Dynamics in chant
  • ViolaViola
    Posts: 279
    We have been using Mass XVII all through Lent and I noticed that the singers were increasing the volume a bit in the Hosanna sections of the Sanctus. They did it quite naturally, and I liked the effect. It didn't seem excessive, but it was noticeable. However, we have now had a complaint from someone who maintains that chant should be sung at a uniform volume.
    Any comments, please?
  • Number one rule of working at the parish is that someone will complain about everything.

    Historically speaking, I suspect that there is no dynamic change in chant. In practice, I bet that choirs have had a tendency to increase dynamics and tempo to exciting texts (like Hosanna!) since the very beginning of time.

    That having been said, my personal opinion is that a director has the right to direct his or her choir to sing musically, including some variations in volume and tempo.
  • m_r_taylor
    Posts: 9
    My un-scholarly opinion is that chant is the most naturalistic music we have in the West, and the instrument it uses - the human voice - is itself naturally dynamic.

    Also, it makes sense to me, since chant is music, to sing it musically. Dynamics is an unavoidable part of that. In my limited experience it's more typical to pay attention to the rise/fall inside a single phrase, but I don't believe there's any essential difference between shaping one phrase and shaping a group of phrases as long as it feels natural, tasteful, and not abrupt - I can imagine that easily getting out of hand. A little here, a little there.
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  • dad29
    Posts: 1,656
    The text drives the music. ALL of the music, including dynamic, rallentando, etc.

    Put another way, the music illuminates the text, including dynamic, rallentando, etc.
    Thanked by 3Viola JoeM hilluminar
  • M. Jackson Osborn
    Posts: 6,475
    It is unthinkable that every last neume should be sung at the precisely identical volume.
    This would be impossibly boring, as boring as monotonic speech.
    Like speech, chant is language.
    It breathes and expresses itself just as speech does.
  • noel jones, aagonoel jones, aago
    Posts: 6,509
    Any time that a note is sung longer than others it will crescendo in a live environment, whether it is sung or played.
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  • JoeM
    Posts: 26

    Here, to is a principle to which there can be practically no exception. This simple device, as musicians themselves have noticed, contributes greatly to giving the chant a religious character, so much does it imply the effacement of the person, the self, before Him to whom and for whom one is singing.

    But if should be understood that I refer to lightness, not to weakness, the two are very different. Beware especially of singing a top note mezzo-forte like a soft murmur. This top note is usually the true centerpoint, the keystone of the edifice, towards which everything tens. It should, therefore, be approached with a crescendo,as if it were to be sung with strength. It is only at the precise of moment of emission that the voice, instead of attacking it loudly, harshly, materially, alights on it with gentleness and with some restraint, while allowing it to retain its full mellowness.”
    -Dom Joseph Gajard, The Solesmes Method, (Minnesota, Collegeville, 1960)

    Even though Dom Gajard beautifully elucidates us about the singing of high notes softly, it is very difficult for most singers to accomplish. This is because of an out of balance registration. Due, usually, to a lack of development of the upper register. Singing a “hooty” sounding 5 note scale on the “pure falsetto” for a few minutes a day for several months can help to correct this problem. One should not sing in “pure falsetto” for more than a few minutes because it can be the cause of vocal fatigue.
  • Schönbergian
    Posts: 205
    This is like saying that, because there are no printed dynamics in Renaissance music, there should be no gradation of volume or dynamic at all. (God forbid we even know what volume to start at, in that case!)

    Or that, because there is a printed metronome marking in a score, the performance must be equally metronomical.

    Hogwash! A typical exaggeration and distortion of an essential truth - that is, that chant does not feature any massive dynamic changes in the manner of Bruckner or Mahler. But to abhor what is merely a very musical performance, guided by a deeply felt sensitivity to the text, is deeply misguided.
  • M. Jackson Osborn
    Posts: 6,475
    There are, to be sure, quite a few people who sing their chant every note of equal value and of uniform volume - and then they wonder why nobody likes chant.
    Their poor people, understandably, don't like what they heard, but what they heard wasn't chant!
  • donr
    Posts: 940
    And then there are those who sing chant like Captain Kirk from Star Trek speaks when he is in a tough situation. It can be very hard to listen to. If it is sung speech it should not be theatrical speech but the way you talk or at least discuss things regularly.

