Monday, February 04, 2008

Candlemas Chant

An interesting turn of events at the St. Cecilia sacred music workshop took place that teaches an important lesson about chant and method. Because we have a shortage of priests, there was no Candlemas liturgy scheduled on the second day of the workshop. A priest who was attending volunteered to offer a Mass in the morning, and he requested some singers to sing the propers. We were all too exhausted to think of practicing that previous evening. So we gathered in the morning, about 20 minutes before Mass began and put together a plan for the music.

There were six of us from different areas in the country. All of us had been trained in the classical Solesmes style of reading and singing chant. The schola directed gave the pitch and we navigated the notes rhythms of the introit and communio of the day. To our excitement and astonishment, there were no disagreements or conflicts on how it should be sung. We treated the controversial aspects of rhythm (episemas, quilismas, the salicus, etc.) according to the rules that are traditional in the Mocquereau/Gajard/Turkington practice. We did all of this with no discussion at all.

And the result was near unity from the very first time we sang. This gave us confidence as a group. We ran through them once or twice more, and the liturgy began. The results were just beautiful in every way.

It was an excellent demonstration of why there needs to be a universal standard for rhythm and interpretation, at least something that everyone can agree on as a starting point. All of us had been singing chant in our parishes in a manner that permitted us to combine our experiences into a single voice. I seriously doubt that this kind of unity can be expected even of an orchestral group being ask to perform a concerto. My respect for the old school soared after this experience.

That's not to say that smaller scholas serving specialized purposes cannot involve themselves in deep studies of the Triplex, or experimenting with style, rhythm, and even notes. All of this is fine and even welcome as a source of scholarship and interpretive life. But on such occasions as this, there has to be some basic structure of interpretation so that the chants can be sung even when there is very little rehearsal time. This, I believe, is what the old school was trying to get at in advancing its rhythmic principles.

It also helped me realize something that is hugely important for the future. The traditional approach to singing chant has made great strides in the last five years or so. A consensus has emerged, at least in the United States, in favor of singing the chant precisely as it has long been sung in the old Solesmes style, with its legendary freedom and beauty.

(final note: the program director says there are only 20 spots left in Turkington's Chant Intensive)

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