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Musical Musings: Liturgy

The Practicality of Chant in Modern Liturgy

by Joseph P. Swain

Chant is one of those things in the life of the Church that gets a lot of attention, even a kind of reverence, in documents and official pronouncements on liturgy without having much significant impact on the real thing. "Don't forget our rich tradition of Gregorian chant," speakers at conferences warn, with all the confidence of a parent who admonishes his child to keep clean while playing. Yes, this chasm between theory and practice is wide indeed, mainly because the term "chant" seems inextricably linked to "Gregorian," along with its imagery of medieval rites, monasticism, and Latin, which makes the very idea of chant appear to be a vestige of a useless tradition and the admonition to remember it nothing more than a ceremonial bow to Church history. But chant need not be conceived this way. The Gregorian tradition is indeed one of the richest, if not one of the most useful today, but it is far from being the only kind of chant. Chant may be more generally defined as any kind of setting text to music that has no regular meter and is sung in unison, and there's no reason why we shouldn't be composing and using other kinds that are suitable for the modern liturgy.

"There's no rhythm" is what students usually say when they hear chant for the first time in a music survey course. But of course chant must have rhythm, as all music must, and the rhythm of chant is usually most subtle. What evokes this response is the absence of meter, the familiar, regular grouping of strong and weak beats that makes foot-tapping, finger-snapping, and dancing possible. Gregorian chant is most famous for its floating, flowing quality, to use metaphorical description, and it is this lack of a regular beat pattern, along with its unison singing, that makes it sound so unmistakable. But music doesn't have to be centuries old to have this quality; indeed, the familiar Keep in Mind of Lucien Deiss approximates it fairly well, and other works of his are true chants.

Chant can be practical in modern liturgy because it can solve the problems associated with two kinds of text that are ignored in modern liturgy; the longer ordinary prayers of the Mass such as the Gloria and Nicene Creed, and the psalms. These prayers are almost never sung in parishes today, and yet there is no doubt that they should be. The documents of the Second Vatican Council and of the American bishops make it very clear that singing these essential liturgical texts should take precedence over recessional songs and other more minor liturgical moments. This is particularly true of the psalms, which have been sung by nearly every religious tradition which reveres them since their original composition, and whose responsorial format is ideal for congregational participation.

The first problem of these texts is, obviously, that they are long. While it may be agreed in principle that liturgists should not count the minutes of the Mass, in real life, assuredly, they do, and musical settings that are long, or just seem long, are not even considered. Chant is the answer here because its characteristic lack of meter makes it the most economical text setting imaginable. Because the composer need not be concerned with filling out measures or periodic phrases with time, every syllable gets just the amount of time it deserves, which is a syllable's worth. Of course, we will not deny the chant composer his occasional melisma to bring out particularly important words, for that kind of expression is one of the chief reasons music is in the liturgy at all. But such moments are the only exceptions to the remarkable, and yet beautiful, economy of this setting. The little known truth is that a psalm or a prayer that is properly chanted takes very little longer than it does to recite in normal speech.

The second problem with these texts is that they are not metric. Text phrases come in various lengths and there is no pattern of accented and unaccented syllables. Our most familiar musical styles, from that of Lutheran hymnody right up to current popular styles of liturgical music, are more or less founded on regular periodic phrases and, without question, on a very strong sense of meter. When one of these metric styles is used to set a non-metric text, the necessary stretching that makes the text fit this Procrustean bed almost always creates long pauses and other strained moments in the musical setting.

Traditional hymns based on psalm texts always resort to metrical adaptation of the psalm being set. O God Our Help in Ages Past is as good an example as any. The so-called "tyranny of the bar line" is, for its powers of rhythmic organization, a beneficent tyranny, but its characteristic patterns of strong and weak beats cannot be denied, only contradicted, by a text. Because chant has no such patterns, it is a better choice for setting these prayers which are long and without any definite meter.

The freedom from meter affords chant an easy solution to another practical problem: how to begin the music. With a metric piece, the organist, in order to cue the congregation and choir, must either play a phrase or two of introduction or sound a single note to give the pitch. The first strategy interrupts the continuity between, for example, the celebrant's preface and the people's response; the second always sounds terribly awkward, because there is no way to make the pitch cue belong to the metrically ordered piece that follows. In chanting, a single pitch cue or an improvisatory sounding of the first few notes of the chant melody leads directly into the piece itself without any intervening silence. The timeless quality of chanting preserves the continuity of prayer and incorporates pitch cues right into the piece itself, because it doesn't need the sense of downbeat that metered music requires.

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Part II: What about harmony?

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