Source Readings on the Practice and Spirituality of Chant:
New Texts, New Approaches
Fabian C. Lochner
Research on performance practice is one of the thriving fields in contemporary musicology. There is indeed a growing demand for information on the performance of medieval, Renaissance and Baroque music by the community of performing artists, baffled by the complexity of "early music" scores. Medieval treatises on music theory as well as Baroque and Renaissance instrumental methods are being perused for specific statements regarding different aspects of performance practice. In the field of Gregorian chant-the sacred music of the Western church such investigations have been initiated by the monks of Solesmes and further pursued by scholars such as Franz Muller-Hauser and Stephen Van Dijk.1
However, the accumulation of specific technical data (such as tuning practices, number of singers involved in specific circumstances, rhythmical indications etc.) does not yet define a style of performance. Even when abundant documentation is available (as e.g., in the Baroque period), the possession of the letter does not necessarily entail the possession of the spirit! Indeed, the lack of the spirit often leaves the letter obscure and, eventually, may lead to serious misconceptions (and to fanciful performances).
In this paper dealing with medieval chant practice I contend three things: (1) the performance practice of Gregorian chant in the Middle Ages flows from, and is largely defined by a consistent tradition of Christian spirituality; (2) whereas we have no sound documents from the middle ages, the spiritual dimensions of chant are accessible through medieval source texts of both devotional and practical character; (3) a critical yet integral reading of these texts can show the direct link between spiritual attitude and musical performance, and thus help us to relive and reexperience in our times both the practice and the spirituality of chant.
Today I would like to illustrate both the critical and the integral quality of textual interpretation just suggested. To illustrate the integral approach, I will address one particular aspect of chant, namely psalmody, and try to show the common threads that link its practice and its
spirituality throughout the middle ages. But before doing so, I need to outline the historical and textual dimension of the sources from which I have drawn, thus illustrating the critical part of my endeavor.
(1) The critical reading:
The genres of texts that shed most light on the practice and spirituality of chant in the middle ages are medieval rules, customaries, treatises about ecclesiastic hierarchy, and decrees of church councils-not musical treatises. Customaries, statutes or consuetudines of different religious houses are elaborations on the basic texts of a given rule (the Benedictine rule for the monks, the vetus ordo and the Augustinian rule for the canons). These sources contain very specific indications that regulate most every aspect of communal life. For example, most customaries feature individual chapters on the duty of the cantor.2
I have gathered thus far a little over forty different texts which I found relevant, covering the 7th to the 15th century.3 My project is to work towards an anthology offering a translated and critically annotated version of the original Latin texts, as a tool for both musicologists and performers. The sources would reflect the liturgical uses of both monastic houses, and of communities of canons, both secular and regular.4
Although most medieval customaries and statutes are specific to one house or one specific order, very few are actually made up from scratch. They are the result of the judicious compilation, centonisation, and reformulation of preexisting materials, spiced with scriptural, patristic, homiletic and canonical quotations. Identifying these stratifications is a necessary step to prevent an uncritical use of certain passages in a historical argument, as well as to understand the historical relations between different houses of monks or canons. Indeed, a given community may simply adopt the customs from one particular order or make up a compilation that denotes the influence of different spiritual currents. Beyond the purely liturgical distinction between ordo romanus and ordo monasticus, the rules for the actual performance of psalms are sometimes different for monks and canons.5 On the other hand, the likeness between the customs of monks and canons regular cannot be overseen, in spite of their different background: "[L]es moines sont des religieux qui se sont faits pretres pour etre plus religieux tandis que les chanoines sont des pretres qui se sont faits religieux pour etre plus pretres".6 Thus the Carthusian customs derive from the canons regular of S.Ruf, only because two of S.Bruno's companions happened to be former canons from that house;7 and the canons regular of Premontre adopt the mode of Organisation of their branches from the Cistercian monks.8
If our goal is to uncover a spiritual tradition we should avoid to engage in Quellengeschichte as though it were a one-way street. More important than merely "peeling away" the topical to uncover the new and original, more important than tracing back certain formulas to a historical source is to document the historic and spiritual potential of certain texts or formulas as it unfolds in their procession through time. Thus the critical historian may come to behold the strands of spiritually relevant textual traditions.
