Engaging spiritually with chant - help and suggestions?
  • I myself, and the group I am working with, have come from the charismatic end of things in the church. We sing a lot, and with enthusiasm, but chant is very new. However, we are moving in that direction. I am looking for help and ideas around the following issue. We are used to our music (mostly at prayer meetings rather than liturgy) being simple enough to sing easily, and to experience a simplicity in using the texts and music conveying what we are thinking and feeling in a simple direct manner. What I mean is , if you are singing something straightforward like 'I love you Lord' it is not too hard to try to pray with your heart what you are singing with your lips.
    Then comes chant, which seem to overlay this with several layers of difficulty. Musically, it can be so challenging that the technical performance can absorb ones mind to the exclusion of all else. Textually, there may the barrier to understanding of latin. A bigger issue would be using a psalm text, for example which is prayed with a Christological interpretation, in the name of the whole church, ( as the general intro to the LOTH states.) These sorts of things make the transition to what we are used to in prayerful singing somewhat difficult.
    With my childrens schola it is not so much a problem, because, using ideas from the ward method, they are learning chant very simply. They make up their own intercessions or thanksgivings and chant them, and the pieces of chant chosen for them are simpler and more direct in nature.
    Now I am thinking of doing a summer school for an older group (young adults) who will be capable of more. (I am not sure I am up to this, but I am up for it).
    These kids are by and large past the stage of needing initial evangelisation so talking to them about prayer etc will be fine.
    Any thoughts or suggestions you have that would help would be gratefully received. I don't need an essay on the downsides of charismatic renewal movements thanks, cr movements vary widely I have found, and here in Ireland the reform of the reform is being spearheaded by people, (or their children) drawn mainly from that background. (which seems to me to be very logical. CR was one of the very few movements genuinely evangelising and bringing people to conversion. Now as that deepens, the Holy Spirit is opening up the wonderful treasury in the church for deepening that conversion and rooting it more solidly and authentically in the life and traditions of the church.)

    Anyhow, how do I answer or advise on questions like these?

    How is it praying if a piece of music is so complicated to do, that I have no mental space left to think about what I am singing? ( I can think of one solution, maybe after living as a monk for forty years at Solesmes this solves the difficulty ;-) Not sure how many of the kids will go for that as a solution. Hopefully some will)

    Is there a wider framework to consider my personal contribution in, (like the whole church praying with distributed parts ) and how do I make this feel authentic?

    Is feel the wrong word or concept? How do I make progress in singing prayer beyond feelings, without feeling like it is going backwards? (Sorry that question is a mess, if you get what I am getting at thanks) Is prayer which engages us emotionally better than prayer which doesn't? (Or not better or worse just different).

    In all of this I am presuming that singing chant is a way of praying. How do we practise - should this be considered prayer too? Otherwise are we not developing our ability to chant as if it is not prayer, only to expect at the right moment to switch on that extra component and suddenly it is now praying? (I picture it like practising your piano piece hands separately all the time, and going into the exam expecting to be able to play them together)

    Anyway, this is long enough. You probably know better questions and issues than I have enough experience even to imagine. Helpful thoughts and input welcomed please.

    Thanked by 2CHGiffen Scott_W
  • Scott_WScott_W
    Posts: 456
    How is it praying if a piece of music is so complicated to do, that I have no mental space left to think about what I am singing?

    We would need an example of the complicated chants you are doing to get an idea of what the problem is because I'm confused. If we look at what to my mind is a very powerful and prayerful chant like Jesu dulcis memoria, I think there is nothing complicated about it at all.

    Blessings to you for trying to incorporate chant into your prayer. I encourage you to stay with it as I believe the effort will pay dividends.
    Thanked by 1bonniebede
  • Thank you. okay thank you , that got me thinking. I was thinking of preparing one sung mass, so that would be a mass ordinary, and the propers for that that day.

    I went and looked at jesu Dulcis memoria, which I didn't know.
    Truly lovely.
    The latin is a problem, I needed an English translation. I could see that having the latin and English side by side, I would probably understand it in latin by the time I had learnt to sing it.

    you also made me think about the chants I can sing from memory 9mostly benediction stuff). Am I really praying them? not sure, I think I enjoy singing them more than focusing on the words or meanings. Is this right or wrong? Isn't the text meant to be primary? Praying with my mind etc..

