The Congress of Abbots at Sant’ Anselmo in Rome began yesterday with orientation for new abbots, and today the full assembly of Benedictine abbots is here. On the agenda this year is election of a new Abbot Primate as Abbot Notker Wolf’s term comes to an end.
Each Benedictine monastery is autonomous, we never tire of reminding people. We lived our entire history with no order-wide confederation until Pope Leo XIII said at the end of the 19th century that we are an “ordo sine ordine,” why can’t we be more like the Jesuits and so forth, so the office of Abbot Primate was created – with the understanding that he has no real authority over abbots or monasteries.
I’m at the congress as translator (English-German), and also as choirmaster.
All the services, daily Mass and four offices each day, are entirely sung in Latin chant. At past congresses the booklet layout has been expertly done by the venerable Abbey of Solesmes. The bar has been set high with their very attractive layout. But after the last congress, the bright idea of slightly revised layout, more user-friendly for abbots who aren’t singing Latin every day, came from someone – moi.
And so chant booklet preparation has occupied most of my waking hours for the last 3 weeks. (Huge shout-out to Fr. Michael Peterson, OSB, and our graduate student Christy Condyles, for their huge help with the huge layout task.) Thanks to Saint Meinrad Archabbey for allowing the use of its chant font for the Gregorian notation.
The Antiphonale Monasticum gives the psalm antiphon with its melody, and then just the proper “termination” of the psalm tone, the final melodic cadence, for use with the psalm tone of the proper mode. Then the psalm text, with no “pointing” to indicate which syllables to put under which notes at the cadence. It is understood that everyone memorized all the Gregorian psalm tones at the beginning of novitiate, and that everyone knows the rules of text underlay for every termination of every mode. The termination is given with the vowels E u o u a e which stand for the end of the doxology, “…sæculorum. Amen.” It looks like this.
(Btw, I’m told that that some Russian choir recorded the antiphon and then sang the syllables “E u o u a e,” but I haven’t been able to get my hands on it. I suppose I should note how little I know about Russian chant too.)
With my 2012 reform, it looks like this.
- Now the melody for the entire psalm tone is given. The flex is also given – this is employed when the text has a † indicating the ending for the first line of a three-line verse.
- For all the psalm texts, the syllable on which one departs from the reciting tone is underlined. I took a cue from the German-language Stundengebet in underlining only the vowel, not the entire syllable, for a less cluttered appearance.
- I deleted the asterisk after the first word of the antiphon after I got permission to do away with the custom of the cantors singing the incipit and then all joining in. Rather, the cantors will sing the entire antiphon and then, as the new rubric says, all will repeat it. This is a safety measure. All the chant melodies are taken from the new Solesmes Antiphonale monasticum, and it is best if the new version, unfamiliar to many, is heard before all attempt to sing it.
- The new Antiphonale has no episemas (I know, it’s “episemata,” but I prefer my American plural), those horizontal lines indicating lengthening. I won’t go into the debate about whether there should be rhythmic signs or not. The fact is, the old Antiphonale had them and this is what will be in the memory of at least some of the abbots. I observed at Solesmes that they use the new Antiphonale, but pretty much sing an episema every place it was in the old edition. Fine – that works for them. But it’s a bit too gnostic for this mixed and diverse crowd, so I’d rather reveal the same information publicly to everyone. I took the episemas from the old Antiphonale, permitting myself to extend it over both notes of a neume as is the current practice. When a melody isn’t in the old Antiphonale, I looked it up in Hartker (ms. St. Gall 390-391, all online thanks to the Swiss government). When a melody is newly composed by Solesmes, I gleefully added episemas wherever I felt like it, hoping that my instincts aren’t too far off.
- I put an episema on the note before the quilisma – I’d rather too much than too little clarity.
- I put the full text of the Gloria Patri after each psalm. This isn’t in the Antiphonale since everyone knew it by heart in days of yore, but I trust some nowadays will be glad to have it there in the leaflet.
- The abbots don’t know this yet, but Benedictine sisters will be cantors for some of the Offices. The Benedictine order is structured so that the head of both branches, male and female, and the order’s representative at the Holy See, is always a male abbot elected only by the abbots. The sisters have their own organization which sends observers to the meeting of the men. All this, of course, is established in accord with the hallowed Catholic principle of … oh, never mind. Anyway, the sisters were happy that I asked them and will take their turn singing as the week goes on. I don’t expect any pushback from abbots – I recall at the last congress that a European abbot got up to ask when there will finally be an Abbess Primate, and no one hyperventilated.
- The abbots will discover something new in the booklet after each psalm of the office this year, the heading “Sacrum silentium.” At the time of St. Benedict in the sixth century it was still customary to pray silently after each psalm, but in the course of time this silence gradually disappeared. (If you ever wondered why the Rule of Benedict lays out a hefty scheme for singing all 150 psalms every week, and then states that “prayer in community should be brief,” it’s not because St. Benedict had a sarcastic sense of humor. He was referring to the real prayer of the monk – the reflection after each psalm – which need not be unduly protracted.) The silence has been restored in some places since Vatican II. At this congress the pause will only be thirty seconds – you gotta start somewhere – or until throat clearing and foot shuffling suggests otherwise. For self-protection, I added to the credits at the end of each leaflet, aware that the silence has not been added back yet in most European monasteries, the line from the Instructio generalis de Liturgia horarum commending such silent pauses.
At a coffee break this afternoon I overheard two abbots conversing, I won’t say in what language. One spoke in a very animated voice and I picked out the words “semiology” and “Gregorian.” I gathered that he didn’t care for the “new” interpretation of chant rhythm. This is the kind of group with strong opinions about chant interpretation!
Pity the poor guy responsible for chant at this congress. Makes me wish I had put in the credits of the leaflet that the edition was prepared by Saint Vincent’s Archabbey.