In Part 1, we discussed how to navigate the unfamiliar waters of choosing and using a plainsong psalter (including the pros and cons of Saint Dunstan’s Plainsong Psalter and the Nashotah House Plainsong Psalter), and how to know how the match the text of a pointed Psalm to the music written in the Psalm Tone.
In his “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” John Keats opined “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” Whether or not Keats was literally correct, it has long been held by the ancient branches of Christian faith that beauty ought to be an integral component of the worship we offer our Savior.
And while we believe that He graciously receives our meager offerings, no matter how “pretty,” we can still seek to resonate more closely with that beautiful worship which is continually offered before the heavenly throne.
The Practice of Chanting
It doesn’t take years of training to make our chanting more beautiful; but it does take practice, listening, and an awareness of best practices.
Throughout, we should keep in mind that the music must always serve the words. As one choir master once told me, “The music must be the handmaiden of the text.” It is there to enhance and beautify, to aid the memory and the heart, but never to attract undue attention to itself.
Rhythm and Pace
One of the initial hurdles in chanting plainsong is knowing how long to hold notes and how fast to go.
Chant notation, whether medieval or modern, cannot convey this information, so these factors may vary from one person or congregation to another.
Keep these principles in mind:
- Follow the natural rhythms of the spoken word. Many hymns rewrite Psalms by pushing and pulling the words to fit a particular rhythmic pattern, but that is not our goal. These are not metric Psalms; we’re not trying to fit the text into iambic pentameter or anything like that. This is what makes plainsong so flexible: any translation can be made to work with the Psalm Tone because there is no prescribed rhythm other than the natural rhythm of the words themselves.
- Avoid unnecessary hurry or delay. The chant should flow like a gentle stream. A relaxed pace is desirable for two principal reasons, the first of which is that it gives us space to meditate on the Psalms’ meaning, and we can’t do that it we rush though it. Similarly, pausing too often or progressing artificially slowly can be equally distracting.
- Aim for distinct, clear, natural declamation of the text. A natural pace helps do this, along with clear pronunciation of the words and avoidance of affectation.
- Allow the natural stress patterns of the words always to take precedence over any suggested emphasis in the music. In Post 1, we noted that the Psalm Tone’s mediation and termination contain one or more suggested points where stressed syllables should fall. A well-pointed Psalm will aim to align the natural stresses of the text with these musical emphases. However, this is not always possible, so when the musical stress seems awkward or unnatural, we should follow the natural emphasis of the text.
- Only make long pauses at the end of the mediation (the asterisk) or at the flex (to be discussed below). Very small breaks and quick breaths are appropriate at other important punctuation marks, such as periods, semicolons, question marks, and some commas (usually the ones that separate clauses). These quick breaks are in keeping with the flow of the words, where we would naturally grab breaths.
We need to be aware of how many notes we are to sing for every syllable of the text. When there is one note per syllable, the text is set syllabically. If there is more than one note per syllable, the text is set melismatically.
We could fill several books on the history and use of melismata in liturgical music, but let it suffice to say that sometimes a single syllable is assigned more than one note.
Tone V 3, is an example of a Psalm Tone that is completely syllabic.
This variation of Tone VII, on the other hand, contains three melismata (indicated by the arcs that connect pairs of notes), two in the intonation, and one in the termination.
The Flex (Advanced/Optional)
The flex is an additional pausing point in the verse that, in historical performance practice, sometimes involves the unwritten (but understood) change of pitch immediately before the pause.
Because it adds another layer of complexity, the flex is not observed in the Nashotah House Plainsong Psalter, but it is indicated in Saint Dunstan’s Plainsong Psalter. It is by no means a necessary component of chanting the Psalms, so if this isn’t for you, feel free to skip down to the next section. Personally, I only observe the flex when I’m chanting on my own or with other trained musicians; it’s probably too ambitious for a congregation.
In St. Dunstan’s, the flex is marked in the text by a small cross or dagger symbol ( † ), indicating a short pause for breath in the first half of the Psalm verse. The syllable immediately prior to this symbol is marked in one of two ways:
- A long mark ( ¯ ) for stressed syllables immediately preceding the flex. The reciting note is maintained, unchanged.
- A short mark ( ˘ ) for unstressed syllables immediately preceding the flex. The reciting note changes for that single unstressed syllable, either to the line or the space below the reciting note, and then returns to the reciting note as the verse continues.
Here are two examples from the St. Dunstan’s Psalter.
As if this wasn’t muddy enough, the note to which one must change for an unstressed syllable varies depending on the Psalm Tone.
