chant without a choir
  • I have been perusing MusicaSacra forums for a little while now and am enjoying the vast amounts of information and opinions here, but I've been unable to find the answer to the problem that is bothering me the most right now: singing propers when there is no choir.

    I work as a cantor at a small Catholic church. It is a particularly conservative church in a particularly liberal diocese. We sing the ordinary in Latin, but we do the "Four-Hymn Sandwich" where all the propers would be (i.e., processional, offertory, communion, recessional). I would love to introduce some of the propers - either in Gregorian or in English - especially at communion, where I struggle every week for appropriate repertoire. I have found an extraordinary number of forgotten Ave Marias to sing (my priest says I must dig in the catacombs to come up with this rep) but what really frustrates me is that I am struggling to find solos and pick hymns out of that Worship hymnal when a whole repertoire of stuff for communion is already composed and just sitting there in the Gregorian Missal. However, it is just me and the organist, and I have always understood Gregorian chant to be a choral thing. Would it be wrong for me to sing some of the propers as a soloist?
  • JamJam
    Posts: 636
    "either in Gregorian or in English"

    sorry, but I love this phrasing. Gregorian is a language, now! <3<br />
    I'm no expert, but I don't think there's anything wrong with singing propers by yourself. In fact, I've been in a few churches which had certain propers sung by only a cantor. The organ might overpower a single voice though, so accapella might work better?

    Others will come after me with more concrete advice I'm sure. God bless your endeavors!
  • DougS
    Posts: 793
    I see a simple solution:

    Create a worship aid with the music/text (or possibly just text, if printing music is an issue for you) of the propers you wish to sing. Have the organist intone a short opening phrase so that you can get your pitch bearings. Sing the antiphon. Invite the congregation to repeat the antiphon using the worship aid. Possible light organ accompaniment under the verses. Invite congregation to sing antiphon.

    Cantor+congregation is certainly a valid option from GIRM #48. I have no opinion about a soloist in place of the "choir alone" option, because if it were me, I would want to sing solo for as brief a time as possible! (A comment on my singing, not its legitimacy!)
  • Thanks for the advice so far!

    My hesitation with the cantor+congregation suggestion is two fold: 1. Any modal chant antiphons, particularly the Gregorian ones (which are what I would prefer to do), are far too difficult for a congregation to sight-read - it takes me a couple days to tackle them, and I have two degrees in voice.
    2. A printed, weekly worship aid is not something this church every does, so to do that, I have to ask them to shell out money. They are much more inclined to let me do what I want if it doesn't cost anything.
  • Singing the propers solo is perfectly alright and a Good Thing. They are, their accompanying psalm verses excepted, meant for trained singers anyway. This means a schola or a real cantor.

    Are you making a (false) distinction between 'Gregorian' and 'English'?
    If so, you are missing out on much very beautiful and useful music for English liturgy.
    Look into Bruce Ford's American Gradual on the internet, and/or
    get a copy of The Plainchant Gradual by Palmer & Burgess, as reprinted by the CMAA (and feel free to modernize the pronouns).
    For something easier to learn week afer week, or in tandem, get a copy of The Anglican Use Gradual.

    I do not recommend using the organ to accompany chant - (ever!). This is like pouring syrup over violin strings.
    Chant is a vocal genre and is rightly heard, sung, experienced and comprehended as such.
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 11,933
    Syrup over violin strings. Now there's a pleasing thought. ;-)
  • DougS
    Posts: 793
    I concur with Jackson.

    There are congregation-friendly settings of the propers--just another option to consider.

    And I would hesitate to say that "any" modal chant antiphon is too hard for a congregation to sight-read (and it wouldn't be sight-reading anyway if you sing it once before the group enters), but that's another discussion.
  • The modal accompaniment of chant as espoused, reported on, made available from historic sources and now composing himself by Jeffrey Ostrowski ( the H Jeff, not the >•< Jeff ) never becomes syrupy and is the style of accompaniment heard on the vespers at Notre Dame and totally removes the objection that chant sounds so different.

    They mean STARK. STARK is beautiful. But STARK is different enough to get the complainers talking. [It would be worthwhile to station people outside of church near Father and every time someone complains about the music, your shills, one by one, go up and tell him how much they love it.

    To make STARK acceptable, eventually begin singing verses unaccompanied and let the organist accompany an antiphon.

    The prejudice against accompanied chant can result in people discarding chant as something they do not like. The same chant, accompanied with modal accompaniment they might well love.

    Now, stupid tonal accompaniments or tonal free attempts to accompany it can be syrupy.

    Welcome to the group and thank you for having the gumption to post!
  • Chant accompaniments, whether modal, Notre Dame pedigreed, tonal or whatever, are antithetical to what chant is. Stark seems to be some sort of pejorative term here, as if something were missing (it isn't) in unaccompanied chant. There is no end to this debate, because accompanied chant is something that some of our colleagues like. It's being or not being apropos is really not an ultimate factor. We all know, of course, the catalogue of accompaniments, uses and abuses which chant has suffered through the centuries, but these are hardly ipso facto justifications. Accompanying chant unavoidably and fundamentally alters the manner in which it is sung; and in so doing makes it less 'chant'.