As an illustration for the hermeneutics of such textual traditions I want to draw attention to a late medieval text, a passage from the statutes for the Brethren of the Common life in Hildesheim (1463), the second sentence in the chapter De cantore:
The solution lies in the history of that sentence. It belongs in fact to the rule for canons issued by the council of Aachen in 816, where the reading is slightly different and has its own difficulties:
Now the expression voces moderari in itself is very confusing, since out of context it seems synonymous with temperari--to "regulate" in a vague sense. It doesn't seem to be specific enough to serve as a technical instruction. The words submisse and temperate seem to stem from the
This difficulty might have been the reason why the author of the Hildesheim statutes (or of its model) decided to simply replace this expression by a clear-cut antinomy: protendere--accelerate. However, the original intention of the authors writing in 816 was different. It becomes clear when we relate temperate to protendere, and submisse to moderari: "slowly (temperate)--lengthen ( protendere)" and "softly ( submisse)--soften ( moderari)." The interpretation of submisse as "softly," not "low in pitch," is confirmed by the indications of a much later source of monastic origin, the customs of Cluny, composed under abbot Udalricus (ca. 1080-3), where we read:
In these Cluniac texts singing out of tune (or in the wrong tone) is considered simply an error (erratur), while singing too loudly is a presumption (nemo audet). Moreover, the adjective submissus is used to indicate the softness, the low intensity of the spoken voice a little earlier in the same passage:
We see that in all of these passages the monastic customs of the Cluniacs are concerned with the same elements of chant practice as is the Aachen rule for canons and, incidentally, the Hildesheim statutes--namely the judicious choice of vocal intensity and tempo of recitation by the cantor and the community. Neither of them is concerned with pitch, neither of them does mention higher or lower intonation.
My contention, then, is to translate the passage from the Aachen rule as follows:
(2) An integral reading: the practice and spirituality of psalmody
Compared to the innumerable scriptural commentaries on the book of Psalms, there are only very few medieval treatises on psalmody. Some of the oldest texts of the genre have been included by Martin Gerbert in his monumental source edition for medieval music theory:16 The Geronticon S.Parnbonis (5th c.),17 an anonymous text Iunior quidam
These texts are very little studied, probably because they do not, for the most part, contain any precise technical informations as do the treatises on music theory (except for the Commemoratio brevis). Certain scholars have shown a downright contempt for these texts, declaring them "overladen with literary humbug" or "stuffed with allegorical subtleties."23 But if we compare the vocabulary of De psalmodiae bono, the opening of Commemoratio brevis, or indeed of the Instituta patrum, with the more scattered references to psalmody found in medieval rules, customaries, and treatises on ecclesiastic discipline, we come to realise that the traditions presented by these different genres of texts are perfectly consistent.
In order to establish this consistency, I will sketch some of the preliminary results of an interpretative reading of my sources on the practice and spirituality of psalmody. I have grouped these results under seven headings which, in my view, represent some of the essential ingredients for the practice and spirituality of psalmody. The first three headings concern the spiritual, the last four the more technical aspects. This order is intentional, to underscore that the practical aspects of voicing, pronunciation and rhythmic unity in chant and psalmody cannot be separated from Christian spirituality, but rather flow forth naturally from a certain attitude of devotion.
i. The correspondence between mind and voice.
During worship the mind, soul, and heart should be filled by what the mouth proclaims. This basic precept is not only a moral commandment, but the most fundamental aspect of Christian meditational practice. It is rooted in the authority of scripture, as quoted in the Benedictine rule,24 but the most popular formulation seems that of S.Augustine: "Hoc versetur corde quod profertur in voce."25 The canons used this formula by preference, since it is part both of the vetus ordo (the Aachen rule) and the Augustinian Praeceptum (the Augustinian rule).26
ii. The attitude during office.
