Q. Who are you anyway?
A. Cantorae St. Augustine includes musicians, a linguist, and an accountant among its members. What we have in common is our love of this music and a desire to bring it to other people. While we focus on chant, Cantorae also sings other sacred music that complements chant. That includes music of the Renaissance, Russian and Greek works, and a healthy dose of music from our American shape-note tradition. And of course, we're all women!
Q. What is chant?
A. Here’s the short answer – Chant is sung prayer. If you want to know more - keep reading.
The text is the most important. The words may be taken from Scripture, other prose, or religious poetry. The style is a melody with free rhythm. Chant doesn’t have a time signature or a meter – you don’t count 1-2-3-4. It uses a basic pulse and a sense of forward momentum. It is lyrical and the rhythm is inseparable from the melody.
Chant is unison singing – only melody, not other parts or accompaniment. While it can be accompanied very lightly on the organ, it is really meant for voices only – it was important to the fathers of the early church that the church speak “as in one voice.”
Chant is NOT – slow, lugubrious, sad, meant only for funerals and Lent or odd backup on rock albums or video games.
Q. So this is really complicated to sing? Right?
A. Not necessarily. There are chants for all the parts of the Mass and of the Liturgy of the Hours – some are very simple and some are very challenging. It’s true that Gregorian chant uses a different system of notation and style than contemporary popular or art singing. However, “different” doesn’t mean “impossible,” does it? What chant does require is a clean, low-vibrato voice that blends well and a willingness to learn and sing.
Q. I thought Gregorian chant was dead, like about 45 years ago. So what are you doing?
A. Gregorian chant never died.
Over the last 15 years, there has been a slow revival of chant in the Catholic Church, bringing it back from academic specialists and professional musicians in the concert hall. However, it is still more common to hear chant in just about any place except a Catholic Church – other denominations, internet radio, background in films, new-age retreats. This second revival has accelerated with the new Pope and because of the increased interest in recovering solemnity in worship and a sense of the timeless and universal that chant can afford. Chant only exists as sacred music – setting it aside from other musical styles that can be local, time-bound, and used in a variety of settings.
Q. Where did chant come from?
A. This is a good question and keeps musicologists up nights working on the answer (and arguing at conferences). There were a plethora of chant types and melodies – all over the Christian world in the early centuries. The chant we know today is a combination of the Carolingian and Roman. Calling the chant “Gregorian” gave the standardized chant that spread throughout Europe a certain prestige by connecting it with a famous saint and pope. The earliest collections of chant were for the Propers of the Mass – introit, gradual, offertory, communion. We find these starting around 900.
To learn more about the history of chant, there are some great websites out there. Start with Musica Sacra, home page for the Church Music Association of America - http://www.musicasacra.com/
Cantorae St. Augustine - Women's Voices in Chant and Sacred Song