The Pause in the Psalm Verse - Explaining the same to singers
  • As we all know, the traditional singing of the psalms for the office provides for a generous pause after the mediant cadence (i.e., in the middle of the verse).

    I know this and I teach it and I enjoy it and so do my singers. What I don't have is an explanation for it.

    My interest right now comes for the desire to start dividing my singers and the hand-off between choirs is much shorter. So I'd like to be ready with an explanation.

    Any suggestions, knowledge, or guesses?
  • Psalms rhyme, not by ending lines with matching vowels, but by the structure of the thoughts in each line.

    For example:

    1 The earth is large
    2 The earth is humongous large

    and

    1 The earth is large
    2 The earth is a small part of the entire solar system

    and

    1 Where do people live
    2 People live on the earth and temporarily on the Space Station

    There are five rhyme forms in the psalms. They are always present in one form or another, so pausing before the second line is MUCH more important than pausing between verses since the pause is required to emphasize that the first line is going to be answered in one of five ways.

    Rushing from verse to verse is acceptable, but not pausing between the lines of the verses is not.

    You are throwing out an idea and giving it time to float through the building and minds before answering it.
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  • Adam WoodAdam Wood
    Posts: 6,307
    there is a pause between lines of a verse for the reason there is punctuation in english because without punctuation it is really hard to tell where one thought ends and another begins the pause does the same thing it tells you where the breaks in thought are also just like in spoken speech a trained speaker will pause between two halves of a complete thought such as the natural pause between to be or not to be and that is the question without pauses like that it would be very difficult to understand what is going on in the syntax so while it is traditional the reason for doing it doesn't really have to do with tradition nearly as much as it has to do with basically making sense out of the thing if anyone complains or questions it you should try reading the psalm aloud with and without breaks to show the difference
  • The explanation I heard years ago had to do with the groups singing the psalms. In the middle of the verse, the same group continues singing, and so needs to make the mediant cadence, breathe together, and start again, so they make a bigger pause. Starting a new verse, the psalm is continued by a new group of singers, who can breathe early and be ready to go when the other group finishes, so there's a lesser pause.

    There might also be some consideration of the acoustic of the church to consider.
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  • I seem to recall Dom Saulnier likening the pause to the space between a question and an answer, something I've heard from other chant teachers.

    The musical form indicates this as well, as the mediant cadence begs to be heard for a moment, to linger and to save a space for pondering, and yet intuitively we feel the thought and the music aren't finished. This space propels the text and the music to a conclusion.
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  • AngelaR
    Posts: 259
    LOL, Adam.
  • RagueneauRagueneau
    Posts: 2,592
    mjballou,

    Religious houses were required to be visited by the Bishop (I believe once a year). We have records of these yearly visitations.

    This was an opportunity for religious to complain directly to the Bishop about things they hated about monastic life. The ones I looked at were from the early Renaissance period.

    Some people complained about things like dogs in Church, and how much noise they made. (Evidently, a lot of people brought dogs inside the Church back then.)

    Others complained vociferously about the length of pause at the mediant cadence.

    Some claimed that this pause was long enough for the beginning of an AVE MARIA. Others said it was closer to three entire AVE MARIA's . . . . (!!!) One complaint was that you could say the entire PATER NOSTER at each mediant. In each case, this pause obviously bothered the person in question because it made their prayers last a lot longer, and they (evidently) didn't like that.

    Some people (e.g. the Tallis Scholars) take these documents literally, and leave (in my opinion) an inordinate amount of time at the mediant cadence.

    Other choirs literally mouth the beginning of the AVE MARIA in between each psalm verse to get the right spacing. (Again, in my view, WAY too much time.)

    The response to criticism is usually, "But we're being authentic to what we know about how they performed these pieces."

