These days, it’s hip to do “old stuff” in worship. The late Robert Webber prophesied that this would happen; there is indeed a resurgence of interest in incorporating elements of historic and ancient Christian worship into our modern-day expression. This is part of why the rehymn movement is gaining popularity. While this is encouraging, we do not want to run the risk of doing old things simply because they’re cool. We want to do them for much more important, lasting reasons. We incorporate tradition into modern worship precisely that we might express ourselves not only as the modern church but as the historic church. Part of being the “one holy, catholic church” involves worshiping like we truly are catholic (i.e. universal). This universality includes not only space—incorporating elements of worship from our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world—but time. Christians in Ghana truly are my brothers and sisters. But the same can be said for fourth-century Christians in Mesopotamia.
WHY INCORPORATE CHANT?
Chant is an historic Christian practice worth revitalizing. Before describing its nuts and bolts, let’s answer the why. Due to its simple, slow, unadorned, and repetitive nature, it is a musical medium uniquely suited to meditation on Scripture. Therefore, chant accompanies and enhances Scripture readings and other traditional songs that have been part of the church’s history for centuries (like the Kyrie and the Gloria Patri). Chant can go very well at the start of the service, alongside or in place of the spoken call to worship. That is how we use it at our church on occasion. Chant can be very appropriate as a lead-in to confession or as a lamentation (something that many of us are uncomfortable with but long to see more in our worship…because it’s biblical). I’ve even seen it incorporated very effectively in a full-blown rock and roll modern worship service right in the middle of a song-set, with the keyboard pads holding a single note while the leader and congregation chant away. Another great thing about chant is that (if it is more of the plainsong variety) it often allows Scripture to remain in its original word-for-word form as opposed to setting it into English meter and thus obscuring the intent of the original translator. In this way, it is unique and especially potent as a musical form of Scripture reading.
WHAT DOES CHANT LOOK LIKE?
Chant is notated in a variety of ways. Originally, once notation became common practice, chant was written as dark squares on staves (pictured above). Without training, they’re largely indecipherable to musicians used to reading on a standard, modern Western staff. In modern notation, chant is sometimes written as stem-less noteheads on a staff without bar lines. Other times, chant is written with stems and bar lines, but without time signatures (like “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” in many hymnals). Some are set in a more modern style with definitive time signatures, note durations, and rests (like “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” in many hymnals). In modern plainsong writing, rectangular boxes or blocks on a staff indicate the “reciting note,” when a series of words and syllables are sung on that one note. The Plainsong Psalter, for example, notates the melody on a single staff line at the top of the psalm, with accents over those notes. Those accents correspond to the Scripture texts, written below it, with those same accents to indicate where the changes in melody should occur.
ARE THERE DIFFERENT TYPES OF CHANT?
Yes. If we’re unfamiliar with the types of chant, what first comes to our mind’s ear is probably plainsong chant (a.k.a. “plainchant”)—the most traditional form of chant dating back to the third century—which is a single, unaccompanied melody line (The Plainsong Psalter is a resource for this type). Many times, plainsong sounds (or is) more “modal” in tonality. On the other end of the spectrum are polyphonic and accompanied chants, which are sung with the same kind of style and inflection but can be sung in multiple parts or are often accompanied by instruments that provide chord structures that are modern and western (Michel Guimont’s Lectionary Psalms is an example of this). Because chant has developed over many centuries, its varieties are quite numerous, but I’ve given you the two ends of its developmental spectrum.
THE “PROPER” WAY TO SING CHANT
Chant-singing is probably most like classical singing, without vibrato. The cantor is utilizing the resonating chambers in the vocal mechanism plus proper breath support—the rudiments of good, classical singing. James Litton’s instructions are very helpful as a summary of proper chant-singing:
The recitation must not be rushed and is governed by the rhythm and flow of the words. Mediant cadences (the musical change at the midpoint) and final endings or cadences should never slow down or speed up. This results in a false metrical emphasis which distorts the natural word accents and rhythm of the phrase. The established and recurring tempo of the recitation remains the same throughout the psalm tone…On the other hand, the text is not to be sung with a mechanical, unbending pulse. Certain words will be gently moved along; others will be slightly stressed or prolonged. Care is to be taken, however, not to sing the text with unnatural dotted rhythms…In general, accents should be created by lengthening the word or syllable rather than by a sudden dynamic stress. Tempo and dynamics are to be determined by the meaning of the text, the number of singers, and the size and resonance of the space.1
In other words, chant is sung at a steady pace, subtly nuanced, without much dynamic fluctuation.