    However, I think one of Noel's suggestions is ingenious. Namely, stationing people about to comment loudly and in selected ears about how much they loved the chant. There is a certain selectivity in 'pastoral consideration' in most of our churches, isn't there? If people complain about pop-styled music at mass, no one minds if they leave and go somewhere else: getting rid of it is not an option. But if people complain about chant, polyphony or such, heaven and earth will be moved to accomodate them.
  • I've actually done this. The people in the choir that hated everything I did, all three of them....the people, not things....were particularly incensed at this and countered by arranging to never let me meet alone with the pastor...for 3 years!
  • Welcome, Cantor!
    I see no problem with the Communion chant being sung solo as a temporary measure while a schola is being formed. It could even serve as a means of recruitment.
    Your intuition about the cong not being able to sightsing is correct for 95% of the Communions. I concur, and also have two voice degrees.
    Competent and well prepared singers don't need the crutch of accompaniment. Go it alone. Especially for propers, vertical harmony (even if modal works better than tonal) is out of place and detracts from the pure melodic composition.
    Two ideas if you are striving for cong participation
    1) sing the authentic Gregorian antiphon and enough verses to cover the Communion procession and sing a short Communion hymn after that. Most people don't want to be singing while they are preparing for or recieving Communion anyway, and then folks who 'need' to sing something can.
    2) sing a simplified Eng version or from the Simplex and then a Communion hymn if there's time.
  • Adam WoodAdam Wood
    Posts: 6,451
    I do not recommend using the organ to accompany chant - (ever!).

    I AGREE!
  • It appears that there are some who are not interested in understanding why chant at times must be accompanied.

    This prevents chant from being sung in some modern buildings, but, heck, I suppose that's not important.

    I do not like accompanied chant. But I know that there are places where there is little opportunity to sing chant unless it is accompanied.
  • Maureen
    Posts: 674
    Yay for the brave cantor!

    Re: organ accompaniment, this is an old argument, and nobody ever seems to win it. Certainly not in a single thread about something else. (If you want to go that far off-topic, why not discuss using bagpipes instead of a schola for "In Paradisum"? Because obviously it's all about the drones and was written as a bagpipe tune, right?)
  • I can relate to the forgotten Ave's. With every mildly devout composer setting that great text, there are so many gems!

    And I'm sorry to sound like a Mum about accompaniment. As a trained singer, its not like you need reminding. :)

    The biggest question in the mix is, of course, how supportive is your pastor of your (good) goals?

    As far as picking music when there's stuff assigned to the day, I had that same feeling as cantor, too. Now I'm in a position where we sing all propers (some simplified) every Sunday, with an aim to sing full propers within a few years. Last year we concentrated on learning the Communions, and it felt like opening a new present every week, like stepping into a cycle set in motion long ago and resounding with Church singers of past eras. I know, I'm goofy about chant.
  • RagueneauRagueneau
    Posts: 2,592

    I see no problem with singing chant alone. It seems like some of the chants (the Gradual verses, e.g.) may have been originally sung this way.

    I do think certain chants sound better with a Schola (like the Introits and Communions, e.g.) but I remember Fr. Peter Gee singing the chants by himself, and it was marvelous.

    With regard to accompanying the chants on the organ, I would simply point out that Gregorian chant has not always and everywhere been sung "one way."
  • PeterG
    Posts: 36
    If you want an example from high places of Propers sung by a soloist how about this?
    I was at a Solemn Sunday High Mass one Sunday last summer at Westminster Cathedral, London where everything is done just so. Unfortunately for me the (magnificent) choir of men and boys was on holiday so I did not hear them on that visit. In their absence the music was led by organ and cantor. The cantor sang the full Latin propers on his own unaccompanied and did so absolutely beautifully. So, I think cantor convert you are on very sound ground with what you propose.
    Auckland, New Zealand
  • PaixGioiaAmorPaixGioiaAmor
    Posts: 1,473
    I have heard chant accompanied at St. Peter's Basilica many times [on television] ...
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 11,933
    Bagpipes? I detest them almost as much as sopranos. ;-)

    I use accompanied chant at times, for several reasons. All choirs are not made up of trained singers whose pitch never varies. Sometimes they need a very light accompaniment underneath.

    Soloists can be as good as a schola. Just don't overdo it.

    Singers, especially trained singers, think everyone is overjoyed to hear them sing all the way through mass. Even though I appreciate them and like to hear them, they can become just as tiresome to hear as any other instrument. Anything can be overused, and sometimes the organ is a welcome relief to the singers.

    Try some English chant. I have been using English communion chants and the congregational response has been positive.
  • incantuincantu
    Posts: 989
    It might be useful to point out that a "choir" is two or more people. Is the organist absolutely incapable of singing the antiphons? The verses may be (perhaps should be) sung solo.
  • Mark M.Mark M.
    Posts: 632
    I'm in nearly the exact same situation as you, cantorconvert (and welcome to the forums!). With just the organist and me, I'm essentially a "schola of one," as I've posted here before.