    I suppose some people talk very straight and some are more exaggerated than others.
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  • Incardination
    Posts: 580
    However, we have now had a complaint from someone who maintains that chant should be sung at a uniform volume.

    WARNING: Rant follows.
    Typically, there is a reason why the one doing the complaining is not leading the choir in the first place, whether the complainer is a choir member or simply a member of the congregation. The correct response is "when you lead your choir, you are free to make those interpretational decisions in the way you think best."

    I've heard a lot of different concepts of chant in my time. First time I've heard that. I know there are some people who would argue (regardless of who is leading a given choir) "they wouldn't have done it that way in the XYZ century."

    A) For myself, personally, I'm not trying to do something as it was done in the XYZ century. Liturgy is a living expression of the Faith. I'm trying to do my best in the now. Period. Not after an ivory tower concept.
    B) For chant in particular, while there are different theories about what was done, there is more that we don't know than what we do (as with so many areas of human endeavor). I think it is particularly difficult to draw universal conclusions given regional differences. Regardless... refer to point A.

    The rant is now over, and we return you to regularly scheduled programming commenting. :)
  • francisfrancis
    Posts: 8,069
    If it is authentically artistic and follows the spirit of GC it is probably human. I would absolutely discourage vibrato however.
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  • ViolaViola
    Posts: 279
    Forunately no one has attempted vibrato as yet.
    Thanks for these helpful and encouraging comments. We'll continue as we are doing, i.e. doing what appears to come naturally.
    I wonder if the original complainant was thinking that as it is Lent we should be singing in a suitably penitential, and therefore monotonous manner? (trying to be charitable here).
  • davido
    Posts: 141
    Vibrato is a natural function of relaxed vocal production and should not be hated on. A straight tone is a held tone.
    Conversely, an unattractive vibrato is always a sign of some technique problem.

    Keep in mind that Solesmes and Gajard are trying to NOT be opera. Their movement is perhaps more a reaction against bel canto (and bel canto poorly done in church) than it is an idea of their own. Thus the incredibly difficult technique he describes of a crescendo capped by a subito drop in volume. He wants musicality, but not the cathartic climaxes of romantic music with their implied sexuality.

    Just be musical with the chant: SING it and have fun with it. Keep in mind that you are singing it in the presence of the heavenly court, and you’ll probably avoid inappropriate excesses.
  • Schönbergian
    Posts: 205
    There is an obvious difference between vibrato and wobble, the latter of which is mostly what is "naturally" possessed. And there's absolutely nothing unhealthy about straight tone.
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  • StimsonInRehabStimsonInRehab
    Posts: 1,439
    I treat the unwritten dynamics of chant like the unwritten stage directions of Shakespeare. Just because they aren’t explicit doesn’t mean they can’t be gathered through context clues. And there’s a certain degree of “independence” as far as how you interpret it.
  • As choir Master, I have 2 remarks.
    - Three times in this Sanctus, you have the same motive (c-d-e-f-d-c). the accentuation is on the first c (longer note, used to "launch" the curb whose highest (f) is very light and aerial. There is no reason to sing the "Hosanna" louder than the "sabaoth".
    - Then, regarding the complaint, please consider it as suggested by Incardination !

