Category Archives: Chant

Thinking on Hymns

I’m in the final stages of edits for my next book, the one on prayer book spirituality. It finally has a title: Inwardly Digest: The Prayer Book as Guide to a Spiritual Life.

As I went through the section on the Calendar yesterday morning, I realized that while I’d talked about the hymns in some seasons, I’d left others out. So–I spent some time with the hymnal, and put together some thoughts on those.

In going through that exercise, I was reminded just how much the early hymns of the West, those by Ambrose, Gregory, Venantius Fortunatus, Caelius Sedulius, and the the early anonymous compositions connect Scripture, liturgy, and doctrinal themes into a seamless sonic package.

When I think and write about the ways that liturgy provides interpretive lenses for both Scripture and Christian experience, I think these hymns play a particularly important role in not just making some foundational connections but handing them down and keeping them alive.

Meditation on these early Office hymns, what they teach us, and how they teach it is just as much a part of our patristic heritage as doctrinal treatises…

Open Source Liturgy & Music

I just ran across a fascinating post which has actually been out there for a while, now. It’s a discussion by Adam Wood, part of the Chant Renaissance in the Roman Catholic online world, about what it would mean to truly offer sacred music on an Open Source model.

It gives me quite a lot of things to think about, but the bottom line squares quite well with the proposal that I put before our Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music: our music and liturgy need to be freely available without cost in ways that developers can leverage in order to produce ways of accessing and using them either freely or at a cost.


Heard in Church: Anglican Chant Edition

Yesterday at mass I heard something that I couldn’t place, at first. It was during the psalm. The custom at our parish is that the choir sings the psalm in Anglican chant as the congregation looks on. I’d rather we all sing it, of course, so I’ll often hum the bass part under my breath. Well, this time I caught a sound that was high and faint moving along with the music. At first I thought it might be an overtone but then I realized it that it was Lil’ H  sitting next to me singing the melody line of the chant.

Say what you want about how Anglican chant is too difficult for congregational use, but I just heard a six year old do a good job of it sight-pointing the chant alongside choral and organ support. If she can do it…

Liturgical Encoding of Hermeneutical Practices

As I listened to the Exsultet and the Vigil on Saturday night and again to the lovely version linked to by bls, I’m struck again by what I often find when I dip into antiphons, responsaries, and many of the minor propers for feasts: they are modeling devices. That is, the way that they relate the Scriptures to one another is deliberate and intentional. I haven’t done a full enough study to say that it’s consistent.

What’s going on here is that the early medieval church in the West set up a cycle—perhaps curated is a better word—a liturgical cycle. At some point. McKinnon sets a significant part of this activity (at least for the Mass) in the late 7th century and since his book folks have been debating as to whether or not he was right.

In any case, they connected together pieces of Scripture that they thought fit, and wrote texts like the Exsultet that laid out how they understood theology and therefore the ways that Scripture ties together.  Their understandings of what was normal and proper and fitting are grounded in the patristic material that they absorbed and from the ecclesial perspectives that they brought to it. When these texts are sung together by later generations, the connections are made and reinforced even if they are not expounded. That is, simply from singing the Mass year after year, connections between various biblical texts get made because of how they function liturgically. As a result, texts like the Exsultet and the way that the propers hang together both encode and transmit a very particular set of understandings about biblical interpretation and how it’s properly done. Modern Roman and Anglican congregations that are rediscovering the minor propers are moving back into a stream of transmission that has patterned the Western Church’s encounter with Scripture over centuries.

The Historic Western Liturgy itself transmits a patristically-grounded early medieval method for reading and praying Scripture.

Perhaps some day I’ll have the time to line things up properly and make a thorough study of all of this…

Chant Book Internet Reference

If you have any interest at all in Gregorian chant, then you must MUST visit this site: Gregorian chant books for the Roman Catholic liturgy. It’s the best source that I’ve seen anywhere that pulls together not only the massive corpus of chant materials but links to where such things can be found on the web.

In terms of medieval material, the editor only skims the top, pointing out the key manuscripts of the San Gall library and does not connect to the many other chant manuscripts in many other digitized collections around the web, but this does not at all diminish the vast volume of work that has gone into this.

