Chant Lesson from a Medieval Song School
The arts reveal the standards of an age. The architecture and painting that survive from the Middle Ages, for example, show us what it meant to build well and to paint well. The beautiful illuminated letters and calligraphy that enshrine the Gregorian compositions—and of course the compositions themselves—also testify to a level of excellence.
Unlike those enduring works, actual renditions of Gregorian chants have gone the way of all laughter and song, and so the medieval standards of performance are not provided for us in the same way. But something of what the master of music would expect from his students is known to us through various writings about chant. These sources serve as our windows to the medieval chant class; through them we can learn something about what it meant to sing well.
“A Man Ought to Sing Well.”
Mirrored in some of the medieval sources is a tendency common to our own time, namely that a reference to singing well may point to technical matters, such as good sound quality and accuracy. The tenth-century blessed Odo of Cluny, for example, works accuracy into the very definition of music: “Music is the knowledge of how to sing accurately, and the direct and easy path toward the perfection of that skill.” There cannot be a strong, clear, and expressive rendering of a sung text without some measure of skill, and chant masters of old cultivated it.
Numerous authorities, however, give greater weight to qualities other than technical mastery.
The sixth-century Council of Vaison, for example, declared that the Kyrie should “be sung frequently with great affection and compunction.” We should not imagine that this instruction refers only to an interior sentiment; surely we have to hear something of the affection and the compunction.
St. Thomas’s thought on how to sing well appears in his commentary on Isaiah, who wrote in one of his verses, “sing well.” Here are St. Thomas’s words: “A man ought to sing well, first, cheerfully: ‘Let the praise to our God be joyful.’ Secondly, attentively: ‘...I will sing with the spirit, I will sing also with the understanding.’ Thirdly, devoutly: ‘The people offered sacrifices and praises with a devout mind.’” So the Thomistic method of chant is to sing hilariter, attente, ac devote: cheerfully, attentively, and devoutly.
In the medieval mind, the prayer and the sacred art are so united in the singing of the chant that the instructions delivered to us often serve both aspects. Blessed Fra Angelico kept a similar rule in painting and passed his thought on to us in a concise formula: “...to paint the things of Christ, one must live with Christ.” We can assume that the medieval master would remind his students, if he needed to, that to perform the chant well we have to pray it, in Christ. From the side of art, to sing cheerfully, attentively, and devoutly will also enhance the beauty of the chant, especially in choir, where good singers listen well and respond to each other.
A non-medieval source, Catholic Church Music by Richard Terry (1865-1938), confirms the value of cheer and good attention, though in negative terms, as you shall read. He arrived at this conclusion through his experience as a choirmaster, working daily on getting choral music performance-ready, and on technical things like good sound production. Here Terry advises choir directors who are in a position to select new boys, ages 9-11. Since some boys are naturally disposed to be more cheerful and focused than others, and since those qualities make a big difference in the work of a choir, he would exclude the others, without blaming them, of course, but without really even considering their audition:
“Reject dull, sulky, or scatter-brained boys, since it is hard to say which of the three has the most demoralising effect on his more willing companions. A great orchestral conductor once said: ‘A band of 100 professionals is a good band; a band of 99 professionals and one amateur is a bad band.’ In like manner, one sulky boy will infect a whole choir to its detriment with his particular disease more easily than is generally supposed. The amount of time spent on one dull boy will keep a number of intelligent boys back quite sufficiently to make them lose heart in their work. One scatter-brained boy in a choir will infect the others with habits of carelessness to an extent out of all proportion to his personal influence.”
What If We Don’t Want To?
A music teacher can testify to the value of a good mood, especially if he has ever had the contrary experience of working with a class of young people who are collectively unmotivated or sullen for some small reason. The most cheerful melody becomes somber, dreary, and pathetic. But what if we don’t feel like singing?
The song itself is therapeutic, according to St. Bede: “Drive away the harmful disease of sadness from your heart by the frequent sweetness of psalm-singing.”
One remedy for the unenthusiastic class is to challenge them to rise above themselves in order to meet the demands of the art. A teacher known to this writer tells them, “Your chant doesn’t have very much life today. We have to represent the solemn joy in the tune even if we’re not in the mood for it. You have a cause of joy in you; put it outside of you through the chant. If you’re having a bad day, then you might just have to act as though you were in a good mood.”
Though a feigned joy may get better artistic results than no joy at all, and for some it will be a step towards authentic cheer, the best cure is to tap into the supernatural joy at its causes, especially the theological virtues and religion.
The fifteenth-century Denis the Carthusian goes so far as to deny that we can counterfeit the kind of joy we are to express in the chant. If we are to sing it worthily, we have to contemplate. At least that is the ideal he represents to us in his treatment of the Gloria of the Mass: “This angelic canticle has to be sung with a great joy of the heart and a most sweet devotion, which is not possible, unless the intellect is sincerely fixed in the contemplation of God. For in the measure that the words are more divine, so much the more they require greater attention and purer elevation of the mind.”
A Practical Consideration
To know something of the mind of the medieval chant-master is a small part in the work of restoring all things in Christ. May we contribute something to this magnificent end, not only by knowing the thought, but by actively applying the precepts!
The writings we have examined above describe ideals common to both chant and the great Gothic cathedrals, ideals that can and should be realized in our schools and our churches today. Few of us have the means to build a Gothic church. But we have the same faith as the Catholics of Christendom, and with that faith and the voice that God gave to us, we can carry on the work of the restoration of the chant in earnest. Let us observe the precepts of a good chant-master and make sacred music of the same power and quality that they made of both their cathedrals and their chant, through acts of understanding, devotion, faith, and holy cheer!