AST FALL, MY CHURCH CHOIR changed the way we chant the propers. For years, we had sung off of printouts that I prepared based on the Vatican Edition. For each Sunday or feast day, I would download text files of the propers from Gregobase, paste them into the Illuminare Score Editor, and then add rhythmic markings (episemas and dots) based on my study of the Graduale Triplex. It was a lot of work, but I eventually created printouts for the entire liturgical year.
As I mentioned in an article last September, even edited versions of the Vatican Edition have their drawbacks. Sure, I could indicate exactly which notes I wanted us to lengthen, but there was no way to show lighter, faster notes. And then there’s the instinct of most modern musicians to double the length of any square note that bears a line or dot. This approach may work at the end of a phrase, but there should be more nuance at most other points in the chant. One of the guiding principles is this: in chant, as in speech, certain syllables have more energy and should take up slightly more time.
When my friend Royce Nickel launched Graduale Renovatum, I was delighted to have chant manuscripts that indicate every note’s relative length. Our choir soon made the switch to the “Royce propers,” as we call them. But at the time, we weren’t singing Masses—only rehearsing. We learned the system but didn’t put it to the test in the choir loft.
Now that society is opening up again, we’ve been singing public Masses since Pentecost. Here are some reflections on how it’s going with Graduale Renovatum and why I think you should take advantage of this valuable resource.
Making the Transition
For a choir that sings complete Gregorian propers for about 100 Masses per year, it’s an understatement to say that we were set in our ways with the chant. But my group is full of people who are there to serve, with nary a problematic ego. When I announced that I’d like to try something new for the propers, there was some mild skepticism but no outright resistance. (The fact that we weren’t singing on Sunday—or any Sunday for the foreseeable future—made this a low-risk venture.)
If this were a Disney movie, I would tell you that from the very first phrase, our choir was singing perfectly together for the first time. But this is real life, in which musical panaceas don’t exist. Still, without bias in favor of my friend Royce’s work, I can report that our choir caught on to the new system after just a few minutes of explanation. By the end of the first rehearsal, I noticed a huge difference in the sensitivity of our chant. We still had adjustments to make in the lengths of certain notes, but I could sense that everyone was listening more carefully than ever before.
What encouraged me was the fact that even our less experienced singers were benefiting from the system. In fact, some singers did better with Graduale Renovatum than they had ever done with our previous manuscripts. And as I continue to add new singers to the choir (we are exploding at present), they seem to find the notation system highly intuitive.
Fast forward to the present day. We use Graduale Renovatum almost exclusively for the propers of Mass, reverting to the more conventional system only on those Masses for which Royce has not yet produced reformed manuscripts. Week after week, I am increasingly impressed by the beauty Graduale Renovatum is helping our choir achieve.
My 7 Keys to Success
A choir’s work is never done, but I’m encouraged by our results and plan to stick with Graduale Renovatum. Here’s my advice to any choir director who wants to do the same:
Read, study, and internalize the explanatory essay. It will help you “sell” the idea convincingly to your choir. It will also give you a thorough grounding in what the symbols mean and how they work together.
Introduce the punctum as the $1 bill and make the other note values relative to that. I explained to my choir that whatever tempo we choose for a chant, the plain square note will move at the baseline tempo. Think of that note as a $1 bill. The virga (square note with a tail) isn’t a $2 bill—more like a bill worth, say, $1.30. When you get to the shorter note values, explain that they’re worth perhaps 70 or 80 cents each. (Make sure everyone understands that these monetary values are just an illustration and that nobody should be trying to time 1.3 beats.)
Don’t overexplain. I’ve found it best to give only a brief overview before diving in and singing. You can then address the unusual figures as you go along. People don’t want to hear a long lecture on chant notation; they want to try it out for themselves.
Understand the role of space between notes. At first, my choir and I misunderstood what the spaces meant and were lengthening some notes excessively. But then I chatted with Royce, and he clarified that many of the spaces between notes are only there because the text demands it. For example, the psalm verse of the Introit for Eighth Sunday after Pentecost begins with some widely spaced square notes. But as you can see, this is only because the syllables underneath these notes take up lots of room horizontally:What we should be looking out for is a neume in which there’s unexpected white space between notes. Here’s an ordinary torculus:And here’s a torculus with extra space between notes:
In the second instance, we’ll want to lengthen each of the notes slightly.
Encourage them to move the line forward. It’s natural for any choir to drag a bit when faced with something new. When we learn a new motet, we don’t keep tempo very well until we’re confident about the notes. And so you can expect a choir that’s using a new system of chant notation to sound a bit tentative. If you have to focus on just one element to help them keep tempo, remind them to make the shorter notes (especially the “diamonds”) even lighter than they think they have to. In fact, when you encounter several diamonds in a row, practice those phrases separately. Energizing these snippets will energize the whole line.
Embrace the difference in your sound. I’ve always loved the robust sound our choir produces on the propers. When we switched to Graduale Renovatum, I noticed a change. It’s not that we sounded wimpy, just much more nuanced. The high points of intensity are a bit more subdued. And the ends of phrases? My singers have given me goosebumps with the way they “tuck in” the last few notes.
Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. It would be easy to try these renewed chants, notice that your group isn’t quite together, and retreat to the safety of the Vatican Edition. Although I hate to bring unpolished music to the choir loft on Sundays, I’ve also discovered that it takes a while for the new notation to sink in. At some point, you need to take the plunge and decide that this is how you’ll be singing the propers from now on. I don’t recommend trying this in increments—for example, only using Graduale Renovatum for, say, the Communion chant each week. The sooner you commit, the sooner your singers can embrace the new system.