Now that I have your attention, allow me to make my real point, which is: Does the way we sing the Propers matter?
Since I am not involved with a Latin Mass parish I cannot speak to how chant is received by the faithful. I assume, however, that those who attend know that chant will be sung and they accept it no matter what it sounds like. Conversely, I know how difficult it can be to introduce chant (and for that matter, Latin) into a Novus Ordo parish. After many years of slowly adding the Propers to the Mass I can say this with confidence: people will accept it much more easily if it sounds beautiful.
Anyone who knows me knows that my one constant philosophy of choral singing is that, first and foremost, the choir must sound as beautiful as possible. If we’re not going to try to sing beautifully, then why sing at all? This is especially true of music for the sacrifice of the Mass. Here are some ways to make the Propers sound beautiful and meaningful.
1. Start with the text
Gregorian chant is rhetorical. Text painting abounds. Read the text carefully with attention to its meaning and find these special moments. Teach your choir why the melody rises here or falls there, why this mode is better for these words than another, why certain syllables are lengthened or why some notes are repeated. Show them by singing it yourself. Make endings slow and soften ever so slightly so that sentences come to natural endings. I like to tell my choirs that when they sing the chants they are telling the listeners a story. Everyone singing the chant must fall in love with the words first, and this starts with the choir director whose own passion for the text is given to the singers.
2. Unify vowels.
This is true for any kind of choral singing. Unifying vowels helps with tuning, blend, and creates a sound that most everyone agrees is beautiful and arresting, as opposed to one in which we hear various individual voices. Depending on what region of the country you are in, this may take up most of your rehearsal time.
3. Choose a tempo that moves.
How often have we heard from enemies of chant that it is a ‘dirge,’ that it ‘plods,’ or is boring or uninteresting? That is not the fault of the chant, it’s the fault of the person leading the chant. Chant should have momentum, forward motion, and direction. It should sound at times exciting, mysterious, subtle, relevant, intelligent, and intelligible. If the tempo is so slow that by the time one sings the end of the sentence no one can remember how the sentence started, well, that’s a problem. Think about how tempo affects what is being communicated in the text.
4. Consider your acoustic.
The acoustic affects tempo, or does it? While it’s true that a reverberant church requires the tempo to be a bit slower than in a dry acoustic, the difference really doesn’t need to be all that drastic. Instead, the acoustic really affects the amount of time between phrases. In a dry acoustic, take less time between phrases; in a reverberant acoustic, let the music breathe more between phrases before beginning again. This allows the big acoustic to enhance the sound while allowing the listeners ears to take it all in.
5. Don’t be afraid of English
You don’t have to look very far on the internet to find ‘experts’ that will tell you that you’re setting the revival of chant and sacred music back by sixty years if you do chant in English. I will tell you here and now that I do chant in just about every combination of languages you can imagine, from full Latin chants and verses, to Latin chant with English verses, Gregorian melodies set to English words, and the Simple English Propers by Adam Bartlett. I’ve even written my own melodies. If you’re in a Novus Ordo parish, there’s nothing wrong in my book with singing whatever chant you can manage as long as it’s sung beautifully. You might have time to learn only one Latin Gregorian chant a month. Fine. Do English the rest of the month, and do it beautifully. And don’t let anyone scare you about not singing everything in Latin. They’re probably not even musicians anyway.
So, should we stop singing the Propers? Of course not. But we should be sure we are singing them in the most beautiful and meaningful way possible.