VER THE PAST FIVE YEARS at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, NH, I have been working on a method of pointing the text and adapting traditional plainchant for English. My intention has been to create a way of singing the psalms that is simple enough that people who are not highly trained in music can learn it quickly; and beautiful enough that they want to.
The result is a method whereby the text is pointed the same way for all the tones. Consequently, if you know how to point the text (which is easily learnt) you can sing any of the 120 tones to it. This opens up the whole psalter very quickly to people of basic music knowledge. The tone melodies are all based on those of the Sarum tones of the pre-Reformation English church. I have adapted this method to a Mass – the Mass of St Thomas More – and have a selection of tones in simple four-part harmonies as options for choirs when an elevated form is required (perhaps in a solemn Vespers or psalm meditations in Mass).
You can see scores at the Way of Beauty-Psalm Tones along with audio recordings of some of the selections, including harmonised forms and a tutorial video which explains how to point the text and apply any tone to it. Two examples are:
Mode VIII harmonised (for the Magnificat):
This is still an ongoing process of improvement and modification, but I am at a point now where I am happy enough with what we have to start publicizing it. Parishes and groups beyond the limits of the college campus are starting to use them and a community of Augustinian friars in Florida heard about this last year and I sent them the first version of about 120 psalm tones.
All texts are pointed according to the natural rhythm of speech
To make sure that this would be natural and easy to sing, I decided that it would always be the text that governed the rhythm of singing. The music is modified so that it fits the text, rather than the other way around. The problem that so often occurs is that composers start with a beautiful melody and then work out how force the text on to it. When this happens people don’t like singing it – it always sounds forced.
With this in mind, I developed a method of pointing that relies on the natural stressed syllables of speech, and then worked out a system whereby all the tones could fit to it.
This is what we have – any tone can be sung to any text once pointed in this method. The pointing doesn’t change from tone to tone. This means that if someone knows just one tone, they will be able to point and sing the whole psalter. Then as they gradually learn more each newly learnt tone can be applied to the same text, no re-pointing is necessary. In my experience of teaching this, somebody can be up and running, and in a position to explain it to others with less than an hour of individual instruction. It is so intuitive that I have seen 8 year olds learn how to point a text and sing it.
Once learnt this method can be applied easily to any psalter or edition of the Liturgy of the Hours, including the four-volume version of the whole Office on the four-weekly cycle approved by the American bishops; and reduced versions that contain for example Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer and Night Prayer. This encourages groups to sing together, because it does not demand that people must buy specially pointed, and often very expensive psalters if they don’t want to, but can apply it to the version they already own (provided they don’t mind marking the pages lightly with a pencil). One could, for example, apply this to the monthly Magnificat magazine. Typically, it takes just a few minutes for people to point the psalms together for Vespers, each pointing their own copy.
An Example of How the Text is Pointed
If you read any text aloud you will find that certain syllables are naturally stressed and some are not. English tends to follow a pattern of stressed and then unstressed syllables. This system works around the last two stressed syllables in each line. I have pointed the following text according to the way I naturally stress it.
1 O praise Gód in his hóliness *
praise him in the fírmament of his pówer.
2 Praise him in his nóble ácts *
praise him according to his éxcellent gréatness.
3 Praise him in the sóund of the trúmpet *
praise him upon the lúte and hárp.
4 Praise him in the cýmbals and dánces *
praise him upon the stríngs and pípe.
5 Praise him upon the wéll-tuned cýmbals *
praise him upón the loud cýmbals.
6 Let everything thát hath bréath *
práise the Lórd.
For a given text, people will not always intonate in precisely the same way, but the degree of variation (even between Americans and someone with an English accent like myself) is very small and usually if there is a difference agreement can quickly be reached as to whose version will take preference. The pointing tutorial video on my website explains the method too:
How To Point the Text So That You Can Sing Any Psalm
One thing to notice is that this doesn’t count syllables back from the end of the line. The two pointed syllables can move laterally relative to the other and the final stressed syllable may also be the final syllable, or it may not. We will discuss how tones are fitted to the text after the next section.
This is the big difficulty. There are different natural patterns of emphasis in the two languages and so tones that flow naturally in Latin seem unnatural and awkward when forced onto English. One of these differences is that Latin chant allows for many notes on one syllable, because the character of the language is ‘melismatic’. English, which is part Latin and part Germanic in root cannot be relied upon in the same way. I felt that in order to develop tones that could consistently be applied to all words, that I would treat English as though it were all Germanic. This leads to a form of chant that tends much more towards having one note per syllable, which is called ‘syllabic’ chant. If you were to characterize the difference, it would be that Latin floats while English punches. (When singing, choirs should be aware of this and make sure that they don’t punch so aggressively that they kill it!)
Those who delve deeply into what I have done will find that some tones have some simple neums of just two notes per syllable. However, even these cannot be universally applied without occasionally sounding awkward and so I had to develop a a rule which allows the singers to decide whether to drop the second note depending on the flow of text at that point. The instruction on how to do that is in the score.
