Sunday, December 11, 2011

To Fix the Chant, Focus on the Word

Very interesting arrives at the Cafe:

Some time ago, when I woke up to the fact that "the Sacred" was steadily diminishing in my life, I determined to do something about it: I founded a schola to bring the Sacred back to the Masses in the parish church that my wife and I attend. In this effort your Chant Café has been a monumental discovery. Although I had not even heard of the article How to Start Your Own Garage Schola (co-authored by you with Arlene Ost-Zinner), I had already followed the steps you had outlined there. I had even discovered on the Internet -- by pure chance -- the Jubilate Deo booklet.

Some departures from your five steps were, however, inevitable. Our parish was in a state of interregnum (the outgoing pastor was reluctant to start anything new just before departure; the incoming pastor had vowed not to change anything substantial throughout his first year). What to do? I had a schola, and no place to chant.

At this point I made a startling and unexpected discovery -- chant is prayer. First and foremost, it is prayer. Teaching chant (a skill I had acquired when I attended a major seminary) I would be teaching people a new way to pray! (At this point, I'm afraid, you are likely thinking -- "The earth is round, you say?" Still, hear me out.)

We had our first meeting in a room of the Public Library. (No space was available at the Parish.) After introductions and some casual chatting I called the group to order. Then I said: "Let's begin with a prayer. Just follow me." Then I intoned the words "Our Father ..." and all in the room chanted on one note, peacefully and beautifully, to the final Amen. The silence that followed was deafening. I will never forget that moment.

Since that first evening we have begun our weekly practice-sessions exactly that way. Afterwards, before the practice, I say -- "Remember, we are learning to pray. The words we pray are the most important part of chant."

I have been astonished at how much this emphasis on prayer has contributed to our ability to chant well and, perhaps more important still, to wait patiently for the opportunity to chant in the liturgy of the Church. Above all, striving to attain una voce chanting is almost automatic. The shared music brings us together. Our differences disappear. Before we practice a chant we read the prayer out loud and discuss what the intention of that prayer is and, of course, how we should pray it when we chant. The result is always wonderful. There are no more alleluias sung like dirges, nor pedestrian Glorias, nor frivolous-sounding pleas for God's mercy. The chanted prayers are earnest and real.

I believe that one of the major problems, both in teaching and in learning how to chant (particularly when the chanter has a professionally-trained voice) arises not so much from the unique features possessed naturally by each voice as by all the later acquisitions common in secular vocal music, such as shading, tremolo, bravura, coloring, styles, etc. However, when the emphasis is on the words rather than the music this is not so. In my experience these all gradually disappear without any attention paid to them. Each chanter seems simply to realize that these elements have no place in chanted prayers, that there is a sustaining difference between secular and sacred music.

We are now in our fourth month. We have no official standing in any of the parishes of southern Oregon and must wait to be invited to chant on special occasions. We have a respectable repertory of liturgical chants, principally in English, but also in Latin. We have sung the mass at two retreats at our local St. Rita's Retreat House. Yesterday at a funeral in Grants Pass, we chanted two propers (Introit: Requiem Aeternam; and the recessional, Subvenite) as well as the In Paradisum at the final incensing -- all in English.

In about six weeks we will chant a mass -- this time all in Latin -- a celebration on the occasion of an infant baptism and also two First Holy Communions of a family from Rogue River. The celebrant, a member of the Fraternity of St. Peter, is brother to the father of these children. (The children's father is a member of the schola.) Our schola also anticipates an invitation to chant a mass at a local mission church. We will afterwards begin tutoring and rehearsing their choir group members who have expressed an interest in learning Gregorian Chant. God knows where we will go from there. In His will is our peace.

I'm sure there is nothing exceptional about our experience. You have heard, I'm sure, and will continue to hear from more and more individuals on the front-lines of this battle who are steadily gaining ground. Because of the great assistance and inspiration of individuals like you and all your associate liturgists and musical experts, we will prevail. The best way we can thank you at present is with our prayers. All the rest will come as a matter of course.