HERE IS SO MUCH to be learned about Gregorian chant, and the Colloquium is such a terrific place to learn it. I have spent all week chanting in a schola led by Scott Turkington, one of the true living masters of the art. My fellow chanters and I have learned many things under his direction.
On Friday morning, we were especially blessed to have an open discussion about one of the chants we were preparing. The piece was the offertory chant for the Votive Mass of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Improperium exspectavit Cor meum. (The same chant, in a slightly extended format, is used also on Palm Sunday.) The chant appears below in a photo, and here is the text (and translation) from Psalm 68:21:
Improperium exspectavit Cor meum et miseriam, et sustinui qui simul mecum contristaretur et non fuit; consolantem me quaesivi et non inveni.
My Heart awaited reproach and misery; and I hoped for one that would grieve together with me, but there was none; I looked for one who would comfort me, and found no one.
In our analysis of the piece, we observed that it would be difficult to tell the mode just on the basis of the opening phrase. The phrase et miseriam, however, removes all doubt that this is a mode VIII chant, since it launches from sol, returns to sol, and hovers around the reciting tone do. Moreover, the piece ends neatly on the final sol, as do all chants in modes VII & VIII.
We considered several episodes of obvious word painting. Perhaps the cleverest comes on the word Cor in the opening phrase. The repercussion on do, called for by the bistropha and subsequent tristopha, seems to simulate a heartbeat. Then, in the melody for miseriam, one finds three separate expressive puncta, which helps to convey the sense of real misery. As Turkington describes, expressive neums should not necessarily be sung with extra speed, extra delay, or greater volume; rather, they should exhibit a certain “fire” within.
Structurally, we took note of two very similar figures on the word et, at the end of the third staff and the beginning of the fifth staff. Both of these figures consist of a salicus with a terminal liquescent. Turkington contends that liquescents always serve a purpose, and, in this case, he suggested that they are an encouragement to the singer to close on “t” and begin the singable “n” of the following word. In the first instance, the salicus is built with a sol ti re progression, whereas in the second it consists of fa la do. The figure beginning with fa seems to come “out of nowhere,” and therefore adds a terrific element of surprise to the chant’s concluding phrase before it resolves in a lovely cadence on sol.
Even more surprising, perhaps, is the inclusion of the mi above the staff; not only is this the highest note in the piece, but it also lies outside the standard range of mode VIII (re to re). This should probably be interpreted as a case of word painting, wherein the composer is stressing the deep despair conveyed by the text. During our discussion, one of the participants suggested that it signifies the speaker of the Psalm, who goes everywhere—even outside the mode—looking for someone to comfort him, in the end desperately confessing that he has “found no one.”
Another remark that Turkington made about chant in general has stuck with me all week. He shared with us this idea: “In chant, there are no Gothic arches—only Romanesque arches.” In other words, the shaping of every phrase in chant should be a smooth arc, rather than an arc with sharp or jagged points. For example, in this piece, even the mi of the final line, which constitutes the physical highpoint of the chant, ought not to stick out unduly from the rest of the phrase.
All of this reflection arose from an impromptu discussion on a rather short piece of chant. When the propers, in their simplicity, contain such depth and meaning and spirituality, why would anyone want to sing a hymn instead?