Altogether Now…How Do We Keep Together When Singing Chant?

7211744496_a94cd43bf1_zWhy singing in a choir is a demonstration of the three aspects of beauty – integrity, due proportion and clarity.

When I was at the Sacra Liturgia 2013 conference in Rome, we had two Latin Masses and two Solemn Vespers all with a wonderful choir leading the congregation in chant. This was a congregation that knew their chant. Many were experienced in leading and teaching and I’m guessing that pretty much all would be in accord with the idea that Latin is the norm for the Mass and that chant and polyphony are the highest forms in which it should be sung. Not surprisingly many people joined in. What was surprising though, given the company, was how poorly the congregational members (which includes me!) managed to unify their voices with each other and the choir. We really were a fragmented collection of individuals, so much so that one of the speakers – a Benedictine – remarked upon it. So here are my thoughts on how one might achieve this in a congregation. The full article is here.

It has since struck me how singing in a choir and aiming for a beautiful unified voice requires us to think about the three aspects of beauty: due proportion, integrity and clarity – simultaneously and therefore will form us in an understanding of beauty very deeply. I have written elsewhere of how I believe that singing modal music develops our sensibilities, here; but I am talking now of an additional aspect that arises by virtue of singing with others.

Due proportion means that each part in in the right relationship to the others. In this case we work in unision to the singer must listen to the voices of those around him so that his voice blends. Even if he knows the piece perfectly he cannot blend unless he considers how his voice relates to the unified voice of the choir.

Cleve_Four-monks-singingIntegrity is the degree to which the whole conforms to the purpose intended for it. In a choir even beyond the choice of the music and the words, there has to be a consideration of how it is interpreted. In order for this to happen, the director must decide upon an interpretation that all subscribe to. It would be hopeless if each singer interpreted individually and then sang accordingly. So aside from singing in unity, we must accept the authority of the leader to direct that unified voice to a purpose that is appropriate to the choir (this is also a good exercise in humility!).

Claritas can be thought of as the radiance of truth. For something to be beautiful it must communicate to us clearly what it is. So this means a clear articulation of the words and music and it must be heard by congregation.

All these things are essential, I would suggest, when we sing in the liturgy…and probably a good idea everywhere else too!

coro origini

David Clayton

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David is an Englishman living in New Hampshire, USA. He is an artist, teacher, published writer and broadcaster who holds a permanent post as Artist-in-Residence and Lecturer in Liberal Arts at the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts. The Way of Beauty program, which is offered at TMC, focuses on the link between Catholic culture, with a special emphasis on art, and the liturgy. David was received into the Church in London in 1993. Visit the Way of Beauty blog at thewayofbeauty.org.

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  • Jesse

    A schola was invited to sing at a mass. It was beautiful, but more of a concert really since the pieces were in Latin, tricky melodies, and several parts. I am used to hearing the congregation sing, but we were pretty much silent throughout.

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