The key formula humiliter ac devote, or cum humilitate et reverential devotione derives from the Rule of Benedict, chapter 20, De reverentia orationis. The same chapter introduces the notion of compunctio: "Et non in multiloquio, sed in puritate cordis et conpunctione lacrimarum
The Cistercian documents introduce the notion of mediocritas, the perfect balance, the golden mean between the extremes, and gravitas, seriousness.34 Bernard's admonitions on how to worship eagerly and in purity (strenue ac pure divinis interesse laudibus) is a wonderful description of concentration in prayer, all too aware of the manifold distractions of the mind--even of a monk.35
iii. The presence of the angels.Angelic presence during prayer is attested by scripture,36 and taken up in the rule of Benedict (chap. 19). But the angels themselves sing psalms of everlasting praise, and so the song of the religious community becomes a concentus with the choirs of angels, with the celestial harmony. These words from the psalms are in no way understood as pure imagery. The Aachen rule in particular, whose chapter 132 is entitled "Quod cantantibus et psallentibus domino angelorum adsint praesidia,"37 make it clear that the encounter with angelic spirits during the Divine Office is a very real experience, and the source of great spiritual joy "[Q]uia carnaliter conversantes ad Dominum contemplationis corda non elevant, coelestis harmoniae modulos et mellifluas angelici concentus suavitates ignorant".38
iv. The effect of psalmody on the listener and the performer.Beyond the charm that a good vocal performance should exert on the listener (mulceat, demulceat, blandiatur), there are two effects intended in chant: compunction and edification, leading to the memoria
v. The care of pronunciation.Perfect pronunciation, especially in psalmody, is a corollary to the Christian simplicity with its focus on text meditation. Isidore's concept of vis pronuntiationis (the power of pronuntiation) suggests more than a sense of perfect rendition: To sing pleno ore (with a full mouth) is also the expression of a spiritual attitude.42 One might ask whether Isidore's indications as to the affective rendering of the readings hold equally true for later times, and whether these indications apply to the cantor as well. Since they do not appear in the later customaries, they might not apply to psalmody-but one of the most important musical treatises of the 9th century seems to make a strong case for the affective rendering of melodies:
vi. The ideal voicing.It is very difficult to catch the esthetics of sound, whether for voice or instrument, of times passed, without the witness of a living performance tradition or some sounding document. Yet, the choice of vocabulary in our medieval sources is highly suggestive--as suggestive as language
vii. The performance.The cantor has the important task of guiding a highly differentiated performance of the divine office. These are some elements of performance practice disclosed by the customaries: Psalms are sung more slowly or more swiftly, with louder or softer voice according to the number of monks or clerics in the choir, and according to the liturgical occasion and available time: the qualitas officii and prolixitas temporis. Tempo is a very sensitive element for the success, dignity, and devotional quality of psalm recitation. The cantor has the delicate task of finding and establishing the golden mean (medio,criter): not too quick nor too slow (neque nimis correpte neque nimis protracte).52 It is very interesting to read about the regrets of the canons who feel that they have to speed up psalmody when a lay congregation is present, in order to gain time for longer sermons--even at the Easter vigil! Clerical writers like Gerhoh of Reichersberg (1092/94-1169) express nostalgia for truly devotional, that is slow or easy-going psalm recitation.53
The sensitive moments for the unitas of the performance are the length of the medium pause (metrum or media distinctio ) and the length of the
If after this survey we turn back to the treatises on psalmody mentioned earlier, we can now appreciate the consistence of their spiritual tradition. Two examples from the fifth and ninth centuries may suffice to serve as comparison:
For when we stand before the countenance of God, we should stand by in great compunction, not by raising our voice. For the monks did not retire into this desert to raise high their voices in the presence of God, or sing canticles, or sing melodies, or move their hands and their feet while running around. Rather, it befits us to offer prayers to God with great fear and trembling, with tears and sighs, with reverence and with well-punctured and moderate, humble voice.
The duty and service of us who are assigned to the service of worshipping the Lord, must not only be full and complete, but also enjoyable by graceful harmony, and sweet. And therefore it is fit that we be skilled in our duty, that we might wisely and ornately profess His holy name and boast in His songs, so that our worship be joyful to our God, and the listener become fired in the praise and reverence of God's works. For although one who sings with his heart pleases God more than one who sings with his voice, nevertheless both things come from Him and help doubly when they both occur, that is, when one sings sweetly in one's mind to God, and the sweetness of the singing moves people to a sacred emotion. Although the devotion of many who are not able to pronounce correctly either the psalmody or the words themselves pleases God very much, nevertheless one who does not show to God what he ought to show, as proficiently and as reverently as possible, does not have a full devotion.
The very words of Nicetas' ascetic text that seems so hostile to chant are used proficiently in the later customaries to describe both the spiritual attitude of the chanting monk or cleric and the desired effect of his singing on himself and on the listener. Timor, tremor, compunction reverential moderatio, humilitas, are key words that are used by S. Benedict to describe the good prayer.58 and that appear in Isidore of Seville, Hrabanus Maurus, the Aachen rule, the Cistercian statutes or the Sarum customs.
In the opening paragraph of the Commemoratio brevis the parallelism between canere corde and canere voce corresponds to our first heading above. The beauty of the singing that moves the listeners towards devotion: audientes ... exardescant ... canoris dulcedo sancto affectu commovet, is also described under heading iv. This kind of consistency confers a greater value to both the treatises and to the excerpts that are gathered above. Indeed, it indicates the existence of a true and lasting tradition of medieval spirituality associated with the practice of psalmody.
I hope that my twofold approach--critical and integral reading complementing each other--has helped to underscore that the practical aspects of voicing, pronunciation, and rhythmic unity in chant and psalmody cannot be separated from medieval Christian spirituality, but rather flow from a very specific attitude of devotion. Chant is not an ornament and psalmody is not a merely formal obligation. Chanted prayer is at the very heart of the spiritual experience of medieval men and women. Thus, when we try to recapture the sounds of generations past, we should take seriously the words they used to describe the inner life out of which those sounds were born.