Thursday, August 17, 2006

Is Chant Just Too Hard for Regular Parishes?

Our little schola did work last week on the propers for this coming Sunday, but because I was absent, I hadn't seen the Introit until yesterday. I was amazed to find this seemingly impossible piece of music, which alarmed me to such an extent when first looking at it:

Here we have the exuberant text to Psalm 83, verse 10 and 11 ("Behold, O God our protector, and consider the face of your Anointed; for one day in your house is better than a thousand elsewhere..."). It is a difficult mode (IV), tricky Latin text, daring intervals, wide range, and enough rhythmic ambiguities to start a full-scale war among chant scholars.

The melismatic phrase on the fourth line really took me by surprise--it struck me as highly unusual for an Introit. Ah, but look at the text: Super Millia. Better than a thousand years. Of course we must have something of a musical exaggeration here. It is not only vast in length but vast in range, from rae up to doh and back again in a short space. This is great drama.

In any case, I found this chant incredibly difficult. And yet, the schola learned it, thanks to the aid of good pedagogy (Arlene Oost-Zinner led the session), persistence, and a love of the challenge that comes with singing this music.

Yes, learning something like this requires far more work than singing the greatest hits of 1972 every week, over and over again. But musicians love challenges.

It's one of the great tragedies of our time that musicians in Catholic parishes rarely face challenges, and so they don't enjoy the personally and spiritual satisfaction that comes with overcoming them, nor the sense of group comaraderie that comes with dealing with a chant like this. Why would any choir bother? Because the liturgy calls singers to undertake it. This repertoire helps the singers feel needed, and not expendable.

This is not the sort of chant a new choir can do in the first year or two, but it comes in time, and with such satisfying results.

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