In adapting the melody, I had to decide what characterizes the beauty of the original tone: is it melody or the rhythm, or aspects of both? In the end it is the combination of the two, I think, but I decided that I would focus first on the melody and make that my priority and aim to retain what I determined to be the key melodic intervals. The rhythm of the tone does not emanate from the music first, I thought, but is composed into the music to match the rhythm of speech. Therefore, I should let the rhythmic pattern of the tone be dictated to by the English language, which often means that it will have a different rhythmic feel to its Latin root tone. Sometimes this worked well and easily; but at other times the melodic phrasing is so closely linked to the rhythmic pattern of the original language that it does not carry over into English and so it was inevitable that the character of the tone was going to change partially. I found this particularly in the Mode VIII tones. In the end, in some cases I decided that I would have to go where the pattern of the English language was taking me and it forced me, in effect, to compose new tones to fit it.
This has to be more than a systematic process of adaptation. So while what I have done so far does sound somewhat coldly methodical, at the end of the process I have to take a step back and ask myself the question: ‘Does this work? When I hear it sung does this sound holy, does it have goodness of form, and does it seem to participate in something that is universal to chant?’ At this point I would modify it again if I thought it were needed to ensure that the end result is good.
Applying the Tone to the Text
Many aspects of chant are more easily caught than taught. This is easily understood when I demonstrate it, but difficult to describe in print alone, but I will have a go! Let us take a tone such as the following from Mode V (I have omitted flex and incipit) and apply it to a couplet from the previously pointed psalm:
As you can see, the tone has pointed notes and the aim is make these coincide with pointed syllables. The first bar is applied to the first line of each couplet of text and the second to the second. The first note in each case is the reciting note. Then it is sung so that the first pointed syllable ‘wéll’ coincides with the first pointed note, which in this case is still the reciting note, do. The final stressed syllable is sung to coincide with the that of the tone too. In this case they both happen to be do. In between there is a single note re . The rule here is that the single notes that are not pointed, belong to a cluster linked to the stressed syllable ‘w’. So in this case, the re belongs to the final stressed syllable and is applied to the word ‘tuned’.
Note also that the final pointed syllable – cym – is not the final syllable in the line and as a result, the final note, do, is repeated until you reach the end ie the whole word, cymbals, is sung on do.
For the second line, the same rules apply. In this case there is more than one syllable between the first and second points. The note ti—which the word ‘upón’ finishes on—is applied to all syllables following, until you get the note, or cluster of notes belonging to the final pointed syllable. So this means that the word ‘the’ is sung as a ti and then ‘loud’ shifts up to the do before singing ‘cymbals’ on la.
This is easier to demonstrate than to explain; and more easily learnt by hearing someone do it than by listening to an explanation. The best way to learn is by doing it with people who know what they are doing, because then—since it is so intuitive—it happens quickly and naturally.
See what works and be prepared to discard or modify what doesn’t
At TMC, I would introduce a tone and observe how easily and naturally my students took to it. As I observed their reactions I began to discern the pattern of what seemed to work and what didn’t, and steadily modified my method as I went along. I was considering the ease with which they picked up new material and the effect it seemed to have on them: for example, did it promote a good liturgical disposition in them? Did it seem to encourage them to pray the Office regularly or was it a hurdle that they had to overcome? I also asked myself at a very simple level how it sounded to me – what was my gut reaction to it?
We are very lucky at Thomas More College to have a choir director who is a brilliant composer, Paul Jernberg. He has written wonderful four part harmonies that are very simple to learn but have great nobility. Syllabic chant such as this seems to lend itself to homophonic harmonisation and so I think it is no accident that the Eastern and Anglican forms have traditions of four part harmonisation in liturgical music. Mirroring the traditional idea of singing gospel canticles alternating chant and polyphony, we alternate unison and harmony. We also use these harmonisations for the responsorial psalm in the Mass, so as the congregation sings the melody of the response prompted by the cantor, a small choir sings harmonies.
It is common when singing the psalms is to divide the congregation into two groups and then for each to sing couplets alternately (referred to as singing ‘antiphonally’). The tradition here, which we follow, is not to pause for long between one side and another. Rather, insert an obvious pause between the first phrase and the second phrase within each couplet of the tone, that is after the asterix (*). When there is a triplet in the text, there is no equivalent pause after the dagger (†), we might draw a quick breath but don’t have any long pause until the asterix. This creates a sense that the contemplative pause is within each couplet or triplet phrase, but not between.
Interpretation – Slowly is not holy!
I find that people equate slowness with holiness – if it is sung slowly it aids contemplation in the listener. I do not agree that this is always the case. Contemplation is a passive state of mind, one of receptivity and listening. In order to lead the congregation in contemplation, therefore, the choir must sing at a pace that is natural for those listening to take in the information. It is natural to us to listen to others talking and so this is the most natural pace at which we take in the sense of the words. Because chant is an extension of speech, this principle applies to chanting the psalms as well, I would argue. The way that seems to work best is to sing for the reciting note at a talking pace, which always feels fast for singing. Beyond this there is room for interpretation and we generally slow down and quieten at the end of each line in common with Latin chant: “feather it in and feather it out” is what I was told for gregorian chant. When I listen to the recordings we made for the website I can hear that we could have done a lot better in the interpretation – I hope you will take this into account when you hear them.
Please feel free to go the website and download and use any material for the singing of the palsms at www.thewayofbeauty.org. If you have questions please contact Mr Clayton at firstname.lastname@example.org.
NB Chant experts will notice in the scores on the site, that the neums are not annotated according the strict format of Latin chant – this is not a deliberate break from tradition on my part, it’s because I haven’t mastered the software fully yet.
We hope you enjoyed this guest article by David Clayton.