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How to use Gregorian Chant Propers

by sean.daenzer ~ September 9th, 2008

Gregorian chant is typically written in square notation making use of neumes. This form of musical notation has become nearly obsolete in our modern time. Yet, this modern notation is, in truth, unable to adequately communicate gregorian chant to the singer. For this reason gregorian notation will always be preferred, is easily learned, and will be a great asset to the singer who learns it.

The other factor that is somewhat important is the reality that in this modern time we are to some degree unsure how to sing gregorian chant. The musical scholarship of Solesmes has risen to be the premier authority on chant, yet musicologists are not all agreed on performance practice of certain figures even now. This will not deter us from using the gifts of our forefathers, however, and we can proceed boldly using the principles of chanting at hand today.

To begin with, in gregorian notation there is no defined pitch; rather the clefs indicate the mode or key that the chant is in, though it may be sung in any range beginning with any pitch. The intervals between notes are what remain the same. This is true also with these in modern notation: that they may be sung in any key. The keys chosen, however, are in a comfortable range for general singing by mixed voices, and particularly for male voices. If children are to sing them, it would be best to raise the key by one or two whole-steps.

Gregorian chant is designed to be sung unaccompanied, and for this reason no accompaniment has been provided. Assistance by the organ or piano may be necessary in rehearsal, but is less desirable for performance (performance is used here and elsewhere in this sense: simply the singing of liturgical music by the choir in the Divine Service or Daily Office).

The main setback of modern notation is its unbreakable connection to rhythm. Gregorian chant flows freely from note to note and does not make use of rhythm or meter. Unmetered bars are used and the note stems have been removed to better represent this. Notes are grouped based on syllables, with figures of two and three grouped together and the larger units grouped with phrase lines in addition. Singing should be as smooth (legato) and seamless as is possible, every note having roughly the same value with respect to duration. The exception to this are notes with a dot behind them, indicating roughly twice the duration. These occur most often at the end of a phrase, and only linger a bit longer than any other note in a phrase. Above all, strict note values ought to be avoided in favor of smooth and flowing phrases. Plod-ding-sing-ing-should-be-a-void-ed. This most frequently means a moving, energized tempo rather than a slow and dirge-like tempo. The phrases should be graceful and comfortable. Accent is appropriately placed on the first note in multi-note syllables (melismas). If ever a breath must be taken before a syllable’s notes have been finished (for example, a long al-le-lu-ia_________’______), only the vowel sound is sung continuing after the breath (a glottal stop is an acceptable way to accent, as desired).

In the introits especially, the psalm verse and the gloria patri are sung using the ornamented gregorian psalm tones, or canticle tones. The main pitch on which multiple syllables are sung (the reciting tone) ought not be rushed. Rather, continue chanting its syllables at a rate comparable to the introductory notes (incipit) that preceded it, letting the text control the speed, but maintaining a smooth and continuous singing through the final notes of the phrase (the mediant in the first phrase, the termination in the second). There is often a tendency either to slow down in a plodding fashion, or to speed up and quickly rifle through these words. A steady pace is preferable. Rarely will a breath or pause be necessary, and should be avoided if at all possible-ignoring all commas. A comfortable pause between the two phrases of the psalm verse and the three phrases of the gloria should be observed- enough pause to take a healthy and full breath. The same is true of breaths taken during antiphons and other more ornamented (melismatic) chants. The length of this breath may vary, depending on the sense of the text that should be preserved.

Finally, a few other notes on performance practice. The first words (incipit) of the introit are italicized. This is to set it apart as the incipit. It is usual practice for a cantor to sing this alone, and for the whole choir to join in thereafter. This allows the choir to hear and know the pitch and mode before they begin to sing. The entrance of the choir after the italicized portion should be seamless, as if they were singing quietly along in their mind and simply opened their mouth to join in voice with the cantor. When the antiphon is repeated, the choir should sing the entire antiphon including this italicized incipit. Words with vowels italicized are to be shortened by omitting the italicized vowel (ie: continually as “continyally”, heaven as “heav’n”). The psalm verse and gloria may be sung by the whole choir, a smaller ensemble, or by a single cantor. It is a longstanding LCMS custom to have everyone sing the gloria patri regardless of how other portions have been divided between parts. Where optional text is provided in parentheses below the standard text, this is a more literal translation from the Latin that may be used if desired (especially if it reflects the name of the Sunday, ie: populus zion).

Though the singing of gregorian chant becomes easier and soon is familiar and readable on sight, persistent practice will be helpful. In that spirit, I am beginning to work ahead for those who desire to make use of these propers in the coming Church year. Here are Advent’s introits. qui bene cantat bis orat

+Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary+

Rev. Sem. Sean Daenzer

2 Responses to How to use Gregorian Chant Propers

  1. Rev. Bomberger

    Well done, Seminarist Daenzer.

  2. Calum

    These kinds of articles are very useful. It is important to mention the historical record though. You say, “Gregorian chant flows freely from note to note and does not make use of rhythm or meter” and that “strict note values ought to be avoided”. That may be the fashion in the 21st century but it was not originally the case. All ancient authorities, including St Augustine, Remigius, Guido and Aribo, approve a 2:1 ratio of long to short notes for Gregorian chant. Any departure from that ratio was considered bad singing and proportion was seen as divinely ordained as an aspect of beauty. Musicologists only disagree with this because the notation is primitive and gives them leeway to contradict the historical record. You can check the Salmaire webpages for the main historical references.

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