose additional hymns and motets and often they will chose English texts - I have heard Victorian hymns or Anglican music (for example Tallis's If Ye Love Me). If there were a full selection of propers in the vernacular that could be sung at the appropriate juncture (in the way that the texts of the readings are read from the pulpit prior to the homily for example) of the quality of these these, I think that singing these as well would help to de-mystify and so add to the mystery. There is some overlap of course, so already it could be done partially, but there are many gaps too, so there's your next project Mr Bartlett....

You can purchase the Lumen Christi Simple Gradual here.

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