A few weeks back Jeff posted Blog Contributors Speak About a Favorite Piece. I spoke about a four part Regina Caeli, but I had been intending to nominate a Gregorian Chant piece, Virgo Dei Genitrix. When the other contributors all brought up motets, I jumped ship and went with the piece which was uppermost in my mind.
Then just before my turn to speak, Mr Hamilton came up with a hymn. This was welcomed as providing a variety of styles for the discussion. Then, had I stuck to my original Gregorian Chant plan, this would have even more perfectly filled out an overview of sacred music. But I didn’t.
Watching pared down livestream Masses, I’m struck by how beautiful Gregorian Chant can be. In one instance a choir launched out into a polyphonic Magnificat, but stumbled a little. I’m left wondering, when Gregorian chant itself can sound so sublime when sung well, how good do you need to be to achieve an equivalent level with polyphony?
There is a great sense of accomplishment with polyphony, but sometimes we are happy to ride rough-shod over the piece and come out at the other side at approximately the same time and call it a success. Maybe the time could be better spent refining a monophonic piece and working more on achieving a good tone and blending. These are things I must learn more about.
Back in March, when all my choir plans evaporated, then I was sad. After a while I hit upon the idea to sing Vittoria’s Popule Meus for Good Friday with my family. We managed the first few bars1, but there wasn’t much enthusiasm for it. When Easter came around, some of my kids wanted to sing the fancy Regina Caeli we had sung at a homeschool retreat some years ago. It’s much more upbeat and, with some bribery, we did bring it together.
The first singer in the video is my youngest daughter, who has just recently begun singing the Regina Caeli all by herself. Maybe I should have captured the older group on video too, but it was complicated enough to get this far. Maybe, with a whole lot more practice, we’ll get the polyphonic piece ready to sing for Pentecost. In the meantime, we’ll keep singing at home.
Coming back to the original question – you don’t need to be very good to start singing polyphony. To sing at Mass though, you need more than just being able to finish together. Recording yourself and playing it back is very enlightening. That said, the average person in the pew is more forgiving than the ears of the choir director.
Once you get to that level of sounding good in rehearsals, then maybe it’s time to try singing in public. But there’s no shame in singing Gregorian chant to the best of your ability.
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 The first few bars are particularly simple – repeated long notes. Here’s an amazing recording combining the chant and Vittoria’s polyphony.