Dynamic or Dreary? What Brings Chant to Life?

Yesterday I listened to a recording of the monks of Glenstal Abbey singing the Lenten hymn Attende Domine.  It was a revelation!  Instead of the usual dirge-like style I associate with this hymn (well heck, it’s supposed to make you feel penitential, isn’t it?), there was a wonderful hopeful quality to the singing.  The chant rolled forward with assurance.  And thinking about it later, that seems quite right since we all know that Easter comes every year after Lent.

When people learn that I focus on chant, they often look stricken – as though I’d announced a chronic medical condition.  They murmur sympathetically that it’s dreary, gloomy, boring, slow, leaden, whiney, depressing.  You probably get the drift.  And as I hear chant in some churches that I visit in my travels, I understand where they’re coming from.  It sounds as though the singers are dragging themselves through the music, earnestly slogging from neume to neume.  There is an almost audible sigh of relief from the congregation when the suffering ends.

What’s missing?  Familiarity and love – that’s what! 

If the singers don’t really know the piece, they’re bogged down in simply securing the right notes, coordinating the words, and hoping for the best.  There is no space for communication with the Almighty in this process.  Everyone’s just “staying alive.”  Under-rehearsed singing is the enemy of beauty, confirming everyone’s worst suspicions about chant.  If a particular chant isn’t ready, don’t do it!  If it’s “feast-specific” and that means you’ll have to wait a year, then substitute something you can do well and wait. 

More importantly, it is love that brings the grace to chant.  Many people sing chant with a sense of duty or because they dislike contemporary church music.  Their chant may be well-rehearsed and accurate, but will it really live? 

Here’s an experiment. Find a single chant and fall in love with it.  With the text and the music. You may have to try a few to find the one for you.  And you may need only a phrase.   Roll around in it as a musical lectio. See what the chant can show you when it’s more than getting from beginning to end with a minimum of errors or exercising your powers of chant theory. 

Love makes music spring like a fountain from within the singer. Love knows the object of her song and moves eagerly to the encounter with the beloved.  Without love, there is no music – just organized sound.

(Where did I hear the recording from Glenstal Abbey?  Pray-As-You-Go  – the wonderful mp3 music, reading, and meditation brought to you by the English Jesuits.  An excellent way for the flighty and busy to turn commute time or early morning into something better than checking Facebook.) 






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About Mary Jane Ballou

Mary Jane Ballou’s life in sacred music began in a children’s choir at the age of three. Instrumental music waited until her piano lessons started in primary school. And her music life remains a joyous pairing of sacred vocal music and the instrumental repertoire of Spain, Ireland, and Scotland.

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