Survey: English Chant Propers--Level of Complexity
  • A survey to those who have used Fr. Columba Kelly's English chant propers over the past year:

    What was your experience? How did the antiphons work in your parish or context? What worked, or didn't work? What would you like to see?

    Father will soon be beginning a new cycle of antiphons, setting the new texts translations of the forthcoming Missal. The following is an example of three English chant settings. The first is a "simplex" setting, similar to an office antiphon, or an antiphon from the Graduale Simplex. The second is a "moderate" setting, that draws its inspiration from the chants of the Graduale, but simplifies it substantially for practical reasons. The third is an "elaborate" setting that seeks to adapt the Gregorian idiom as closely as possible, yet adapts the Gregorian melody to the needs of the English text, mimicking the way that Gregorian composers approached Latin texts:

    1. (Simplex) Introit, Ad te levavi


    2. (Moderate) Introit, Resurrexi

    3. (Elaborate) Introit, Rorate Caeli

    Which do you prefer? Why? Any insight that is shared here will be most helpful for the development of this project!
  • Jeffrey TuckerJeffrey Tucker
    Posts: 3,624
    It's all about whether people sing or must sing or whatever. It seems to me that once you leave Psalm tones, there's no hope for that anyway, so we might as well make the music as beautiful and close to Gregorian as possible.
  • Let me offer my experience with these:

    I have just completed my first year as director at a parish in transition from the status quo (Gather Hymnal, large adult choir, a "contemporary group", various ensembles, etc.--a very 'successful' program, in a sense, historically) to the sacred. Through the past year every Mass ("contemporary group included") has sung an Introit and Communion proper, and a catechetical framework has been established at the parish for further incorporation of authentic sacred music. Almost everyone began singing psalm tone propers, and the Adult Choir eventually began singing Fr. Kelly's communion antiphons with verses, which are done routinely now. This choir has sung maybe 3 of his introits successfully in this time (although there have been many less than prayerful botched attempts!). My intermediate-and-growing schola sings some of the simpler Gregorian propers in liturgy, and has sung Fr. Kelly's settings successfully (i.e. well, beautifully, confidently) about 75% of the time. However, with the demands of preparing propers every single week the results were not always so good.

    The first thing that I have learned is that it is better to start with something that the singers can sing well, and it will be a long time before I have a parish schola that can regularly sing Gregorian propers, or English "adaptations" well. This does not even get into the issue of dealing a parish that has a phobia of Latin.

    I have also worked with many music directors in my diocese who have no concept of propers, but have a desire to begin singing more music in the "chant style". Many are well trained musicians, but as usual, are pretty much without any training in chant whatsoever. Many people at the "entryway" never cross the threshold. A very simple style of antiphons are very attractive to people like this. It can be a way to get them from where they are at to moving toward the ideal.

    My experience in introducing sacred music into a place where it virtually had never before existed has been a very enlightening experience. One that leaves me wanting to do simple settings well (at first), rather than more elaborate settings poorly. I imagine that many many parishes are in and soon will be in a similar position. It seems that a complete set of "simplex" antiphons would be most useful for those to whom the elaborate style of the Graduale is inaccessible.
  • incantuincantu
    Posts: 989
    Jeffrey took the words right out of my mouth. In order to sing any of these chants, one either needs to read them or memorize them. If you cannot read (most parishioners cannot), then even the "simplex" is entirely too long to sing from memory after it is intoned by a cantor or the choir. If you can read (most choirs can to some degree, or should be able to learn), then there is very little difference between the simple and the elaborate. In some ways, the elaborate chant is easier (i.e. more "singable"), as it flows more naturally, unhampered by a desire to be simple. I was reminded of this concept last night when trying to read some of Beethoven's "simple" piano sonatas at sight, which seemed clumsy under the fingers compared to reading the more "difficult" sonatas of Haydn.

    What I would like to see is a resource where the people could sing the psalm verses in a very simple way (for example, as found in the Mundelein Psalter for the Hours), with the antiphon sung to the same tone by all, or a more elaborate antiphon sung by two cantors or a larger choir. Polyphony could even be used for the antiphon with the same chanted verses, and the congregation would still only need to learn a minimum of 8 psalm tones.