    You know maybe scratch this and just pray that God will stump up the cost of getting to the colloquium.
    I am just running into the typical problems of trying to restart something which needs an oral tradition as well as books, and an apprenticeship.
  • In my experience, this is a multilayered process. I'm drawn to a chant or piece of music for specific spiritual reasons. Okay, now what? Practice, listen, and analyze until everything comes together. It takes time, time to spend with the music and literally live with it for a while, and eventually the act of performance becomes secondary in your mind and your focus is on prayer and the message of the text. Read the translations until they are memorized, learn as much as you can about any symbolic structures or historically significant features of the music. Because we are not monks at Solesmes these extra efforts are necessary, and even then we cannot achieve the same spiritual intimacy with chant as they had, but that's okay too. It is wonderful and commendable that you are making the effort-go easy on yourself!
    Thanked by 2bonniebede francis
  • I recommend a small book "Reflections on the Spirituality of Gregorian Chant" by Dom Jacques Hourlier of Solesmes. It was written specifically to summarize talks given to young adults at Solesmes. I seem to recall that some of the points addressed comments written by the participants.

    I found it available at the Clear Creek site:
    It's probably available through other sources.

    In working with my scholas, I have found the "Chants of the Vatican Gradual" to be helpful for comments and thoughts about specific Mass chants, both to incorporate in the interpretation and for giving the singers more context for what they are singing.
    Thanked by 2JulieColl bonniebede
  • Regarding emotion, it indeed is not necessary (but altogether commendable), if I am any indication. In general I don't feel my faith (it is much more an intellectual experience for me), since feelings and emotions simply aren't my strong suit (I have them, but can't usually identify them). That's why I tend to enjoy film music: it's so explicit in its emotions.

    What I suppose I mean is that internalizing the translation should free you up to focus on the beauty and precision of the music. This not meant to be music picked up immediately, like charismatic music. It is designed to be studied, delved into, refined. Charismatic music is designed to be quickly singable and accessible. It just can't go as deep theologically as chant. (Isn't it nice to have both?)

    Let the chant sink in. Learn about how it expresses the text. When you know that what you are doing musically illustrates the words and meaning, then focusing on the technical execution doesn't seem so far removed from prayer. But be patient.
    Thanked by 2bonniebede canadash
  • Scott_WScott_W
    Posts: 456
    Regarding emotion, it indeed is not necessary (but altogether commendable), if I am any indication.

    True. It is especially important to avoid the trap of thinking you are doing something wrong in the absence of feelings. Love is an act of the will rather than a feeling.
  • Adam WoodAdam Wood
    Posts: 6,353
    Love is an act of the will rather than a feeling.

    And all the more powerful an act in the absence of the rewarding feelings that go along with it.
  • 'How is it praying when...'

    Has this person not heard that work is prayer (ora labora)?
    The work of learning a beautiful music as an act of prayer will be rewarded with the joy of having assimilated into one's spirit a gem of great worth, one that will be prized greatly.
    Thank goodness for those who take the trouble to learn Beethoven piano sonatas, Tallis motets, Shakespeare plays, and more. How bereft our world would be of the cream of human achievement and Divinely-inspired creations if no one could be bothered with the prayerful work of learning them for us.

  • The Propers are the prayers of the church. Whenever I think of this my heart just lets go :)
    Thanked by 1bonniebede
  • MatthewRoth
    Posts: 1,224
    Indeed, MJO. I'm responding to the call to become a more active church musician and to pray more, so I'm learning to sing Compline following the 1961 rubrics. Since there are seasonal parts, the festal hymn melodies, and the daily antiphons (meaning 3 psalm tones throughout the week), there's a learning curve. But it's going to be worth it.
  • SalieriSalieri
    Posts: 2,610
    Prayer and spirituality has in the past of the Church been more than just about feelings of spiritual-ness. The chant does indeed need to be studied and learned, which is best done in the mindset of the Mediaeval Scholastics and Monastics wherein the work, be it gardening or mastering a chant or copying the Missal is itself a prayer.
  • Has this person not heard that work is prayer (ora labora)?

    This person has heard that, but I never put it in this context, because music is also so enjoyable, Thank you for making me think of it as hard work. (Please do not hear that in a sarcastic tone of voice) :-)

    Thank you all much food for thought and useful resources there.

    It takes time, time to spend with the music and literally live with it for a while, and eventually the act of performance becomes secondary in your mind and your focus is on prayer and the message of the text.