    I sing the Introit (as a prelude), the Offertory, and the Communion chants straight out of the Gregorian Missal… using the "Nova Organi Harmonia" organ accompaniments. (Actually, first I sing the English translations on a psalm tone unaccompanied, then I sing the chants with accompaniment. And for the Communion chant, I use Richard Rice's "Communio with English Verses"; I've still managed to make it work with the NOH.)

    I'm skilled enough to sing everything unaccompanied, but I'm afraid of making everything seem like the "Mark M. show." I am working to form a small schola of paid singers (music majors from the college where I teach), whereby we could do some polyphony as well. In the meantime, the me-plus-organ approach has been working pretty well.

    …it felt like opening a new present every week, like stepping into a cycle set in motion long ago and resounding with Church singers of past eras.
    Well said, MA!
  • Thank you all once again for your advice and encouragement.

    This weekend, I did the communion chant for this week (De fructu), using the "Communio with English Verses." I also planned a hymn to fill out the rest of the time during communion, so the chant served to fill in where I would usually sing a solo piece.

    I had the organist accompany it from the NOH, just so it wouldn't sound too foreign (I've sung accompanied chant before for communion - Sacris solemniis, Anima Christi, Ave verum corpus, etc), but my plan was to sing the English verses unaccompanied. I sang the first verse at mass Saturday that way, and then for the second, the organist, of her own accord (and she is really a pianist and NEVER improvises anything), decided to play a couple drone notes during my verses. I actually liked it, and we kept it this morning. There is nothing in the service that I sing alone a capella, so it was just odd, and we both decided that we liked the organ better.

    What I may do in the future - because hearing me sing verse after verse of a psalm just isn't that interesting - is sing the Latin communion, then the pointed English translation of it that Richard Rice provides as a verse, and then sing the Latin again, and then move on to other repertoire.

    I am working to found a small congregational choir, but they learn music very slowly and would only sing at one of the three weekend masses anyway. I wish I had the money to hire people, because I am right around the corner from a major music conservatory, and we could do so much cool stuff.
  • There are bound to be some people at the conservatory who are unhappy with their state...not getting prime roles in the opera theater, that sort of thing....tired at being at the bottom of the heap, who might be interested in singing, being part of a small, elite ensemble specializing in chant and polyphony...

    Posting an invitation at the conservatory AND the prep division as well may bring you some singers.

    You might, if you have time, approach the local Catholic home schooling group about offering a choir for the will be strongly supported by the parents. An opportunity for the children to do something with other kids that is a learning experience is something that they grab onto. Require the parent bringing them to stay for the rehearsal, encourage them to sit together in the back of the room. I find that they will either pray the Rosary or fall asleep!
  • Carl DCarl D
    Posts: 992
    I would definitely advertise your need to the conservatory, even if you can't pay anything. The logic goes like this:
    * These people are passionate about music
    * Some are a part of your parish
    * Everybody has a need to feel they're making a contribution that's appreciated

    So if you can demonstrate the need, what they'll learn, and how it will be appreciated, you may indeed get some people in your schola.

    Amazing things are done with volunteers. Often the MOST amazing things.
  • • Some have not been to Mass since they left home
  • Adam WoodAdam Wood
    Posts: 6,451
    I stopped going to church when I was in college. I would have come and sang in a schola for free if someone had asked me: They'd have gotten a singer, and I'd have been back in church.
  • I also say advertise at the conservatory. Couldn't hurt, could be great for the parish and the singers.

    Noel's homeschooler idea is also great. I have mostly homeschoolers in the choristers I direct. They thrive with the challenge and both parents and kids highly value the tradition of sacred music.
  • Dove
    Posts: 16
    Dear SingingMum,
    Please email me your real email address. Trying to get in touch with you.
    In Oakland.
  • CantorConvert!

    How is it going? Progress report, please.
  • Noel,
    If they're trying to get roles in the opera theater, they won't do chant. We've found that it's hard to get CIM voice majors to do choral work...and especially straight-tone. One seems to have better luck with composers, instrumentalists or musicologists with a modicum of vocal technique. Thats not so much the case with the less prestigious schools around here.
  • Having worked with singers at that level at CIM, I agree....but there were always ones that were not good enough to get the roles to fill out a choir. The big voiced role-getting singers can usually be found as paid soloists at the big Presbyterian or Episcopalian church in town....and sometimes the Methodists.

    Over at the Holy Oil Can, for example. I employed 10 CIM singers at Calvary Presbyterian down on Euclid Avenue myself.
  • rsven
    Posts: 43
    Dear Cantorconvert, Just sing to your heart's content, accompanied or not, it doesn't matter. The Propers are beautiful. Bountiful historical precedent. Have fun!
  • FWIW, the Holy Oil Can merged with the big Methodist church downtown and is now known as University Circle United Methodist (still the HOC though). Calvary Presby has never been on my map, and I've been in town since '86, so either I've been out of it or that was a long time ago. Old Stone used to be much more of a force than they are now. Trinity and St. Paul's still continue strong though.