Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Some thoughts on Chant

Until the 1960s our Church was known for its chant, the Sacred Heart, next door in Hove specialised in more showy polyphony. I presume chant became our thing because of Mgr George Wallis who was parish priest here until his death in 1950. He was an interesting character, he was a member of the famous banking family, a son of John Edward Wallis, editor and proprietor of the Tablet from 1855 to 1868. He had been educated in France, he studied at the Gallican College in Rome and though an Englishman he spoke with a French accent. After ordination he became Ceremonialist at one of the Roman basillicas, from where he was recruited by Cardinal Bourne to be Master of Ceremonies at Westminster Cathedral in 1910 he oversaw its consecration. By the 1913 he had been sacked, parish legend says there was a scene during the solemn reception of the King of Portugal. He then came to Brighton as a chaplain to one of the convents in the parish, and only being appointed Parish Priest here in 1924. Then, we were very much part of the Liturgical movement. One of our older parishioners remembered the Monsignor saying, 'If you have difficulties come to me, I am your Father', another parishioner spoke of his father recalling the visits of Chesterton, Belloc and Greene.

The Tablet archive records him speaking on Liturgical music and the new Moto Proprio in 1906!
His love of chant seemed to get into the stonework here, right up until the mid-eighties and clung on, after the choir was sent of into exile, through the efforts of a few parishioners past that date as a prayer group. Today it has having a bit of a revival, mainly due to our director of music, Clare, who is becoming a bit of an expert, she has even been training our schola and running workshops in other parishes in the diocese. She herself has been tutored by the choir director of St Cecelia's Abbey, Sister Bernadette who maintains the great Solesmes tradition here in England.

Chant is the perfect expression of the Church's worship. It can be sung indifferently, like singers on rugby club bus but in reality as monophony it demands that singers form one voice, singing together in perfect pitch, breathing together, 'sounding' together, there is no room for personal virtuosity or individuality in chant. It is supposed to be the voice of the Church, ex pluribus unum, so the many are one at the service of the Word. Monastic exponents of chant will say that it takes twenty or thirty years of singing together everyday for a monastic schola to become proficient because it isn't just musical understanding or expertise that is needed but a spiritual harmony. A profound consciousness, not just of music written on the page and knowledge of the technique that is needed, but a sensitivity towards the other singers and a deep understanding of the text. In other musical forms disharmony or even dischord are part of the genre but the purity of chant demands more. The more technically demanding pieces can cover a multitude of errors but it is often in the simple recitation that faults become apparent. The aim of chant is the proclamation of the word, the total immersion of the singers into the text, the clear enunciation of Church's voice in prayer.

Chant is an expression and a metaphor for the life of the Church itself, more and more I am beginning to hear here the occasional phrase, sometimes even a whole piece that is sung beautifully with a quality that goes beyond merely just a proficient performance. In fact there is a quality to chant that professional musicians can emulate but never actually achieve, rather like an artist who understands the techniques of iconography but can't actually quite paint a real icon. 


Sixupman said...

"... love of chat gets into the stonework" - I also find that upon visiting some churches the Presence in the tabernacle is almost tangible, others not. Sometimes I feel it distant from a church - on two occasions Anglo-Catholic ones! Is it just my own imagination?

Pablo the Mexican said...

"Be Safe"

A curse towards God and the one to whom it is told.

Satan has slowly moved man from those sacred things that a proper place in the heart for love of God, which is the beginning of Charity, no longer exists.

These Madres singing bring to our souls and our hearts a means of preparing ourselves to welcome Our Lord to us especially during the reception of Holy Communion.

Their Convent is the backbone of Padres that enter a Parish and begin the work of restoring Our Lord's Church, both the building and the Faithful.

The Madres come in first, the Padre next.

God bless these Holy Women and the Mothers that gave birth to them.

¡Ave María Purísima!


Sadie Vacantist said...

Our Cathedral has lost its way with chant ignored and replaced by set piece Masses typically Victoria's. This runs contrary to expectations dating back to St. Pius X. Throw in the Star Wars vestments, hideous reordering, female altar servers (I spotted one wearing lipstick) and the overall effect is one of vulgarity and kitsch.

Zephyrinus said...


Thank You, Fr.

Edson Roque said...

Parabéns pelo site!

1569 Rising said...


You may be able to settle a raging row in a certain parish not a mile from the River Tyne...

Is it ever right for chant to be accompanied on the organ, or the anti-organists being merely pedantic?

Anonymous said...

Dear Father,

What are we to do? The Solesmes books are here - pre and post VII - from Liber Usualis to Gregorian Missal and Liber Hymnarius. Why so few parish priests know about them? One of the excuses parish priests give when asked by parishioners to do something about the liturgy is "meetings" - parish meetings, deanery meetings, etc, etc,. I really dont understand, Father, how can the Church allow herself to be submerged in so much redtape, to grow so complacent in the bad habits fostered by bad hymns and incorrect ceremonial, so as to forget the essential, the Opus Dei. Forgive me for ranting.

Fr Ray Blake said...

Ah read Mgr Wallis on that, personally I would suggest the organ is used sparingly, according to the level of celebration but as we are heading closer to the East maybe it was used too much in the past.
It should augment not overshadow chant, perhaps it is best used to 'fill in'.

leutgeb said...

The organ may also be used to support the singing of the congregation. The parish situation is, after all, very different from a monastery. Your reason for using it may be pragmatic or liturgical. Since those of us involved in the Sunday by Sunday singing of chant are having to reintroduce a tradition supported only by our PPs and in my case friends and St Cecilia's Abbey, such pragmatic solutions may be necessary on a temporary basis.

It's very easy to fall into a way of thinking where whatever is done is never good enough or correct. Others will always have a harsher and purer reading of all the literature that has gone before.

leutgeb said...

One may choose to use the organ for pragmatic reasons to support a congregation in a church, which is very different from a monastic setting.

Or given complete competence with the music, entirely liturgical reasons.

There will always be those who find a harsher and purer way of reading the literature of past generations.

Zephyrinus said...

leutgeb has stated many accurate, pithy, and relevant observations and reasons why Chant may well vary.

There is no "right" or "wrong" way to adore God. Just different ways.

The dedication, hard work, and professionalism involved, in re-introducing Chant to the Divine Mass, can be heard in many Churches, these days. Thank God.

These include (but are not limited to) Fr Blake's lovely Church, St. Mary Magdalen, Brighton, and Our Lady of the Rosary, Blackfen, Kent (1030 hrs, every Sunday. Usus Antiquior Missa Cantata).

Come along (and listen) or, even better, join the Choir.

John Nolan said...

Few organists know how to accompany chant, but unless you have a cantor with perfect pitch it is difficult to avoid going flat. During the solemn singing of the Passion in St Peter's, Rome, this Good Friday I noticed the deacon who sang Chronista occasionally checking his pitch with a tuning fork. I have seen photographs of 19th century scholas employing an ophicleide or even a serpent, which sounds fun.

Pastor in Monte said...

Good post: thank you, Father.
In the West, we have always accepted the contribution of musical instruments in the appropriate seasons. We should avoid the Eastern custom of regarding these things as always inappropriate.

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