    Especially that.
  • Chant, especially those selections whose texts are taken from Scripture, constitutes some of the "thoughts of His heart" (cf. Introit, Sacred Heart) that the Lord invites to make our own in a certain sort of "holy communion". As such, they are not devoid of emotion but rather overflowing with holy sentiment. It takes time for us to grasp it—those who persevere give themselves the opportunity to understand a bit more deeply the heart of Christ, and the via crucis He willingly accepted for our sake. Having learned the chant (and the Scripture it illuminates) these past dozen years, I can tell you that certain texts cut me to the heart such that I struggle to maintain composure.

    A prime example, for me, is the Gregorian Offertory for Palm Sunday and Sacred Heart: Improperium exspectavit cor meum (My Heart awaited reproach). The passage "I looked for one who would comfort me, and found no one" is such an intensely convicting marriage of text and melody—especially the plaintive melisma on the word "non"—to which the response of my soul, even as I write this, is thankful acknowledgement of His mostly unrequited Love and supplication for His mercy (among many, many other things).
  • dad29
    Posts: 1,908
    It will be VERY helpful to have a translation at hand, for the Word is primary; as Ari indicates above, the music illuminates the text.

    Another example of the word-painting is the Communio for Palm Sunday. The first 2/3rds (or so) express, musically, the fervent hope of Christ that He will not have to undergo His passion; the last portion is a long sigh of acquiescense

    Another relatively simple Chant is the Ave Maria. The angel greets her with a deep bow followed by a wonder-filled 4-word statement of fact. Lotsa notes on "mulieribus" b/c there are lotsa women included in that word. Then a genuflection on "Je-sus".

    There's a lot of stuff in that very short, easy-to-learn Chant.

    Ordinary? How about the masculine, almost swaggering "et unam, sanctam, catholicam,.." from Credo III? Or the triumphant leap of a 5th from "he was buried" to "and he rose" in the same Credo?

    It might not take all of 40 years to hear the realization-of-text in Chant. Yes, repetition helps. But always remember Augustine: "He who sings prays twice." Take his word for it.
    Thanked by 2bonniebede CHGiffen
  • Adam WoodAdam Wood
    Posts: 6,353
    almost swaggering "et unam, sanctam, catholicam,.." from Credo III

    One of my favorite moments in the [small portion of the] literature [that I am familiar with]
  • francisfrancis
    Posts: 8,870
    Thank goodness for those who take the trouble to learn Beethoven piano sonatas

    I understand your point and support your sentiment, but IMHO, Beethoven sonatas should be substituted with Bach concertos... or fugues... or organ works. YMMV.
  • francisfrancis
    Posts: 8,870

    You might start with vespers as the psalm tones are a much easier launch into GC, are antiphonal, and allow one to 'think' easier while singing prayer.
    Thanked by 1bonniebede
  • francisfrancis
    Posts: 8,870

    Are you able to do what you are doing with others or just by yourself? I commend you! Great discipline to take up such a task. Definitely will be rewarding.
  • You might start with vespers

    Thank you, a good thought. I started doing Vespers for the Parish a few months ago and it is very rewarding.

    Aristotle, Dad, y'all, thank you.
  • MatthewRoth
    Posts: 1,224
    Francis, right now it is just me. I am on school break from university, and I have free time finally. Hopefully we can get a nice group going when I go back to school. I'll be studying in Europe next semester. Won't that be delightful, singing Compline across Christendom? Ah...

    I found a video of sung Compline on Youtube (I think it is the SSPX seminary) for Sunday. Veronica Brandt, who blogs for Corpus Christi Watershed from Oz, put together a really nice booklet, which I've put into a binder complete with tabs and ribbons. I'm first learning the parts that are going to be used the most. So the beginning, the Salva nos and the Nunc Dimittis, the collect, and the Marian antiphons (which I already know). For now, I am sticking to Sunday for the year, with the substitution of the proper/seasonal Te lucis. There are Youtube videos with each version of the hymn. Psalm tones (for the few days that are not 8G), daily antiphons and the short responsories will be added when I progress with solfege and if and when someone who knows them records them for me.

    It really will be worth it. I love the ceremonies of Vespers, and I love the Dixit Dominus and especially the In exitu Israel to the tonus peregrinus. But nothing compares to the peacefulness of Compline. It's also something one can do within the family with a bit of effort.
    Thanked by 2CHGiffen francis