Chanting abbots

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.

Stay tuned.






21 responses to “Chanting abbots”

  1. Fr. Jan Michael Joncas Avatar
    Fr. Jan Michael Joncas

    Dear Anthony, Thanks for sharing with us the practicalities of providing participation aids informed by present chant scholarship for those quite familiar with chant practices but with a wide variety of local variants. You wonderful wit comes through! I hope you have a wonderful time at my alma mater (although I would think it would be rather HOT there right now).

    1. Anthony Ruff, OSB Avatar
      Anthony Ruff, OSB

      @Fr. Jan Michael Joncas – comment #1:
      Michael, thanks.
      Sunny and mild during the day, pleasantly cool at night. Really. God is good.

  2. Bruce Ludwick, Jr. Avatar
    Bruce Ludwick, Jr.

    Father Anthony, sounds great. A couple questions: 1) the period of silence after the psalm is actually after the antiphon at the end, right? I’ve been accustomed to a small (5 sec.?) break after the initial antiphon before the psalm itself, but I assume the meditative break you do is somewhat different. 2) I’m assuming the antiphons are all pretty short, allowing them to be repeated easily. I think the asterisk implying an intonation must have begun with introits or graduals, as those chants (esp. graduals) are so long that a repetition would be impractical (especially if the gradual antiphon is repeated after the verse.) 3) I think laypeople are always interested in this question: do actual real-life Benedictines (even abbots!) observe the pause between half-verses? We always wonder if it’s just something you guys say…

    Thank you for this discussion. If you pardon the expression, many of us would be “lost as a Jesuit in Holy Week” if we had this task!


    1. Anthony Ruff, OSB Avatar
      Anthony Ruff, OSB

      @Bruce Ludwick, Jr. – comment #2:
      1.) It’s a pause after the repeated antiphon at the end of a psalm, before the next antiphon begins.
      2.) Yes.
      3.) Yes, they do the big pause at the half verse and then, in theory, the next psalm verse begins right away, though some are delaying here. I’d LOVE to know the history of that, whether it’s ancient or a ‘new’ custom. I bet it’s rather new – could be wrong about that – and personally I think it can sound a bit affected.

      1. John Ainslie Avatar
        John Ainslie

        @Anthony Ruff, OSB – comment #4:
        The big pause at the half-verse has certainly be the Benedictine custom here in England for a long time – and in Anglican usage too: a monk of the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield called it “time for the angels”, which I rather like. I’ve even experienced it used by an Anglican community for said, non-chanted psalms, when I was given a very meaningful look from the leader for ploughing on regardless.

        Personally, I like it. It gives time for breathing and spaces out the singing, as if time is not a priority and getting to the end of the psalm “in tempore opportuno” will take care of itself. But then I’m only singing Evening Prayer once a week…

      2. Paul Inwood Avatar
        Paul Inwood

        @John Ainslie – comment #8:

        Agree with John. The big pause at the half-verse is all I have ever experienced in the UK over the past 50 years, and not just with Benedictines. Dom Laurence Bévenot, who went back much further, was very insistent on it.

        Actually it’s not that big a pause. You can do it easily by imagining the right psychological moment to come in and then actually coming in a little bit later than that. The Anglicans have something rather similar in their chanting praxis. Once you get used to it, it becomes second nature.

  3. Martin Browne OSB Avatar
    Martin Browne OSB

    Fascinating stuff.

    I was at one office and three Masses at the last Congress and the differing chant styles were very apparent. Many monasteries don’t sing Latin chant, and many of those that do aren’t familiar with either the words or music of the new Antiphonale. I hope the dear Fathers Abbot realise what a carefully prepared treasure they will have in their hands for their liturgies!

    Do make sure that the Abbot of Solesmes brings his copy of the books home so that they might take some of your user-friendly ideas on board in their productions!!


  4. Jeffrey Tucker Avatar

    Hilarious ending! Let no one say that you don’t push the envelope!

  5. Philip Endean Sj Avatar
    Philip Endean Sj

    this sounds fascinating. Any chance of a PDF of the chant book being posted?

  6. Dwayne Bartles Avatar
    Dwayne Bartles

    The only thing I think might be confusing with the layout shown in the PDF is that the intonation formula of the psalm tone is not marked as being used only for the first verse. Other than that, nice!

    And while we’re gabbing, anyone care to fill me in on the punctum with the little mouse-tail?

    1. Anthony Ruff, OSB Avatar
      Anthony Ruff, OSB

      @Dwayne Bartles – comment #9:
      Dwayne – yes, I quite agree about the intonation. Plan A was to put the first two syllables of the psalm text in italics, indicating the intonation is used only there. Then the reform came to put all the cantors’ texts in italics, so that plan was a bust. Plan B was to put the intonation notes in parentheses indicating they’re not used every time. But I admit, I’m doing this in Word Publisher and it’s a royal pain having to put graphics in a text box, then clicking on the hard-to-locate border of the text box to make it see-through, then placing the text box. I ran out of the time and so established the principle that I can’t do so therefore it isn’t necessary and the abbots will know anyway.

