Monthly archives "August 2016"

TAO September 2016–Chants Encounters

Chants Encounters

There is no doubt: the noisy music of our present age is drowning echoes of the past. Yet, songs of bygone eras will never be lost as long as someone is exploring its music. We owe a debt of gratitude to the many early performance scholars who devote themselves to recovery projects. Their work helps us hear beyond the latest pop music icon. In the late 19th century, the monks of the Solesmes Abbey devoted themselves to the study of Gregorian Chant. Despite its dethronement as the dominant music of Roman Catholic worship, it remains a powerful influence today.
Most of chant’s influence is unseen, but it is certainly not unheard. You can hear it in our experience of tonality. Our familiar major and minor keys are part of the modal system carried forward through centuries of chant until they broke out as their own universe in the 16th century. Many Reformation hymn tunes are rhythmically altered chant tunes that have crossed into mainstream church culture. Veni Emmanuel (O Come, O Come, Emmanuel), Picardy (Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence), and Adoro Te Devote (Humbly I Adore Thee) come to mind.
The influence of chant often comes in even more subtle ways: to chant is to pray. Several years ago, I taught my women’s ensemble, Grace Notes, a simple Gloria in Excelsis as the opening song of their Christmas concert. It was hard for them to learn, but with me, resistance is futile! So, as they grew more comfortable with the style, and without me saying anything about it, they began to notice how singing the chant quieted them. After Christmas, they asked to keep singing the Gloria; because they had come to value the prayerful state it put them in. Now that’s a chants encounter!
Your congregation may not have any historical connection with chant at all. However, it might be just what you need at certain moments in your service. Chant-based organ pieces are powerful tools for establishing deep, prayerful states that can guide people away from the ordinary into an awareness of the divine presence. Present day chant pieces usually provide quiet, contrapuntal accompaniments with flowing, layered eighth-note patterns suspended over long pedal points, levels of modal harmonic tension varying from none to much, all enfolding colorful solo expositions of the chant tunes themselves. So soothing.
Playing such lovely creations is an opportunity to learn to play from a serene place, to play with artful simplicity, to balance the tension between rhythm and flexibility, and to phrase with the breath. Listening to sung chant is the best way to learn to play it. You can also, take a look at Christopher Fresolone’s doctoral dissertation, “The Pedagogical Use of Gerald Near’s Chantworks,” and the Nova Organica harmonia blog at You don’t have to read the entire works to get some inspiration and insight. A few paragraphs will give you some insights to take to the organ with you.
Gregorian works for organ have a very long and distinguished history. We cannot but cover a few of the many works that are available. Usually, I hope to play hymn tunes that my congregation can identify. In the case of chant, I make my choices less on familiarity and more on finding pieces that support the non-verbal aspects of the service. Chant is build for quiet preludes. Communion is another obvious time for their inclusion. It’s great for transitions and intentional (or unintentional) lulls. Chant is a great resource for supporting longer prayer times with pianissimo backgrounds.
The granddaddy of late 20th century chant is Gerald Near. Chantworks, Volumes 1-3 (Aureole 042,043,044) is a moderately challenging look at a wide range of chant tunes taking a turn around the entire liturgical cycle. Each is thoughtfully arranged with an average three to four minutes playing time. Since Chantworks’ publication nearly twenty years ago, Near has completed another three volume set entitled, A Gregorian Liturgical Year (Aureole 119,122, 126.) While he has taken a similar approach to Chantworks, these are much shorter and simpler to play. While few of us would be able to match the Gregorian tune with its liturgical occasion, Gerald has provided the information. He is a composer-craftsman. When you play his works, you will come to respect the depth of his knowledge, his persistence and his endurance. Nevertheless, the range of his compositional style is somewhat narrowly limited.
Since every composer has something unique to offer, let’s look at a few other approaches to arranging chant for organ. Charles Callahan has a very easy volume if this is your first encounter with chant: Chant-based Hymns: Music for Manuals (MorningStar 10-849). If you like the richness of his harmonic imagination (and I do), you will enjoy one of the three volumes of Chant (Concordia 976765). These are a little longer and offer lots of opportunities to use solo colors. I am excited by Lynn Trapp’s editions of Three Plainchants for Organ, Vols. 1 & 2 (MSM 10-513 & 10-532). Composers, David Cherwien, James Biery, Craig Phillips and Mark Sedio, along with Trapp have abandoned formulaic compositional techniques, seeking fresh ways to bring the inner meaning of the text forward into the compositional texture. The results are unexpectedly dynamic. You can find similar creative outcomes in Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence by David Lasky (Augsburg Fortress). Here are “Protestant” versions of “Adoro te devote,” “Attende domine,” and “Picardy.”
World Library, the same publisher that earlier brought us two volumes of chant-based pieces in Consoliere Classic, Vols. 2 & 5 (WLP 003061 & 003065), edited by Alison J. Luedecke, has just recently published Ten Chant Preludes for Organ (WLP 003035). Gregory Hamilton has drawn from a variety of historical styles to frame chant in a fresh way. You can find “Divinum Mysterium” as a pastorale, “Veni Emmanuel” as a Baroque trio, “Tantum Ergo” as a grand Largo, and “Veni Creator Spiritus” played under faint mystical strings reminiscent of Tournemire. You can find similar approaches from Raymond Weidner in Seven Liturgical Preludes (Paraclete 00127) and Robert Powell in Five Plainsong Preludes for Organ (Paraclete 1553). There are two more-extended works I recommend you look at. First, Partita on ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’ (Concordia 97-7652) by John Eggert covers seven distinctly different moods, each moving smoothly from one to the other. And, what might be Gerre Hancock’s last published work, An Evocation of ‘Urbs beata Jerusalem’ (Paraclete 01620). This is vintage Gerre, but without heavy technical demands. Instead, his trademark colorful harmonies and carefully constructed build-ups serve well thought-out musical ends with satisfying results for performer and audience.
Though your congregation may not be able to recognize a single Gregorian melody as you play them, they can provide moments of serenity, just as they have for centuries. Their particular flavor can influence worship in small, subtle ways. Even if you never play them in worship, you may find them useful to play just for yourself. Let them bring you some repose. Your calmness can serve as a subtle influence that helps reduce stress and anxiety in your music department, brings trust and cooperation to other members of your church staff, and quiet encouragement to troubled members of your congregation. Allowing ourselves to receive the benefits of our own music making is the best way we can minister to the world around us. It is our witness to the influence of the Spirit in our own lives, and it is the greatest gift we can ever make. You can leave everything to chants, but don’t let opportunities to spread your positive influence be left to chance. Music blesses you. Bless others with the peace and joy you have received.