    My only response to that would be, "Be careful how seriously you take records of COMPLAINTS. Because people who are complaining tend to exaggerate."
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  • chonakchonak
    Posts: 7,905
    One theory is that the mediant pause was longer or shorter from one place to another, depending on the time for sound to decay in the church. In some large medieval churches, the decay time was (and is) several seconds. I think Scott has talked about this at Chant Intensive sessions.
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  • Acoustics matter greatly, this is true.
  • francisfrancis
    Posts: 8,300
    If one seeks a rule to impose upon all, one is probably substituting it for the truth.

    Spiritus ubi vult spirat et vocem eius audis sed non scis unde veniat et quo vadat sic est omnis qui natus est ex Spiritu. John 3:8
  • Many thanks. Singing Mum - I did remember Dom Saulnier talking about it. The problem was after the 3-course lunch with wine, many things escaped my longterm memory. However, I remember the bit about the poetics of the psalms. Actually, asking the question helped jog my recollection.

    My personal position (which is worth just what it cost) is that the timing is a combination of poetic structure and breathing. I don't teach it as counting or words because that would vary with your acoustics. That approach also smacks of putting masking tape on the stage, i.e., a mechanical strategy.

    And to francis - Spiritum nolite exstinguere (1 Thess. 5:19).
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  • pamino
    Posts: 5
    This is all very interesting. I entirely agree that the pause should be substantial (and that the next verse should be taken over by the other side without delay), but how does one measure the length of the pause? How long it should be in what acoustical conditions is of course another question. Please don‘t tell me to do it by feel as I know from experience that that isn’t enough. Mechanical strategies need not be a work of the Devil, as anyone who has played in an orchestra knows.
    Thanked by 1Kathy
  • chonakchonak
    Posts: 7,905
    A good starting version, assuming nothing particular about the acoustics of the situation, would be the length of the word "Ave". It's a good minimum anywhere, so that the singers and the congregation can have that little moment for reflection in the middle of the psalm verse.
  • From both Mahrt and Morse:
    Ave, ave (normal minimal reverb ambiance)
    Ave, ave Maria- a tad more
    Ave, Maria Gratia plena- 4-5 second delay
    Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum- St. Pat's/ Shrine of Imm.Conc.
    Whole AM- all cathedrals, most monasteries in Europe!
  • I'm glad this came back up.

    JMO, we're not allowed to bring dogs into church?
  • I am the dog in the church, FNJ.
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  • pamino
    Posts: 5
    Thank you for this response, Charles […]. My personal view is:

    ‘Ave, ave (normal minimal reverb ambiance)’

    Much too short.

    ‘Ave, ave Maria- a tad more’

    Still too short.

    ‘Ave, Maria Gratia plena- 4-5 second delay’

    Depemds on how you say (or think) it.

    ‘Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum- St. Pat's/ Shrine of Imm.Conc.’

    That seems to me the best of the above solutions.

    ‘Whole AM- all cathedrals, most monasteries in Europe!‘

    I live in continental Europe and have done so this time round since 1989. Psalms are hardly sung any more in cathedrals; and I have never been in any abbey or other monastery where this gigantic pause was used. (Or is the Ave Maria supposed to be gabbled in Irish fashion?)

    This is my difficulty: none of these recommendations gives any hint of how fast the Ave Maria is to be spoken or thought, or where it is to begin (the last syllable of the psalm half-verse is dotted, and I have recently heard it so sung at Bellaigue (traditional Benedictines in Burgundy; the effect is very pleasing, but the choir-master's answer to my urgent question was of the ‘Oh, I just feel it’ type).

    Sancta Cæcilia, ora pro nobis.
  • In the Episcopal Church, our Book of Common Prayer 1979 calls for a "distinct pause." To me, this means simply that there be more of a pause than would be taken just to take a breath, so nothing extraordinarily long. The longer it gets, the greater the tension among those participating: maybe a bit of fear of coming in too soon, or frustration at wondering when the person leading will continue and why they're pausing so long, etc. If it's just a "breath-plus," it will more likely settle into a commonly held, comfortable pattern and be the prayerful and non-rushing rhythm the pause is meant to foster (among other purposes the pause has).