They say that to the man who has a hammer the whole world looks like a nail. I’m more than guilty of this myself, but—as a database guy—I can’t help thinking that supplementing this long tabular format with a basic database interface for easy access would make it that much more useful.

h/t to Jeffrey Tucker and the good folks at the Chant Cafe.

Continuing Coverage of the Revolution

I saw this on the Chant Cafe this morning: The Simple English Propers music project—for the Kindle.

I can’t offer a review yet because I haven’t bought it quite yet though I fully intend to and will report back once I have. What I want to call your attention to is the technological shift in communicating content.

Usable music publishing in the electronic space opens up all kinds of amazing possibilities for recovering and disseminating church music. Doubly so for music that does not have a copyright or where copyright makes no sense (like with most chant whether Gregorian or Anglican…) The issue is not whether this can be done or will be done. The question is who will do it and will they do it well.

New Internet Home for Sarum Rite Chant Materials

For those of you familiar with Dr. William Renwick’s efforts in producing the Chant of the Sarum Office, you’ll be happy to learn that he has a new site dedicated to his materials. It can be found here:

Update your links accordingly…

Note, too, that he intends to include both the Missal and the Processional in addition to the Office.

Anglican Chant in Her Majesty’s Service

We yanks sometimes look askance at the Church of England for its situation of establishment—being the official state church. There are fears of the compromises to the Gospel that may occur within such a situation. However, apparently, there are unusual side benefits to establishment as we can see from this previously undisclosed collaboration between certain elements of her majesty’s government and a super-secret chapel…

American Sarum: Sunday Afternoon

Session 5: Dr. John Harper: Sonic Ceremonial

This session was amazing. I don’t have learning to appreciate fully everything that he said, but it has taken my understanding of late medieval liturgy up a level. (That’s not to say that you had to have a lot of prior learning to get anything out of it, just that he covered the whole spectrum. A shotgun blast of erudition!) I received a strong sense of how intellectual my knowledge of liturgy in this period is; I know books and books about books. What I don’t know nearly as well are the spaces in which the liturgies were conducted, the timing of the various parts and how both of these overlapped.

Cathedrals: Multiple and Overlapping Spaces

Using the plans of Hereford Cathedral, Dr. Harper identified the three principal worship spaces within a late medieval cathedral.

The heart of the cathedral’s worship life is the choir (quire) which contained the high altar. This section is located literally at the heart of the cathedral where the two transepts come together. This is where the main body of canons would gather to sing the Offices and would celebrate the Mass of the Day. (I believe the organ is located here, but I can’t swear to it.)

To the east is the Lady Chapel. In this area, a separately funded body of people are attending to the various services for Our Lady. Thus, there was daily a Matins, Lauds, Vespers, and Compline of the BVM, the Lady Mass, and, after Compline, the Antiphon/Anthem ceremony when choral arrangements of the Antiphons (Alma Mater Redemptoris, Salve Regina, etc.) would be sung.

To the west of the Choir is the Nave or the parish church. You don’t see it in the 1950’s plans I inked to, but there was a stone pulpitum (essentially a big stone rood screen that you could get on top of—readings would be done from its top) that separated the Choir from the Nave. The Nave was the parochial space. The parish priest led masses, baptisms, weddings, funerals, and the Friday Jesus Mass in this space. However—note the aisle in the plan… On Sundays and Holydays processions that went forth from both the Choir and the Lady Chapel would travel around this space as the various services overlapped and inter-related. And it’s this inter-relation of space that must be considered to understand the full impact of sound and action in late medieval liturgy. There could literally be three different services going on at the same time—on in each of the three main spaces—and variously interacting with one another sonically if not physically. Indeed, there are surviving complaints from canons that the noise from the parish masses was interfering with their choir services.

The organ would only play on Sundays and Holydays and, I believe, supported what was going on in the Choir. Hearing this piece of information made me realize that I have to reconsider the old Lent and Advent restrictions on organ playing—these never originally applied to parish settings, as far as I can tell, and chiefly impacted the Choir only!

