Hearing Chant in a Completely New Way

I’ve always been intrigued by the results of semiological studies that attempt a more precise rendering of the early signs, and comparing the results with the conventions of the first half of the 20th century when chant was rendered with a more equalist approach to rhythm.

A great way to discover the results of these studies comes from Fr. Anthony Ruff and his choir at St. Johns Abbey and University. A new CD called “Singing with Mary and the Saints” provides just this. The results are bright and fresh and, for those of us who sing propers year round, a fascinating look at a different approach. It might be the most compelling version of this revisionist approach to chant that I’ve heard.

For one thing, there is a certain bow to modernity in that the CD uses mixed voices. This is very difficult to do. Intonation must be perfect, and blend too. But they pull it off really well. This helps modern choirs too because mixed-voice chant is just part of the reality of our times. The two octaves can be startling at first but then you settle in and come to really appreciate its musical and sociological dimension.

Not knowing that much about how to interpret the old signs, I can only defer to Fr. Ruff here but it is fascinating to say the least. He goes further than most semiologists by changing not only rhythmic conventions but even notes (many Bbs are changed to B naturals). Is this the way chant was sung in the 9th century? I don’t see how anyone can know but it is surely interesting to hear one interpretation. It is very competently and confidently rendered. There are no missteps here. Both choir and director are determined and sure footed throughout.

If you just want to listen for reasons of piety and not musicology, there is a large pay off also, since the antiphons they chose are some of the most famous and interesting for the liturgical year.

Nicely done. If you have never heard the results of these kinds of studies, Singing with Mary and the Saints is a great way to familiarize yourself with this approach.

4 Replies to “Hearing Chant in a Completely New Way”

  1. It very much resembles Lazslo Dobszay's work with the Schola Hungarica, which also often made use of mixed voices, careful diction, and a strong contrast in the value given to longer and shorter notes. This resemblance is a good thing! Nice to see a bolder, more "European" approach to chant emerging in America.

  2. Yes…sounds much like what you hear in a Byzantine divine liturgy…representative of the PEOPLE singing. Especially the male voice with the turns on certain notes. Beautiful, a mystical sound.

  3. I wouldn't say the use of mixed voices is a bow to modernity. Female/ male voices sung in octaves mimic the sound of men and boys singing together. Also, melodic changes (reconstructed melodies) have been employed by European scholas for many years now. Reconstructed melodies aren't based on one's own subjective interpretation but scholarly research, so it would be inaccurate to say that Ruff's "going further than most semiologists" with his interpretation here.

    It's interesting to hear what people think of the sound. I would never have associated the chants on the CD with a Byzantine Divine Liturgy or as music for the people, but I can now see possible resemblance on the English verses!

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