E HAVE SPOKEN in the past about our policy regarding USA politics. Most recently, this subject was broached in an article (“A Glaring Omission in the Post-Vatican II Lectionary”) which has proven to be one of our most popular. I hope someone who has power in the Church will read about Father Valentine’s discovery and take action. Regarding USA politics, I have posted “Only In Secret And With Horror”—a PDF document explaining my personal views—in case anyone is curious.
A certain member of my family is a huge Ben Shapiro fan. (Mr. Shapiro is a YouTube political commentator; he’s not related to O.J. Simpson’s lawyer, Robert Shapiro.) Because I have a professional degree in music theory, my opinion was sought:
N.B. I have no feelings for or against Ben Shapiro’s political views. I commend him for speaking to his audience about music theory. Many of our political problems could be solved if more pundits did likewise!
Fact Check: Mr. Shapiro is correct that a seventh—especially a major seventh—is extremely dissonant. However, he’s incorrect to say the 7th was called diabolus in musica (“the devil in music”). That interval was a Tritone, not a 7th. Both intervals are extremely dissonant. In classical polyphony, the Tritone should normally be avoided—yet it can be quite beautiful. For instance, consider the opening movement to Missa Ave Maris Stella by Father Victoria (d. 1611):
That Tritone is actually quite beautiful—and we will speak of it below.
Can Amateurs Sing Polyphony?
I recently had occasion to recruit members for two choirs. I deliberately mixed “novice” members with “veteran” members. When I say “novice,” I mean young men and young women who have never sung in a choir before. They didn’t realize they could match pitch until I interviewed them. (I heard more than fifty auditions, and it took forever!) We only had one rehearsal before our first Mass, and that’s pretty daunting. But we made it just fine, thanks to the singers who have worked with me in the past and, therefore, knew some of the repertoire. I recorded our very first Sunday, and I can already tell: These two choirs are going to be superb!
Our Treble Choir (females only) sang hymns from the Brébeuf hymnal. Since it was Septuagesima Sunday, they sang the appointed hymn for the season of Septuagesima until Lent: Rebus Creatis Nil Egens (which is #403 in the Brébeuf Hymnal). The Brébeuf Hymnal is the only book which provides a literal English translation of this hymn, which helps the singers to pray.
They added the Alto line, with great effect:
* Mp3 Download • Brébeuf Hymn #403
—The Saint Jean de Brébeuf Hymnal Choral Supplement.
The Treble Choir also added harmonies to a lovely Marian hymn, #761 in the Brébeuf Hymnal:
* Mp3 Download • Brébeuf Hymn #761
—The Saint Jean de Brébeuf Hymnal Choral Supplement.
The Treble Choir did a Canon by William Byrd (d. 1623), and I attempted to add the bottom line—but my voice isn’t what it used to be:
Inspired by Dr Lucas Tappan’s article, I attempted some organ improvisation. Can you tell which melody I chose?
The Mixed Choir also did an amazing job. Of course there was unison singing, but I never place women an octave above the men when it comes to plainsong. (I would be curious to know how the other contributors to Views from the Choir Loft feel about men and women singing plainsong separated by an octave.) Personally, my ear cannot stand that sound. On the other hand, that is how the choir at Westminster Cathedral sang Gregorian chant and a YouTube recording from the 1930s demonstrates this. In any event, here’s how we sing Gregorian chant—alternating between men and women:
* Mp3 Download • Credo IV (excerpt)
—The men alternate with the women.
We attempted a setting of O Sanctissima by Maria Quinn. This setting alternates between 2-voice with organ and SATB harmony. The harmonies are very modern, as shown by marker 0:15 here:
The mixed choir didn’t tune perfectly, but they made a gallant effort (cf. marker 0:36). I guarantee this piece will be perfect after we sing it a few more times:
To download this score by Maria Quinn for free, click here.
Getting Back To “Missa Ave Maris Stella”
The mixed choir also sang the Kyrie from Father Victoria’s Missa Ave Maris Stella. It wasn’t perfect—remember that several of these singers had never sung polyphony before—but I was thrilled with the result considering we’d only had one rehearsal:
The entire Mass is a phenomenal masterpiece. As we know, the Gregorian Chant “Ave Maris Stella” has a characteristic of an ascending perfect fifth, which then becomes a descending fifth at the words “Dei Mater.” From a theoretical point of view, a perfect fifth inverts to a perfect fourth—and Father Victoria employs both in the first section and the second section (as did Giovanni Animuccia, in his Missa Ave Maris Stella). When we realize that fourth can substitute for a fourth, Father Victoria’s plan becomes clear. He uses the plainsong melody:
I have attempted to indicate for you the contour:
Throughout the first movement and the third movement, Father Victoria constantly imitates this contour:
Here is Dr. Horst Buchholz conducting that exact section during the Sacred Music Symposium a few years ago.
In the second movement, Father Victoria “hits you over the head” with the ancient Cantus Gregorianus melody:
It would take forever to indicate everything clever done by Father Victoria. Therefore, just look at the part book—courtesy of Nancho Alvarez—where I have used colors: Red is “Ave Maris Stella”; Green is “Felix Caeli Porta”; Blue is “Dei Mater Alma”; Yellow is “Atque Semper Virgo.”
The chant appears in the Editio Vaticana as follows: Ave Maris Stella (PDF)
Here are some Ave Maris Stella organ accompaniments.
Finally, the secret to training volunteer choirs is to pick the perfect repertoire for them. It must be powerful and dignified, but not too difficult.