AVE YOU BEEN WAITING to look into choosing a particular musical setting for the antiphons of our Roman Catholic Tradition for your parish? Want to stay true to the beautiful and ancient traditions of our church? But perhaps learning and mastering chant melodies each week for your choir can seem daunting—with tricky intervals and chant modes that can seem so foreign in comparison to the familiar diatonic compositional styles heard in modern pop/secular music (i.e. major and minor keys). Look no further! Newly available, you can now receive weekly practice videos for Ainslie’s “English Proper Chants.”
Benjamin O’Brien, organist & choirmaster at St. Andre Bessette Parish in New Hampshire, has dedicated himself to recording these propers each week for educational purposes alone (to teach his choir who sings them on the weekend liturgies). You are most welcome to take advantage of these recordings by subscribing to the Youtube channel seen in the example below.
As quoted in an earlier blog back in 2015 on CCW, announcing the arrival of this setting, Jeff Ostrowski said “This collection distinguishes itself in three main ways. First, it was composed by someone who’s pondered Propers in English since the 1960s, thereby avoiding many of the traps fallen into by modern composers with the best of intentions trying to compose vernacular Propers. Second, it is a complete collection, including all the Ordinary Time Sundays and major feasts. Third, every single chant in this book contains a keyboard accompaniment. Let me say at the outset that every Catholic musician should own this book by John Ainslie!”
Those not familiar with this setting can refer to the link below for more background info:
In terms of the order in which these practice tracks have been presented and sung, you’ll notice that Benjamin has intoned the refrain melody once instrumentally, sung the whole refrain solo, and then repeated the whole refrain (the choir would join this time). Then he sings a single verse followed by one last refrain. Even though traditionally the cantor only sings solo up to the asterisk—followed by the choir joining in on the following word—Benjamin has chosen to ignore that particular practice for the sake of placing a priority on preparing your average church choir to sing these settings every weekend… and to sing them well!
ALL TOO OFTEN, WE OVERLOOK “preparation,” blindly thinking that if we simply “choose” beautiful music it will come out that way. Those of us who are directors know far too well that is only a third of the battle. The real struggle is ironing out the details and preparing your choir members to the best of your ability so they can step up to a high standard regardless of their training or a lack thereof. For better or worse the clear majority of cases for those of us in music ministry work with average volunteer choirs—which we should be ever so grateful for by the way! But that being the context… do we ask ourselves if we’re double-checking to make the process by which we’re introducing and teaching repertoire to our choirs something that is accessible and confidently attainable in every way? Notice how I didn’t say “easy” or “watered down”? If you hadn’t figured it out by now, this order that I proposed above and have laid out in the practice tracks (instrumental refrain, cantor refrain, choir refrain, verse 1 cantor, choir refrain) provides in my opinion the best way to allow for success with your choir. If you still aren’t sold on the idea think of this typical situation: choir member Joe was busy this week and couldn’t even make rehearsal and is singing the antiphons for the first time on site at mass on the weekend not having any idea what they will sound like or Sally did make rehearsal but struggles severely with reading music to begin with so having that extra reinforcement makes all the difference for her being successful and hitting the right pitches and interval relationships. Sound familiar? Lastly, I would like to argue that even with this slightly longer model (adding a refrain), that these Antiphons are still only 3 minutes long at MOST with this format. And that furthermore, if singing in church really is “praying” and not “performing” – doing one extra refrain simply gives a little extra time for us to ponder in our hearts these beautiful texts our church has selected.
In the original blog that introduced this setting (mentioned above) Jeff Ostrowski mentions towards the end about some minor complications with some of the music theory behind the compositional writing for the Organ Accompaniments for this setting by John Ainslie (i.e. parallel octaves, etc). Benjamin has found a practical solution to that issue, modeled in the practice videos, and employs the following method with his choir: leaving the accompaniment out entirely Benjamin relies solely on the Melody Edition of Ainslie’s settings and applies a “pedal tone” for each Entrance Antiphon giving a sense of majesty and wonder while also allowing one to fully appreciate the linear aspect of the melody itself to be heard without being clouded by an accompaniment part. This also brings the text out more which is what the Antiphons are all about to begin with. Additionally, this also creates a beautiful contrast to a typical opening 4-part hymn or other parts of mass that do indeed have full accompaniment parts and traditional harmony. As for the Communion Antiphons, Benjamin simply plays just the melody (no pedal tone or anything extra) on a soft organ stop down the octave. The idea behind this is threefold: 1) the intimacy and reverence of the Eucharistic Liturgy inspires a softer more gentle approach 2) this pays tribute to and honors traditional chant that is sung acapella (no accompaniment) 3) While not entirely acapella the use of a single soft organ stop is an excellent beautiful compromise to yet again ensure the musical success of an average church choir so they can hear the melody intoned and follow on those spots where they might not be as confident. Listen to the example below:
Food for thought to end: “I would contend that there are two primary reasons for the increased popularity of chanting the propers at Mass,” Father Dan Merz told CWR. (Fr. Merz is associate director of the Secretariat of Divine Worship of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.) He went on to say:
“First, there is a renewed interest in the texts proposed by the Church herself for the Mass, as opposed to individual choices that may not coincide with the rest of the Mass as well. This goes together with the desire for more accurate translations of texts used at the Eucharist and the other liturgies of the Church. The entrance and Communion antiphons are often scriptural and serve as an official commentary or meditation of sorts on the Mass of the day, as opposed to hymns or songs chosen on the local level. Second, there is a renewed interest in chant itself, including Gregorian chant. […] Many Catholics grew up without any experience or knowledge of chant, and so there is a natural desire to uncover a part of the tradition that was lost—at least to them.”