Rethinking Recto Tono Chant

I’m responsible for a weekly vespers service at the Shrine of La Leche in St. Augustine.  This service is offered on the basis that all who come can sing (in contrast to the monthly vespers with Cantorae St. Augustine).  Consequently, while we have a few regulars, many of the people who come are drop-ins who’ve seen a sign at the Mission Nombre de Dios or in the Shrine chapel itself.

We’ve tried various experiments with chant in the last 18 months or so.  And I won’t bother recounting the disasters.  I did shift to a fixed text from Benedictine Daily Prayer a few months ago, the premise being that familiarity with the words would help the regular attendees and make them a stronger support for the visitors.  I used three basic psalm tones for the three psalms we used.  Everything was fine if, and only if, I were there.  However, I travel.

When I was in Mexico City, I happened to be in the Metropolitan Cathedral when the canons and choirboys were chanting Lauds in Spanish.  Amazing – it was RECTO TONO!  This means “straight tone” and is best understood as one note.  Yup – just one note.  And it sounded wonderful.

Changing the Wednesday materials for Lent gave me the opportunity to try this out with my own singers.  And it was a smashing success.  It was easy for people to stay together.  The two-choir split worked fine.  Everyone was happy at the end (including me) – and when I’m out of town they will know just what to do.

We did leave the hymn to the tune of Jesu dulcis memoria and the Marian antiphon remained the simple tone Salve Regina (I only change for the Regina caeli in Eastertide because I’m not interested in performing solos on the others.)

So you can sniff and turn up your nose at recto tono all you want, but if you want a random group of untrained singers to have a positive experience of psalmody, it’s a good way to go.

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