    The longest I've seen in terms of a rule for the length of the pause has been four seconds (!) in an edition of the psalter for the Order of Julian of Norwich. One could almost go get another cup of coffee and come back during such a pause. :)
  • pamino,
    Of course, Prof. Mahrt was illustrating the use of the AM for those of us singing chant verses in alternatim with fauxbourdon verses. Both he and Jeffrey Morse confirmed this "method" was passed onto them from Dr. Mary Berry. And he did jest about a certain monastery chapel where you could go get a sandwich in the interim resonance!
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 10,099
    Even in organ studies, my teacher said to let the last chord return to you before playing the next. Sometimes they do seem to collide in mid-air when they are too close together.
  • Why not (in silence) sing mentally again the mediant cadence in rhythm and then begin the second half of the verse? Just an idea.
  • IanWIanW
    Posts: 749
    A common practice in England is to count to 2 or 3 after the mediant and then come in where the next count would be. Speed is determined by tempo, acoustic and local custom (or the compromise achieved by the end if there isn't one).
  • SalieriSalieri
    Posts: 2,477
    The common examples for pauses I've heard of are:

    Gloria Patri et Filio * ('Ave') et Spiritui Sancto. (This is the one I use with my scholae)

    Gloria Patri et Filio * ('Ave Maria') et Spiritui Sancto.

    Gloria Patri et Filio * ('Paternoster') et Spiritui Sancto.

    Gloria Patri et Filio * ('Ave Maria gratia plena') et Spiritui Sancto.

    And I've heard of one case where in the pause was:

    Gloria Patri et Filio * ('Ave Maria gratia plena Dominus tecum. et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Jesus') et Spiritui Sancto.
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  • the traditional singing of the psalms for the office provides for a generous pause after the mediant cadence (i.e., in the middle of the verse).

    I know this and I teach it and I enjoy it and so do my singers. What I don't have is an explanation for it. image

    Coming back after a very long time, I think the place to start is the note at the end of the verse, which is identically dotted. If semichorus M holds the last note as written, semichorus N will come in with neither pause nor gatecrashing, and the interval in the middle will adjust itself. We tested this at the last Tenebræ and it works.
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  • ghmus7
    Posts: 1,138
    The mention of religious houses reminds me....(Warning bad joke ahead)
    There was a postulant at a rather strict monastary. The community allowed no talking at all, but members were allowed to speak two words to the abbott in their annual meeting. This first year, the postulant met with the abbott and said "bed hard". The abbott just nodded and the meeting was over.
    The second year the at the meeting the postulant said "food bad". The abbott nodded and the meeting was over. The third year, thr postulant said "I quit"! The abbott said: Well I am not surprised, you've been complaining ever since you got here!
  • What we all seem to be missing is that chanted psalmody is a meditation practice, akin to those in other traditions. Essential to all meditation practices is attention on our breath.

    I like to do it this way:

    (never rushing any syllable, lengthening or catching a quick breath at commas; using the subordinate mediation at semicolons)

    Group/Cantor 1 - ]1st half, mediant cadence] - finish outbreath ; inbreath - [2nd half]
    Group/Cantor 2 - inhale in a relaxed way and early, dovetail end of G/C 1, repeating same structure.

    As in the Astanga yoga tradition, understanding is 5% theory, 95% practice.

    The words of the psalm being sung may not be in the forefront of the intellect during singing, but they are much more indelibly etched in the memory as a result.
  • CatherineS
    Posts: 230
    I tried telling the bad joke above to a friend who is religious but not excessively so. She looked at me in horror. "You mean monks aren't allowed to talk? Ever? That's horrible! I would never be able to do that." I felt bad for startling her.
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  • Kathy
    Posts: 5,069
    Once I was singing at St Peter's (long story), and at the rehearsal, since my group had some beginning chanters, he broke in at every mediant to loudly say, "Ave, ave!" It was effective and kind of fun.
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