Sunday, January 13, 2008

Getting Rid of the Elephant in the Room: Chanting without the Organ

When we first started the Traditional Mass at S. Peter's, the decision was made in conversation with the pastor to use the organ with the Mass Ordinary, which is currently Mass VIII. (We're switching to Mass XVII for Lent, Deo gratias.) Since, for various reasons, I thought this might be a good way at least to get started, I was a bit more pliable than usual. In fact I'm the one that brought the subject to the pastor's attention.

It's no secret to the readership here that by far my preference is to use no organ at all for any chant. Some would say that this is merely a preference, that I'm nothing more than a purist. But is this really true?

The fact is that organ with the chant wasn't working; it was frustrating everyone, including me. Last week, I cut back on the use of the organ quite a bit, and today, once again in consultation with the pastor (as well as the schola), I used it for no chant whatsoever. The schola was having a hard time following the organ, in spite of our work in coordinating rhythm, etc. It seemed that the organ did nothing but sew confusion with the singers. (This has been my impression for years, and it has always come from situations with qualified organists.) Besides, not many in the congregation were singing anyway, and isn't the point of using the organ to support the congregation? Well, if they aren't singing, what's to be lost?

Guess what happened. The sound of the schola improved vastly. Intonation was better than ever. Rhythm was spot on. They were more relaxed since they didn't have to compete with the organ's drone. And, lo and behold, the congregational singing was much, much better.

One person with whom I studied chant used to say, "Remember, we are dancing." Chant should dance. It will if the rhythm is employed properly. But an organ accompanying chant does not dance. It's more like an elephant. Elephants stomp, they don't dance. I don't think anyone wants to listen to music like that.

We are only just beginning, and there is a long way to go. But today, we took off the training wheels, and I'm excited about the possible payoff.

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