That said, in my opinion, one can get quite snobbish about it all and forget that, at least in corporate worship, it is not primarily a performance art but a medium of worship through music. So, my encouragement is that if you and/or your congregation lack the skill to accomplish the above directives, don’t worry about it. Press on and enjoy the ride. Ultimately, it’s about singing the Word of God, not singing in an authentic chant-style. Doing both is a plus.
SHOULD CHANT BE SUNG BY INDIVIDUALS, CHOIRS, OR CONGREGATIONS?
All of the above. And there are creative arrangements out there for a call-and-response to take place where a soloist or a choir could sing the more difficult passages and the congregation could respond at various points with a standard refrain.
HOW CAN I INCORPORATE CHANT INTO WORSHIP?
For traditional, “high church” congregations.
Chances are, if you’re high church, you’re already doing it! If not, see some of the recommendations in the next paragraph.
For traditional, “low church” congregations.
If you’re of the evangelical Protestant, “low church” traditional mold, my first piece of advice is to tread lightly and educate a ton. If you don’t, you will receive the dreaded accusation of being a…(buhm, buhm, buhhhhhm!)…CATHOLIC. Address the (unnecessary) fear at the front end. Traditional early church practices often “feel” Catholic to low church traditional evangelical Protestants, but those people need to be educated about the difference between the form of something (its musical setting) and its actual theological content (its text). In this setting, a skilled choir director could arrange a choral piece which incorporated chant somewhere within it and choose to allow that sound to soak into the congregation for several weeks or months. Another way to begin is simply by attempting to sing a standard hymn a capella and without parts. That gets the congregation used to listening to one another and singing together. Another way would be to take a chant-based hymn your congregation is used to singing and let the third verse be sung a capella. This, too, eases a congregation into chant.
For contemporary / modern worship congregations.
My recommendation is just to go for it. In recent years, there has arisen a flexibility and openness in the modern worship “liturgical spirit.” Some creative things I’ve seen done in the modern worship venue (which would probably seem blasphemous to purists) involves the soloist stepping back a few feet from the mic and singing while the tech in the back throws some verb and maybe some delay into the microphone. Done tastefully, I’ve seen this work very well without clashing with modern worship sensibilities. If you have a keyboardist playing swelly, verby pads, we’ve often had them hold a single note (the tonic of the key we’re chanting in) while the chant happens. Congregations chime right in, too, even if it’s unfamiliar, because chant melodies are often simple and repetitive enough. I still think, though, that your lead singer needs to be trained not to infuse pop slides, inflections, vibrato, and “breathiness” into the chant melody. It should be sung more plainly and purely, or else, to my ear, it sounds cheesy and compromised.
For the blended worship environment where the congregation is used to eclecticism.
If you’re introducing it for the first time, it’s best to start with a select few musicians, preferably trained, who can demonstrate some of the stylistic features mentioned above. Just know, though, that the more the congregation is involved, the more those features go out the window. For congregations not used to singing chant, the education will be a slow process. Great hymns to start with are “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” and “Creator of the Stars and Night.” Even better would be, during Advent or Christmas, to sing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” as an unaccompanied chant, more with a chant-feel than a metric cadence. Congregations don’t necessarily need to be conducted through the process. A good lead voice will accomplish this well, even in a large space. It is uncanny how quickly a congregation, too, picks up its own rhythm quite naturally.
A FEW RESOURCES I LIKE
The Plainsong Psalter (Anglican/Episcopal) – every Psalm in English set to a traditional, plainsong tune; this gives you the “old school” chant sound.
Lectionary Psalms (Catholic) – many psalms set in a chant and chant-and-refrain format, all accompanied in modern tonality/harmony, great for individuals, choirs, and congregations. There are many books like this, and several of this style of hymn-chant have been incorporated into hymnals like the PC(USA)’s Presbyterian Hymnal.
GIA Publishing (Catholic) – GIA’s chant resources are plentiful and helpful.
1 Robert Litton, ed., The Plainsong Psalter (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 1988), xi.