    All the English chant resources that I have seen so far, however, seem to put the assembly's emphasis on the antiphons. I just don't see this working in most parishes (or even in cathedral, or perhaps especially not in cathedrals). Even the the Easter season introit "I Am the Good Shepherd" from BFW has taken my congregation three years to learn (and I'm not sure the author would approve of my having truncated the antiphon for the first two years). I know good things take time to develop fully, but there needs to be an element of success from the beginning if something new is going to "stick." Fr. Kelly has done a good job with antiphons for the responsorial psalms, but I'm afraid the length of the Missal antiphons for the Entrance and Communion preclude this sort of treatment.
  • incantuincantu
    Posts: 989
    P.S. I love the notation of these. For those who know something about paleography and the semiological approach, there is enough information to render a truly nuanced performance. You do not even need to be able to read the ancient neumes to understand the additional information given in this modern (post-modern?) notation. For those who do not, it is easy to ignore the details and sing it "straight," in a more or less classical Solesmes style.
  • francisfrancis
    Posts: 8,342
    We are new to English Propers at our parish and we have been using the AUG. Although it is very repetitive from week to week and musically boring (to me anyway), it has exemplified the Church's wish to sing the Propers which in itself is a major paradigm shift from singing hymns or songs at those points in the Mass. The texts now are apropo in light of the readings, etc. IMHO, it is not so much important which musical setting that is used as much as that we are progressing toward singing the Propers. The more choices we have, the better!

    As far as complexity is concerned, it is good to have a variety ranging from simple to the complex to fit various situations, level of solemnity, and musical ability of choir/congregation.
  • By the way, my experience with these antiphons stated above speaks to choirs/schola only singing propers. There has been no attempt to make this congregational singing of processional propers. We have been coupling them with hymns for now.

    @incantu: I just have to respectfully disagree with you on this statement:

    "If you can read (most choirs can to some degree, or should be able to learn), then there is very little difference between the simple and the elaborate."

    I can see this if elaborate chants are sung essentially like slow syllabic chant, only words are more sparse. In this scenario, one could be singing a 91 note melisma or the simplest syllabic chant and there would be very little noticeable difference between the two, except that there are fewer syllable changes. To my understanding, there is a very substantial interpretive difference between singing a syllabic chant and an elaborate chant. Both can be sung in a way that is founded on the natural declamation of the text. One is quite simple and can be sung by nearly anyone and one is in a very ornate vocal style, which my parish adult choir will probably never possess. This is why, to my understanding, the (highly trained and rather small) schola cantorum has historically sung the proper of the Mass.

    So I suppose the way that chant is sung is a pretty large determining factor here.
  • francisfrancis
    Posts: 8,342
    Only our cantors and choir is attempting to sing the Propers. I don't see that the congregation could ever be expected to do so, even at the most simple level. I see it that the ideal for congregational singing are Antiphons, Psalm tones, Hymns and Ordinaries.
  • Pes
    Posts: 623
    We sing the Propers in Latin from the Graduale for both OF and EF, so my comment isn't going to come from experience in using the vernacular. I would like to say, though, that this graduated approach makes a great deal of intuitive sense.

    The reason is simple: in the High Mass EF, it's all or nothing. That's a very high bar and thus makes it easy to shrug it away.

    In the OF, we have the reality of having to reconstruct a sacred musical culture from scratch, and from a chaotic, babel-like scratch. We have to make straight the path. Graduated propers in the vernacular make tactical sense because they take away the following objections: 1) chant is too hard, and 2) we don't understand it. Plus, it indicates very strongly that sacred musical culture is still alive and kicking, creating new things within the tradition (nova et vetera). Thus the objection that "chant is a throwback" is rendered void.

    All that out of the way, I like these settings, especially the first. English tends to be short on long vowels and heavy on consonants. It sounds closer to German (and is, in fact) than Latin and Italian. The use of articles also injects a lot of short, unaccented syllables into the mix. Consequently, English chant sounds best when it's syllabic. In English, long melismas just sound a bit forced.

    But maybe that's a good thing. Sounding forced means that the music will be foregrounded a bit more, it will be noticed as an "elaborate moment" as such. Maybe we want that kind of bashing over the head ("this is Christ's name now, it's important!"). But maybe that sort of melismatic setting should be reserved for Holy Week, or something. I guess the point here is that for everyday, syllabic settings are best. Melismas and a lot of multiple-neume setting should be handled sparingly, for very deliberate effect. Otherwise, it just gets lost, or worse, sounds forced, weird, stilted.

    Concretely, then, the porrectus on "more" (Resurrexi, above) sounds unnecessary to me, but the melisma on "wisdom" sounds perfect.

