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"Nothing should be allowed that is unworthy of divine worship, nothing that is obviously profane or unfit to express the inner, sacred power of prayer. Nothing odd or unusual is allowable, since such things, far from fostering devotion in the praying community, rather shock and upset it—and impede the proper and rightful cultivation of a devotion faithful to tradition."
— Pope Paul VI • 10/13/1966

Adapting Chant To The Vernacular
published 31 August 2015 by Guest Author

351 Steven Van Roode Gregorian Chant STILL REMEMBER the first time I heard one of Jeff Ostrowski’s Chabanel Psalms. It was in 2007, and I was immediately moved by the beauty and simplicity of his compositions. Could his modal style also be applied to Dutch responsorial psalms, of which at that time only a few were set to the official translation? I was also considering putting together a set of simple propers in Dutch, following the exhortation of two saintly Popes: “The more closely a composition for church approaches in its movement, inspiration and savour the Gregorian melodic form, the more sacred and liturgical it becomes” (Sts. Pius X and John Paul II). How should this be accomplished for vernacular texts? For my “Klein Graduale”—a Dutch adaptation of the Graduale Simplex—I found the following strategy the most fulfilling.

    * *  Klein Graduale Website • Gregorian settings in Dutch

My adaptations of Chabanel Psalms or Gregorian chants to Dutch liturgical texts are based on a couple of principles. First, I put neumes only on stressed words and syllables. The Dutch language doesn’t tolerate neumatic melodies very well, let alone rich, melismatic lines. Second, I make sure each clause of a sentence gets a single melodic line. The original Latin chants tend to divide each clause up into even smaller parts. In Dutch, this sounds clumsy. A single line of thought is best expressed by a single, fluent motion. Third, the melody should support the natural accentuation of the vernacular text. To enhance the intelligibility and clarity of the sung text, it is important that the chant follows—to a certain extent—the text’s intonation contour.

How to achieve these principles? Surely, you should keep an eye on the characteristics of the Gregorian melody. For example, searching for structure pitches helps me to capture the overall sound of an antiphon, without getting lost by elaborations and embellishments. Also, each mode has its own distinctive motives and cadences. Office antiphons in particular make extensive use of TYPE MELODIES and CENTONIZATION by putting together typical melodic figures. Additionally, I try to pay attention to the ‘musical exegesis’ of the original chant. Gregorian chant provides a spiritual commentary on the liturgical texts it carries, giving us a valuable look into how these texts functioned as a prayer in the lives of the medieval composers. This I strive to preserve.

To give you an idea of these vernacular compositions, I give two examples below. The first is my adaptation of the entrance antiphon Omnis terra from the Graduale Simplex:

“All the earth shall bow down before you, O God, and shall sing to you, shall sing to your name, O Lord.”

It’s a very simple, syllabic tune of mode 4:


The second example is an entrance antiphon as well with the same (Latin) text and of the same mode, but this time taken from the Graduale Romanum. You can see it’s more neumatic, contrasting with the simpler chants from the Graduale Simplex:


We hope you enjoyed this guest article by Steven van Roode.