      The tail is an augmented liquescent. This was present already in the 1934 Antiphonale, albeit as just a slight bend to the lower right end of the note, not a tail. But the Solesmes shapes are copyrighted so St. Meinrad Archabbey had to design their own liquescent. With the semiologoical interpretation of the last several decades, the augmented liquescent indicates a slight rhythmic lengthening as one sings the final consonant of the syllable.


      1. Peter Rehwaldt Avatar
        Peter Rehwaldt

        @Anthony Ruff, OSB – comment #10:
        ” I ran out of the time and so established the principle that I can’t do so therefore it isn’t necessary and the abbots will know anyway.”

        And let all the liturgical planners everywhere say “Amen” and the abbots and bishops reply “Hallelujah!”

      2. Lynn Thomas Avatar
        Lynn Thomas

        @Anthony Ruff, OSB – comment #10:
        Graphical ANYTHING in Word = technological evil [ok, granted, a low level of evil, but still.] WordPerfect is actually much better behaved for that sort of stuff.

  7. Fritz Bauerschmidt Avatar

    I’ve experienced the Big Pause with the Norbertines in Belgium. What I find odd about it is that it is longer than the pause between the verses themselves.

  8. Scott Knitter Avatar
    Scott Knitter

    I’ve experienced the midverse pause in most Anglican churches in the USA, Canada, and the UK that I’ve visited where the Daily Office is prayed. We do such a pause as well at our parish. It’s simply a pause that is definitely longer than a typical pause at a comma for a breath…I’d say about two seconds tops (although I’ve seen a monastic community’s psalter that had a note demanding a four second pause! an eternity!).

    I’ve got some mp3 files in my Google Drive that can be downloaded and listened to: they’re of psalms chanted at St. Thomas’ Anglican Church, Huron Street, Toronto, where they use Healey Willan’s Canadian Psalter Plainsong Edition (or an adaptation thereof). This illustrates how the pause can be done with organ-accompanied plainsong psalm tones. I find this method (and the cantor-vs.-all alternation) to be prayerful and beautiful. Ps. 111 in this set (I think it’s the eighth file from the top of the list) is my favorite.

    Psalms at St. Thomas’, Toronto

  9. Robert Bruce Avatar
    Robert Bruce

    @Anthony Ruff, OSB – comment #4:

    The pause isn’t a new custom, although it might be a restored custom rather than uninterrupted practice. Medieval writers refer to it – see e.g. p. 75f of this article, in particular footnote #54.

  10. Paul Inwood Avatar
    Paul Inwood

    Fritz Bauerschmidt : What I find odd about it is that it is longer than the pause between the verses themselves.

    I’ve always understood the mid-verse bigger pause to provide a mini-space for reflection, whereas the quick take-up from one verse to the next by the opposite side of the choir emphasizes not only the dialogical nature of what is going on but the communal nature — we’re all in this together.

    I also think that what may initially come across as the perverseness of pausing in the middle but not at the end of a verse is alleviated when one realizes that it actually makes one pay more attention to the psalmody itself, rather than just cruising through it.

    1. Scott Knitter Avatar
      Scott Knitter

      @Paul Inwood – comment #17:
      And of course the officiant has to balance the efficacy of a meditative pause with the distraction it will cause if it’s too long (making everyone afraid to be caught coming in early or forgetting to pause at all). If the example that is set in the first psalm verse is that of a weirdly long pause, with dirty looks for all who violate it, it’s not going to be a meditative experience for anyone, and the officiant had better be ready to put up with many little missteps. It just needs to be a slightly longer pause than would be taken for a breath or at the end of a sentence. That will more readily fall into a consistent pattern and a meditative group practice.

    2. Kevin Vogt Avatar
      Kevin Vogt

      @Paul Inwood – comment #17:
      It is counter-intuitive from the perspective of a rhetorical proclamation, but seems to foster a contemplative, receptive recitation. To get the timing right, I ask my choir to expel their breath at the half-verse before inhaling to finish the verse. They almost always continue together at exactly the right moment. The resulting choral consensus is almost impossible to achieve otherwise without causing a driving rhythm to develop. I speak only from experience with amateur singers in a once- or twice-a-week round of prayer.

  11. John Joyce Avatar
    John Joyce

    I was taught, I think when I was a novice at Nashdom Abbey, that the pause was to be long enough mentally to say the words “Pater Noster” at the same pace as the chanting or saying of the psalm.

  12. Paul F Ford Avatar

    Fascinating, Father Anthony. Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: