Throughout the next year, and until the implementation of the New Translation of the Roman Missal, The Authentic Update will focus on issues surrounding the New Translation and developments in Sacred Music arising from it. I hope you will visit here frequently and join in the conversation as the Church enters into this remarkable period of liturgical transformation.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Composing Chant

Composing chant in the 21st century. It seems like an odd proposition, after all wasn't most of the chant we have today written between 600A.D and 900A.D? Shouldn't we be at least a little bit "beyond" such simple composition?

And yet there are composers today who have once again taken up the task of composing chant... not adapting Gregorian melodies to English (although that is being done also), but composing original chant melodies for English texts, mostly as a result of the new translation.

As a composer and arranger, the challenge fascinates me. As a pastoral musician, I bring to the task a few personal observations as well. One critique of much "contemporary" liturgical music is that it isn't "text centered", meaning that the melodic forms are driven more by harmonic/ rhythmic factors than by the characteristics of the text. This is a valid critique of music that is derivative from popular and theatrical forms, where melodies are often written with no specific text in mind, and words are fit to the notes rather than the other way around. While this is a successful way to write beautiful melodies, it is less successful in expressing the unique accents and meaning of specific texts.

A few months back, I began composing a setting of the new Mass Ordinary with the intention of having it "match the savour of the Gregorian melodic form" in it's expression of the text. But following my usual compositional method (composing the vocal parts simultaneous with the accompaniment), I found myself "leaning on the accompaniment" to support the melody at times, and at other times found myself shaping the melody to conform to the harmonic structure of the accompaniment. Both led to a decay of the relationship of the melody to the text, and I scrapped the project and restarted several times.

I have decided that contemporary composers, whether amateur or very skilled have to "re-learn" this type of composition. It isn't part of the musical vocabulary of our time, but it seems that may be changing, at least in the realm of sacred music. I remember when I began composition lessons (9th grade at the All-Newton Music School), I had to compose a series of compositional exercises beginning with a single line (monophonic) composition for one instrument, and gradually working my way through 2-part, 3-part, 4-part (different instruments), 4-part (quartet of like instruments) an so on up to small ensemble composition. The point was to discover the characteristics of composition in each of these situations, forcing me to get away from hiding behind heavy textures, as most of what I had written up to that time resembled something of a cross between Stravinsky and Debussy.

I can at least speak for myself in saying that it might be useful to do just such a "return to basics" in learning to compose sacred music that has the "savour of the Gregorian melodic form" and yet is thoroughly of this time. Before composing "chant-based" composition, I find myself needing to understand how to compose chant first.

And so I am doing just that... composing chant. No accompaniments or choral parts. Just single -line chant. I don't intend to actually use any of these compositions, although I think there may be a place for unaccompanied English chant in coming years. But so far, I've found the effort to be incredibly enlightening, and at the very least it develops a great sense of respect for those composers who composed the great chants of the Church.

I will post these "exercises" as I complete them, and I invite comment and criticism of them. I understand that there is an incredibly "high bar" for chant composition, but I think there is much to be gained from the effort.

Here is my first attempt:

EXERCISE I - (Mass I )

32 comments:

Charles Culbreth said...

Hey Jeffrey,
You know I've given a great deal of identical thought and consideration about "newly composed chant" at service, and as primarily a "melodist" by trade, I auto-deferred to the integrity of a melody's sacramental marriage to the text, particularly should one want to add to the corpus of Ordinaries.
What I ponder, for your consideration, is that if we are being true to basic attributes of the chant, not the external signs by which we communicate its "grammar," should we consider that it is not always necessary to employ Gregorian notation? I recall maybe you, or someone we know lately reminding us that the modes were created as a result of the chant melodies, not the reverse.
Ergo, given that the realm of chant is contemporaneously not exclusive of extra-Gregorian vocabularies, then should not a composer try to disseminate these new offering in the most efficient means of notation. (Unless, one is adhering to neumes from a particular discipline, of course.)
But I wonder how much adherence to the Gregorian discipline, either in notation or in modality, will complement and ADD to the corpus of authentic Gchant?

Chironomo said...

Interesting... I was actually thinking of how the idiomatic chant notation determines the style itself...through the use of idiomatic gestures, figures and a limited vocabulary of combinations thereof.

My Thesis in Theory(ughh...) delved into idiomatic notations in the New Music movement of the
50's and 60's... particularly asking whether such notation methods were created to be descriptive of imagined sounds, or whether such exotic notation (i.e -"spatial notations" or microtonal systems) were developed to create the sounds themselves, serving as a musical parameter in a way that standard notation systems do not, (at least not to as great an extent).

The notational system used in a composition determines, to a very great extent, the "sound" of a composition, and I would assume that the same is true for Gregorian notation. Hence, my first foray into this style has me staying with the notation inherent to that sound.

One can look to composers such as Arvo Pärt and Messaien for examples of chant brought into a new notational environment. Beautiful and all, but is it still chant?

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