(Keep in mind that the flex has its origins in the monastic practice of singing through the entire psalter every single week! These communities would doubtless have found this practice a small but blessed bit of variety.) However, the intonation of the Psalm Tone gives a clue as to what pitch that unstressed syllable should be. If we look again at Tone V, the reciting note is on the space second from the bottom. In the intonation, the closest pitch below the reciting note is in the space below. (Some readers may recognize this as a minor third.)
In the case of Tone VII, the reciting note is on the line second from the bottom of the staff. In the intonation, the closest pitch below the reciting note is in the space below (a major second).
All unstressed flexes are either a major second or a minor third below the reciting note, and you can refer to the intonation to determine which one to use. (The mathematically minded among our readership may be intrigued to note that the Psalm Tones that use the minor-third flex are all members of the Fibonnacci Sequence (Tones II, III, V, and VIII).
Division of Labor
It has long been the practice of the church to chant the Psalms antiphonally (that is, in a back-and-forth or call-and-response manner). Like so much in Anglican worship, it allows space to both listen and respond to Holy Scripture and to one another.
In congregational Psalm chanting, a cantor typically sings the intonation through the mediation of the first verse. But there are various ways you and your congregation can proceed depending on their experience, comfort level, training, etc.
Options in the Space:
Alternate between cantor and congregation. This is a good option if you have only one or two parishioners who are able and willing to lead the chant. It allows the congregation a couple of moments to hear a bit of the chant and settle in before they have to respond.
Alternate the Epistle and Gospel sides of the assembly. This is a good option if you have a more musically literate parish, or a significant percentage who are trained or have experience chanting. Even in this approach, a cantor usually initiates by chanting the intonation and first half of the first verse.
Options in Timing:
Alternate by half verse. This may be the easier of the temporal options. In a cantor-congregation approach, this means the congregation is only responsible for the latter half of the Psalm Tone, and thus, they can become more confident in their singing. If the congregation is responding one side to another, the benefit is the same, each side of the assembly has only to learn one half of the Psalm Tone.
Alternate by whole verse. This approach tends to be more successful when parishioners are more experienced/trained, can generally navigate both the mediation and the termination with success, and can handle longer passages of chant. The benefit, I think, is one of clarity of text. Generally, each group is completing a more or less complete thought.
Strategies for Chanting in Corporate Worship
Meet the Needs of the Congregation
Here are some strategies I have used (or want to use) in my home parish as we try to make plainsong part of the regular life of our church.
- Educate parishioners on the practice and discipline of Psalm singing as a means of Christian education and even self-discipline.
- Introduce a new Psalm Tone a week or two in advance of its use in worship.
- Choose one Psalm Tone for use during a particular season (possibly two Psalm Tones with some variants for longer seasons). See the table below for an example of how one might deploy Psalm Tones according to the liturgical year.
- Keep in mind that modern notation is easier for music readers, whereas Medieval notation is easier for non-music readers.
- Recycle familiar Psalm Tones for canticles in Morning and Evening Prayer.
- If initial efforts prove too difficult for the congregation, a cantor may sing the canticle or Psalm verses, and congregation may sing a repeating antiphon.
Calendrical Use of Psalm Tones
V & VII
IV & Peregrinus
V & VI
I, II, III, & VIII
More Advanced Practices
- Observe the Flex.
- Mark feast days with the Solemn Tones, Ancient Modes, or proper antiphons. (These can be found in Saint Dunstan’s Plainsong Psalter.)
- Skilled (or adventurous) accompanists (on piano/organ/guitar) can harmonize the reciting note, stressed notes of the Mediation and Termination, and the Finals.
There can be no substitute for listening for what well-sung chant sounds like. It can create an ideal to which one can strive as well as provide a meditative space for your reflection upon the Word.
There are numerous recordings of this kind all over the internet, but they can be hard to find amidst all the mediocre options out there. So I’ll just point you to two albums I have found to be particularly good:
- Sublime Chant: The Art of Gregorian, Ambrosian, and Gallican Chant and
- More Sublime Chant: The Art of Gregorian, Ambrosian, Gallican Chant, and Sarum Chant.
Both recordings are sung by the Cathedral Singers under the leadership of Richard Proulx.
In the final post of this series, we will walk through the process of pointing a Psalm. No matter what translation your parish prefers, and no matter with which Psalm Tone your congregation has gained some familiarity, a bit of understanding can go a long way toward customizing the psalter to your own church’s needs.
Dr. Enoch Jacobus lives in Rome, GA with his wife and best friend, Celia, and their two (soon-to-be three) children, Alec and Rafe. He serves as the lay cantor of St. Andrew’s Anglican Church and is Assistant Professor of Music Theory at Shorter University, where he teaches courses in music analysis, aural training and musicianship, composition, and orchestration.