Rochester Cathedral: Who does what when


Rochester Cathedral (note the photo of the in-place pulpitum with the pipe ranks atop it and the railing where the reader would stand to read into the Choir but be seen and heard in the Nave) which has its Lady Chapel in the South Transept gives us a great opportunity to look at exactly how worship would have been late out in the period after Henry VIII’s break with Rome but before the institution of the Book of Common Prayer. This is English Sarum in its heyday. The reason why it’s such a terrific case is because Rochester had been staffed by a Benedictine priory. With the dissolution of the monasteries in 1540, it was re-founded as a secular cathedral by letters patent in June of 1541. Bishop Nicholas Heath drew up a set of injunctions in 1543 and statues in 1544 to regulate the life and worship of the new cathedral structure.

Here’s the breakdown of people we find in Heath’s directions:

  • Dean and Chapter (7 people)
    • Dean
    • 6 canons
  • Choral Body (23 people)
    • 6 minor canons (clergy)
    • 6 clerks (lay or clergy)
    • 1 Master of Choristers
    • 8 Choristers
    • Deacon and Subdeacon
  • Grammar School (22 people)
    • 2 Instructors of Grammar
    • 20 Grammar boys
  • Church servants and poor men (12 people)
    • 2 Vergers
    • 2 Bellringers/sweepers
    • 2 Porters
    • 6 Poor men
  • Household Servants (4 people)
    • 2 butlers
    • 2 cooks


These people were then correlated to a chart that displayed how these various groups were deployed across the day for Holydays and Workdays. (The chart is copyrighted or I’d post it.) There are five possible staffing groups that were deployed for various services based on the service and the rank of the day:

  • Choristers: these were the 8 singers and their Master of Choristers who also doubled as the organist
  • Priests and clerks: these were the 6 minor canons and the 6 clerks (I don’t know if the Chapter is included here as I don’t know how often they were around. I expect that the deacon and subdeacon were in this group as well.)
  • Full choir: Choristers + Priests and clerks
  • Full choir & Grammar school: Like it says, full choir + boys
  • Said: It’s on the chart but isn’t explicitly described. Clearly the minimum necessary here is a priest and a server.

From the chart it’s clear that the Choristers and Master of Choristers are the main body for the Lady Chapel and the Priests & Clerks inhabit the Choir on Workdays. The Choristers are used for the Jesus Mass in the parish church on Fridays. On Holydays, the Full Choir and the Grammar School come together for big blowout events.


Since this was a conference for musicians, the “what” in this case was the music. There were three basic kinds of music used:

  • Plainsong—sung unison
  • Improvised polyphony (organum)—plainsong with two parts added, one moving in open fifths above, the other moving below by a fourth IIRC
  • Composed polyphony (pricksong)—this is the composed polyphony for a set of voices (anywhere from 3 to a maximum of 12 (!!)) that we’re used to from Byrd and others

On a regular workday, the only people who would be singing polyphony at Rochester Cathedral according to Bp. Heath’s directions were the Choristers when they sang at Lady Mass 8 AM every morning but Saturday. (On non-festal Saturdays, the Lady Mass was the Mass of the Day and was sung by the Full Choir at the main Mass of the Day slot; the Lady Mass was only “said” at 8 AM in the Lady Chapel). On the Eves of all Doubles (including Saturdays as eves of Sunday), the Full Choir sang the Anthem of the BVM in composed Polyphony. The Grammar School joined with the Full Choir for the Anthem on Holydays.  Thus, in the 8 surviving major sources of liturgical polyphony from the period,

  • 29% of the pieces are for the Mass
  • 33% of the pieces are for the Office
  • 39% of the pieces are for the Anthem

When it comes to the Mass, very little of the Propers get embellished. Instead what receives the embellishing is the Ordinary of the Mass. Again, most singers will be familiar with this as the major mass pieces are the Ordinary: Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei. (Note, though, that in Sarum non-votive masses, the Kyrie was troped and thus was part of the Proper, not the Ordinary—hence no Kyries in most Byrd Masses; it’s because they’re Sarum…)

In the Offices, the main areas for polyphony were the final Respond of Matins and the Magnificat (not the Benedictus, note). Compline was sung separately from Vespers and tended to be more formal (more formal than what I’m not sure—my notes don’t say: possible answers could be “than Vespers” or “than continental sources”).