    Oh, and "difficulty" is a complex thing. More notes does not always mean more difficult (they could all be step-wise). More difficulty = hard skips, more neume shapes, lots of repercussions, long melismas, modes 3 and 4 in general.
  • incantuincantu
    Posts: 989
    Adam, you may respectfully disagree with me, but you did ask for feedback (i.e. options) on this matter! In my personal experience as a director of professional and volunteer choral ensembles, and as a member of a professional new music ensemble, I have found that those who can read can read anything, and those that can't read can't read anything. Of course, my comments were directed mostly toward whether or not these antiphons were viable for congregational singing. (At least when it comes to the entrance, I don't see getting over the hurdle of the idea that the people should sing something at this time, even if the most recent GIRM makes it clear that this is not required). From choir to choir there will be more subtle distinctions than between the more polarized congregation / choir divide.

    In terms of the style of performance, I agree that it's a major determining factor. But again, among my highly literate professional singers, syllabic chant and especially psalm tones are much more difficult to get a satisfactory interpretation from (since this requires a knowledge of both the sound and the meaning of Latin) than the most melismatic antiphons (where the "interpretation" is mostly done for you - by the composer!). Further, a really nuanced performance of an antiphon almost requires memorization (which gives a certain fluency to the performance), whereas the verses (because of their number) are likely to be read as if at sight even in performance, which tends to produce a less than fluent rendition.

    Familiarity is also a key factor. The GS might be easier than the GR as entry-level repertoire, but the few times I've tried to substitute the "simplex" version of a chant (Introibo comes to mind), it has actually been more difficult for my choir, since the style (and even the look of the edition) was unfamiliar.

    However, having said all that, I think a choir that is capable of performing any and all of these chants will still benefit from having some variety available to them. As you suggest, the more elaborate chants might require more rehearsal time. A schola that is only singing one chant (e.g. the Communio) per week will be able to tackle something more elaborate. Those singing the entire proper each week might choose to do only one or two elaborate chants per week (perhaps focusing on the more important propers), and a simpler version of the others.
  • Incantu-- Of course you are right, I did ask for opinions and feedback, and yours is much appreciated.

    Your statement that I critiqued above seemed to negate the need for anything between a psalm tone and a Graduale proper, though, which is why I wanted to break it down a bit more. Thank you for the further clarification, and for sharing your experience in singing propers, on various levels, different groups of people, etc. All of this experience is very helpful in future projects that are trying to serve the needs of the Church. Thanks for sharing it!
  • chonakchonak
    Posts: 7,932
    At our parish, we're just putting one toe in the water: a soloist sings the communion antiphon, with no verses; and that is all we are doing so far with Dr. Kelly's settings. Those communion antiphons correspond to the 'simplex' style, and IMHO it would be fine to continue in that vein for settings of the new communion antiphons.
  • BruceL
    Posts: 1,006
    The moderate seems to be along the lines of what he has done so far, and those work fairly well for our choir when we use them (we usually default to Fr. Samuel Weber's settings) 6-8 times a year. I normally have the whole choir sing these together; they have a good, balanced sound for 30 or so voices. Occasionally, I will split the men and ladies up if it seems to be a setting that is more idiomatic for the respective ranges.

    The more difficult settings would be problematic for me. I like them, but I have found that people who often say they don't like Gregorian settings because they are in Latin have the same reaction to less-syllabic settings in English. It often betrays the fact that they just don't like the chant, period. I'm not saying they're right, but in my position, those voices are considered, for better or worse.

    Really, though, I think all of them are very accessible for most decent choirs. As with so many things, it depends on the clergy's support...
  • francisfrancis
    Posts: 8,342

    Have you tried the propers in the AUG? They are quite accessible and are easy on the melissmas and might find better acceptance in your situation.
  • JamJam
    Posts: 636
    Only our cantors and choir is attempting to sing the Propers. I don't see that the congregation could ever be expected to do so, even at the most simple level. I see it that the ideal for congregational singing are Antiphons, Psalm tones, Hymns and Ordinaries.

    I don't think there's ever been a tradition anywhere of the congregation singing all the propers. Orthodox congregations just know a few throughout the year: ones on special holy days, like the Exaltation of the Cross, Holy Theophany, or Pascha. Many congregations can sing the Paschal troparion in several languages, too, which is neat. But most propers are rightly delegated to the choir and cantors... congregations do best at stuff they hear all the time; asking them to learn something new every week is just too much.