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CNP Booklets of Chant


by Gary D. Penkala

"Hodie Christus natus est..." -- "Victimae paschali laudes immolent Christiani..."

If the two phrases above conjure no musical associations for you then you have perhaps missed out on the greatest treasure which the Roman Catholic Church has given to the music world. If indeed no tune springs to mind, no liturgy is recalled, no environment is recaptured, then you have my sympathies. Gregorian chant (including the two popular texts noted above) is most definitely the bedrock on which Western musical culture (sacred and secular) was built.

The Church acknowledges this: "The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value." (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, #112). "The qualities of holiness, artistry and universality are found most perfectly in Gregorian chant, which is the proper chant of the Roman Church. Gregorian chant has always been considered the supreme model of sacred music." (Tra le sollecitudini, Pope Saint Pius X).

Gregorian chant is the most sublime form of religious music, yet it is also quite versatile. An elaborate Gothic cathedral, steeped in the changing tapestry of stained-glass lighting, laden with the sweet aroma of incense and flooded with aural waves of a cappella Latin chant speaks powerfully of God's transcendence and of the holiness of his Church on earth. But chant can also be the vehicle for establishing a spiritual setting for a small prayer meeting in a living room. The music itself, wedded as it is to the words, leads the heart (and soul) to God. And this is prayer!

With this Booklet of Chant CanticaNOVA Publications hopes to provide the materials for an appreciation of the beauty and sanctity which Gregorian chant brings to liturgy. Further, using these chants provides a tangible link to the past, a definite musical heritage which for a generation has been missing from Catholic culture. They also represent a global link to the faithful in other lands who sing them exactly as you do here; offering a common repertoire, a universal language of prayer.

May I offer some practical notes (although entire books and courses are offered on the proper interpretation of chant).

  1. Chant is never sung loudly -- aim for a very relaxed, easy tone; never forced, but not bland either.
  2. Chant is never sung slowly -- the notes must flow freely, at about MM 128 for an eighth note.
  3. Be sure to sing words rather than just syllables, and phrases rather than just words.
  4. Breathe deeply and often. A group singing chant should breathe together at full bar lines; between such, if no breath is called for, staggered breathing should be practiced, so that the entire choral sound continues until the appropriate textual pause.
  5. Proper pronunciation is vital to effective performance. Consonants must be sung exactly together and vowels must be sung accurately and with painstaking uniformity. Request the card Ecclesiastical Latin Pronunciation from CanticaNOVA Publications if you don't already have it.
  6. Men and women should alternate in singing verses or phrases. While it is possible to sing chant as a unison mixed group, it was not intended to be thus performed. It sounds more authentic if women sing alone or men sing alone, rather than the "parallel octaves" which ensue from mixed voices singing in "unison."
  7. Do not discount children learning chant. If they are presented this music in a positive fashion they are more than likely to latch on to its unearthly quality -- and to rise to the challenge of mastering it! "When can we sing more Latin," was always their pride-filled request of me.
By faithful study and practice in singing Gregorian chant, you are bound to come to a deeper appreciation of this truly "Roman" art form. You'll embrace the words of Saint Pius X who asserts: "Sacred music, because it is an integral part of the liturgy, participates in the same general purpose of this solemn liturgy, that is: the glory of God and the sanctification and edification of the faithful."

Ad majorem Dei gloriam.

See CanticaNOVA Publications' Booklets of Chant
CNP Catalog #2001-2004

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