    Enjoy next week !
  • toddevoss
    Posts: 61
    As a PIP, I am thankful for all the responses you got from other music directors saying "stop thief" to the complainer and giving musically sophisticated responses as to why this is incorrect. Because if chant is a monotone drone, it will never flourish. Beyond that, I think GC should be performed differently in a parish setting than in a monastic setting. The Solesmes style of chant is very beautiful but too ethereal (and difficult) for a parish congregation. That chant should be more dynamic - more "sung"- more robust. And no, not opera. But the following link is what I think it should sound like in parish: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yMCSIKmfo_o
    Thanked by 2CHGiffen Viola
  • jcr
    Posts: 28
    I feel compelled to weigh in on the matter of "straight tone" which is a term (phrase?) that may actually mean several things. In many cases there are some problems with it. The most functionally efficient use of the human voice will always produce a degree of vibrato. However, this will not necessarily be the full Brahmsian or Verdian vibrato of the 19th century operatic variety. Certainly one would not want this sound in polyphonic choral music of the Palestrina/Vittoria era, for example. However, the singing of what is, I think, desired by the advocates of straight tone is a sound that avoids the excesses of the pseudo operatic singer whose vibrato encompasses a full tone or more and whose volume is often poorly controlled. The functionally free voice will have a vibrato that can be controlled. Unfortunately, many choral directors ask for a straight tone from singers who haven't the skill level to do this. The result is that the singers, especially sopranos, fatigue early and the outcome is consistent flatting. Listen and hear it for yourselves; it doesn't take too many measures of singing to produce this fatigue.

    We can elaborate on this sometime later, if anyone is interested.
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 9,726
    Dynamics in chant should, it seems to me, follow the dynamics in speech. Chant is speech set to music. Just as speech is not free of expression, neither is chant. My own experience is that too many chant "experts" think God descended from heaven amid blazing trumpets and hosts of angels and gave us Solesmes. Not so!
  • jcr
    Posts: 28
    I was taught that the text and the rise and fall (arsis and thesis) determined the dynamic dimension to plainchant. This naturally grows out of a flexible and text oriented performance of the singers. When it happens, it' a magical thing and is most expressive.
  • CHGiffenCHGiffen
    Posts: 4,025
    God descended from heaven amid blazing trumpets and hosts of angels and gave us Solesmes. Not so!
    Sometimes, Solesmes not so solemn (Solesmes?).
    Thanked by 1CharlesW
  • I have sat suffered through two hour rehearsals conducted by expert 'Solesmes method' choirmasters. In all that time much time and effort was spent on performing a salicus and other such niceties just so, without a word spoken about words, diction, and text.

    Unfortunately, I have, likewise, heard semiologist scholars spend an entire lecture or rehearsal refining the just so performance of quilismas a la Cardine and other such niceties without a word spoken about text, diction, vowels, consonants, or blend.

    I have sat through vespers sung by a 'schola cantorum' at a certain nearby co-cathedral
    in which every last word and syllable was sung at a mercilessly consistent moderately slow metronomic beat in an unyieldingly uniform volume for e-ve-ry-last-syl-la-ble. One-did-n't-know-whe-ther-to-laugh-or-to-cry - - - or-to-run-screa-ming-down-the-street..
  • CatherineS
    Posts: 113
    The majority of our small schola have classical voice training, so we don't sing in small voices and there will be a little (unintentional) vibrato on held notes. There is naturally some variation in volume due to phrasing, such as where the melody rises or at the ends of phrases, but never a deliberate piano or forte or crescendo/decrescendo. But there is a movement and expressiveness around the text (we use the semiological method). We don't sing slowly either. The robotic monotone version is not my thing, nor do I like the 'gently wafting voices in the mists' kind of style that makes one think of New Age relaxation music. I've never thought of chant as relaxing - it's (for me at least) prayer full of fire and ferocity. Most of it is psalms and the psalms are not dull and bland! So I think a level of energy and engagement and vibrancy is lovely, with consideration for the unison necessary, and the liturgical context (ie avoiding theatrics that would draw attention to the singer).
  • Imagine the following spoken as Jackson describes.

    To be, or not to be, that is the question..
    Whether 'tis nobler ……

    Or, try this:

    If ye love me, keep my commandments.


    Out! Out, damned spot!
    [examples could be multiplied]