Monday, October 23, 2006

Chant workshop in Reno, Nevada

Colleague and crusader Greg Plese of California reports on this past weekend's chant workshop in Reno, Nevada:

This past Friday and Saturday, October 20 and 21, Professor William Mahrt [of Stanford University and president of the Church Music Association of America] conducted a chant workshop at St. Thomas Aquinas Cathedral in Reno, NV. About 26 people from Nevada, California, and Idaho attended.

Professor Mahrt began the workshop by commenting that, for hundreds of years, people learned chant by listening and memorizing, since notation had not been developed. So, for the first hour, we learned several chants without any musical notation. Fortunately for us participants, this was not the rule for the entire workshop, but we did see an obvious difference when we went from singing by imitation to singing from notation: where initially we were singing a melody, and making the subtle changes in rhythm and intonation characteristic of a song, when we picked up the notated version, we immediately stated "singing the notes", that is, focusing on each individual neume rather than the phrasing of the verse as a whole. It was an illuminating experience.

Professor Mahrt spoke at length about beauty: not only are the chants beautiful, but they bring beauty to the liturgy. In explaining some of the definitions of beauty that have come to us from St. Thomas and others, he showed how the use of chant not only elucidates the text of the verse, but its setting and employment at different parts of the liturgy can vary according to its liturgical function. Using the Psalm text "Justus ut palma florebit: sicut cedrus Libani multiplicabitur", he showed how different types of melodies allowed the same verse to be used as an Introit, an Offertory, a Gradual, an Alleluia, and as a regular Psalm verse. The differences in the melody and the use of melisma point up the different functions the verse is playing in the liturgy at that point: accompanying a procession of ministers, the incensing of the altar and the congregation, or as a call to mediation and attentiveness to the readings.

The beauty of chant, when properly employed, brings us back to the sacred, and makes the liturgy more sacred. Chant is recognizable as 'sacred' music, even to those who do not know what it is, because of it "aims at something beyond", which Professor Mahrt explained was a phrase that a colleague of his always used.

He also told many anecdotes in the course of the two days. One concerned monastic rules for pausing between the two 'halves' of a Psalm verse sung to a Psalm tone: some abbeys suggested the silent recitation of "Ave" between the two parts; others, "Ave Maria". A friend of his found the instruction, at St. Alban's, of saying "Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum", which she was sure was a mistake, but on attending a service in that cathedral, found that the reverberation of the space required just that amount of silence between the verses. He also told a personal story of his background, and mentioned that growing up he never realized that anything except the "4 hymn sandwich" existed as a model for the liturgy until, as a music major in graduate school, he was told to learn all the chants for Holy Week to assist in the liturgies. This was the first time he had ever heard chant, and he remembers the occasion and the beauties of the chants to this day.

The workshop concluded with the attendees singing for the Saturday evening Mass at the Cathedral. The propers for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time were sung for the Introit ("Ego clamavi"), Offertory ("Meditabor"), and Communion ("Domine Dominus Noster") from the Gregorian Missal, and the Ordinary for Mass XI (Orbis Factor) was used, with the substitution of the Gloria from Mass VIII (De Angelis).

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