As a side note, note that music composed for the Lady Chapel is small-space music—it wasn’t intended to fill the whole space of the cathedral because it didn’t have to.

Dr. Harper then displayed a fascinating chart that I didn’t have anywhere near time to copy down. It displayed the correspondence between liturgical “height” of a feast and the number of voices liturgical music (usually Masses) for the feast contained. It was a very clear distribution of kalendrical importance expressed through song. Christmas received pieces for 8 voices on one end of the spectrum; All Saints, and Feasts of Confessors and Martyrs received 5 at the other.

One of his main points in the discussion of music on the eve of the Reformation is how much of it survived. Organs narrowly missed being banned by one vote (in Parliament, I believe) and Elizabeth saved the choirs. As we consider late Medieval liturgy/music and the transition into the early Anglican experiment, the retention of music must be kept in mind.

Experiencing a Sarum Liturgy

The second part of Dr. Harper’s presentation was watching a video of a reconstruction of a Sarum service for the reconciliation of penitents. He asked us when we watched it to be aware of its effect on us from a few different angles. First, what does it mean to participate in a liturgy in a language we don’t understand but of which we know the general gist? Second, what is the lived impact of certain uses that seem boring on the page—like the prolonged recitation of the penitential psalms in plainsong—but may be more powerful in the experience?

The service was done at St Teilo’s, a church which is part of a Welsh museum, and which the Harpers (John’s wife is also a formidable scholar of medieval music and liturgy) and other scholars are using to learn more about the lived experience of medieval liturgy. Here’s a pdf of a paper on how liturgists might learn from it and some pointers on how a Sarum Mass might be done in this particular church.

Here’s at least a portion of the service we watched uploaded to YouTube. Jeremy Davies, precentor at Salisbury is serving as the priest, Dr. Harper is the second server.

I’ll put the next session in another post given the current length here…

Pointing the English Epistle

Thanks to the generosity of Father and the congregation, I’ve been honored to serve as sub-deacon at the Church of the Advent; last Sunday was my subdiaconal debut which went rather well. We use an adapted form of Fortescue’s ceremonial for those interested; I may put up my own notes on our practice if there’s interest.

One of the major tasks of the sub-deacon is the proclamation of the Epistle. Following the best historical practice, it is sung recto tono or just simply read on most days. There is, however, an Epistle tone which is used on the highest feast days. The Epistle tone uses intonations for the metrum (pausing point), full stop, and questions as well as a unique concluding tone. As a result, I’ve been working on pointing the Epistles; last week it was the Pentecost reading, this week the Holy Trinity. It’s not a completely straight-forward process so I thought I’d share some of what I’m learning.

1. The presence of the metrum requires interpretive choices. That is, it marks a pause in the main thought of the sentence from which you continue to the end. Now I’ve noticed that readers in many churches have trouble proclaiming Paul well—and that’s entirely understandable. Even in translation, Paul’s writing style is unfamiliar to modern Americans. He uses long sentences with quite a number of clauses. And not all of these clauses are created equal, either. Some are parenthetical; some are additional; some are central.The trick is to proclaim them in such a way that the differences can be discerned by those listening.

When chanting the reading, my base rule is that the metrum doesn’t just go on any ol’ comma or semi-colon that presents itself; rather, a metrum only belongs at the conclusion of a central or substantive clause. For parenthetical or additional clauses, I just put a holding punctus on the reciting tone at the conclusion.

2. My first port of call was the very helpful Sung Reading Tutorial and the accompanying audio files from the good folks at CMAA posted at MusicaSacra. Unfortunately, at the present time the link to the printed tutorial is broken. The audio, however, contains almost word-for-word what is in the tutorial.

The one problem that I encountered in working fro this pattern is that, while the example is with an English text, the directions still have Latin in mind. This comes to a head in describing the metrum—all of the examples in the document have the accent on the penultimate syllable rather than the ultimate (er, second to last rather than last). So, I went looking for some assistance…

3. …And found it in on the website of the (Roman) International Commission on English in the Liturgy. They have a document called “Music for the English Language Roman Missal” which gave some very helpful examples.