The Interpretation of Gregorian Chant

Gregorian Chant, sung well, is the most beautiful and evocative of music. Sung badly, it sounds like a never-ending dirge.

How can you make sure that what you’re doing is the first and not the second? How can you give Gregorian Chant the qualities that move listeners to tears and prayer?

Early immersion in Plainchant

I first sang Plainchant when I was 9, just starting my six years as a chorister. As Master of Music at Westminster Cathedral in London I conducted chant daily from 1961-1976. With upwards of two services a day, you could say I was immersed in it. Despite this – or perhaps because of it! – I never found it easy and it took me some time to decide how to shape, practice and conduct it.

I had to decide on the essential qualities necessary for good chant-singing and one of these was an appreciation of its lyricism. Gregorian Chant is unique. It’s sung in unison and basically it’s one long tune! Some chants go on for five minutes or more – and a tune of that length is rare in most forms of music. To sustain this you have to understand the sheer beauty of the tunes – you have to develop a comprehensive understanding of their outstanding lyrical nature.

An atmosphere of prayer, spirituality and mystery is the next quality to strive for. These are the elements that most appeal to listeners. People seek the spiritual – perhaps more today than ever before. It’s an antidote to the materialism which dominates the world’s affairs … it offers a glimpse of beauty beyond this world. This is why Gregorian Chant has become so popular in recent years and this is why the right atmosphere is so important.

How does Plainchant work?

Gregorian Chant is ideally suited to the Latin it grew from, although it sounds well in most languages. There are basically two forms of Plainchant – syllabic (one note per syllable) and melismatic (more than one note per syllable). The syllabic is found mainly in Psalms and Hymns, while the melismatic covers the wonderful sweeping melodies and vocalisations of the more ornate chants. Both need a distinct approach.

First of all, the choir must agree on their vowel sounds – they’ve got to sound the same. A unison vowel-sound is the foundation of Gregorian Chant, exposed, pure, and unadulterated, so it is exceptionally important. This is the basis for achieving the lyricism necessary for good choral singing. I’ve always found that practicing singing just the vowel sounds alone is extremely helpful – it concentrates the singer’s mind on exactly what sounds he or she is making.

The next thing to work on is the shape of the musical phrases. Here, the accentuation in the Latin language is important. “No-bis”, for example, not “No-bis“! It needs to be fitted sensitively to the musical structure – although this isn’t always possible.

Sing the chant to yourself and feel where the climaxes occur – spotting the musical rise and fall of the phrases. Think of the magnificent vaulted buildings where Gregorian Chant developed – the Benedictine Abbeys, the Romanesque Priories, the great Gothic Cathedrals. The music arcs and curls, soars and tumbles, echoing the arches of the stonework.

You should spend some time on this because a choir needs firm direction on how to shape phrases – there must be unanimity within your group of singers. If you, the Director, aren’t sure how to approach the chant, there’s little chance of a unified sound emerging.

Dynamic shape is vital and you won’t get this if your choir doesn’t know what it’s singing about! So always give translations of the texts – the choir can’t interpret the music without them.

What Gregorian Chant should I begin with?

Gregorian Chant poses a wide range of difficulty and I suggest you start with straightforward syllabic chant. The famous hymns are excellent for this: Ave Maris Stella, Jesu Redemptor Omnium, Veni, Creator Spiritus. Your interpretations should be based on the accents of the words and the shape of the phrases. Always ask yourself, “Is what I’m doing musical?” … “Does it speak to me spiritually?”

Now you can move on to some of the simpler melismatic chants: Missa Orbis Factor, Missa cum Jubilo or any of the finer and shorter Alleluia Chants. Prepare first by deciding exactly how to shape each phrase dynamically, always taking into account the natural accentuation of the text.

In both forms of Gregorian Chant you will need rhythmic movement: don’t let it hang around – it needs energy or it’ll start sounding dreary. Most choirs use the famous Solesmes method (named after the monastery in France which developed it) and I suggest you listen to their CDs with the sheet music in front of you. Also, listen to the CDs of other monasteries and choirs, but don’t slavishly imitate what you hear! Treat it as a guide to your own interpretation and nothing more than this.

Soaring Music!

Your most important challenge will be how to make your choir sound prayerful and how to achieve a sense of spirituality in their singing. It may be hard to see your choristers as prayerful and spiritual sometimes! But they are, or they wouldn’t be there. These spiritual qualities already exist in Gregorian Chant – your job is to discover them and make them live. It’s a little like opening a gift-wrapped parcel – you need to peel off the preconceptions and allow the truth of the music to reach your singers.

I can’t over-emphasise that the internal attitude of each singer is vital. They must have an awareness of spirituality and prayer. Gregorian Chant is other-worldly, but it’s also earthy! An appreciation of this combination of opposites will help greatly in creating the right atmosphere. Sing from the soul.

Two very practical suggestions for you. I believe that most choirs are helped by a sensitive accompaniment. And have your choir sing the chant in the highest practical key, particularly if women or boys are involved. Gregorian Chant sung high is both soaring and commanding – it reaches up and cries out to Heaven.

I’ve gained a great deal from working with Gregorian Chant – many of my compositions are based on it. It has inspired me and guided me in the same way as it did Byrd, Palestrina, Bach, Berlioz, Bruckner, Durufle, Britten …

As a music form, Gregorian Chant is incomparable – powerful, spiritual … wonderful! If you perform it with conviction and sincerity your listeners will receive a vision of a life beyond this world – something they will always treasure.

These articles may also be of interest to you:

Catholic Hymns – Catholic Hymns

Gregorian Chant – Gregorian Chant

The Psychology of Choir Practice – The Psychology of Choir Practice – getting the best from your Choir

Plainchant, Liturgy, and Evangelisation – Plainchant, Liturgy, and Evangelisation

Gregorian Chant – Gregorian Chant – a list of favourites