Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Psalm Tones for Night Prayer: Nunc Dimittis - Tone III

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While Monica was pregnant, I was thinking a bit about my prayer life, and how I could make it easier to pray with my daughter (and indeed my wife) when she came onto the scene. I thought of Compline; I like the liturgy of the hours but don't often manage to pray it and the fact that, ideally, it's a sung liturgy should be helpful, I thought.
'The sung celebration of the Divine Office is the form which best accords with the nature of this prayer. It expresses its solemnity in a fuller way and expresses a deeper union of hearts in performing the praises of God'

- Instruction Musicam sacram
[M]any of the parts, especially the psalms, canticles, hymns and responsories, are of a lyrical nature and are given their full expression only when sung.

Singing in the Liturgy of the Hours is not to be regarded as something merely ornamental or extrinsic to prayer. It springs from the depths of the person praying and praising God[.]

Jewish and Christian Tradition confirms that the psalms are closely connected with music. To understand many of the psalms fully it helps a great deal to sing them or at least to regard them from a poetic and musical point of view.

- Introduction to Morning and Evening Prayer, Anthony B. Boylan, Secretary Liturgy Commission, Bishops' Conference of England and Wales
So I did a bit of googling. I think I already vaguely knew that there were traditional psalm tones, so I tried to find some references I could use and did, but I think I'll have to be more systematic to learn them and be able to use them by heart. So, rather optimistically, this should be the start of a new series to teach other people (with the aid of specific mp3s because not everyone, myself included, can read music, let alone chant notation) the 8 + 1 traditional psalm tones, starting with the only one that I have managed to learn by heart so far.

I'm going to try and explain the principles but don't let that put you off. This is harder to write and about and read than it is to do; it's actually based on natural speech, so if you can talk, you should be up to the challenge, despite any offputting terminology you may encounter. Also, this blog entry might be quite long, but if you persevere with this one, all the other ones should be quite simple. I suggest that, if at any point, it sounds too complicated, listen to the MP3 I made rather than struggling with text on a screen.

As I say, it's based on speech; if, like me, you ever wondered why the text of the office is marked the way it is, you'll soon see why. The starting point is the text. I'm starting with the Nunc Dimittis for the good reason that it's a text to be sung at every Compline, so if you learn a tone for that, you have something you can sing for the Office every day:
At last, all-powerful Máster,
you give léave to your sérvant*
to go in peace, according to your prómise.

For my eyes have séen your salvátion*
which you have prepared for all nátions,
the light to enlíghten the Géntiles*
and give glory to Israel, your péople.

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Hóly Spírit,*
as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without énd.
The psalm tones are divided (essentially) into two halves. The asterisk that usually comes at the end of every other line marks the point at the end of the first half. The dagger, on the other hand, joins two lines, indicating that they should be treated as one. There's a little more to it than that, but more on that later. Anyway, here you can see that by joining the first two lines together, it makes a stanza of three lines into a stanza of two lines (tone in two halves). So that's the basic structure.

You remember I said that these chants were based on speech? That explain the accents. Perhaps you didn't notice them at a glance, but they're there, over some select vowels. Before tackling a psalm, you need to think about how you would say it. If you read the text above (aloud or in your head), you should see that the accents correspond to natural speech stresses. Try reading it through a couple of times, over-emphasising the stresses; obviously you wouldn't normally need to do this - it comes naturally - but to sing these tones, especially using texts that you haven't sung before, you need to be particularly aware of where the stresses fall. I put the accents into the text of the Nunc Dimittis myself since, in my copy of the Office, they're only marked on the psalms proper.

Now, we need a tone. This would be a good point at which to give a hat tip to chantblog; I basically found all the resources I wanted through that site. The author already did the same thing that I'm doing in this series, but I hope to make my one slightly more accessible. Through that site I found the Lutheran Liturgical Prayer Brotherhood's Psalm Tone Distribution Table, which takes all the effort out of selecting an appropriate tone. They say tone number 3. Fine by me. I'm going to show you (one version of) what it looks like on paper, but if at any point you think it's all getting too abstract, try listening to the MP3 first:

I cut out some detail which is unnecessary for our purposes, and I don't think you should worry about the dotted lines and empty neumes (thats what the little blocks are called) for now. Even if you've never attempted to read music before and this is all Greek to you, you can get an idea of the structure by looking at the symbols. Below the stave are the dagger and the asterisk we saw before; like I said, the asterisk marks the end of the first half. The dagger marks a point where two lines are joined together to form one line, but you can ignore it if there's no dagger in the text; it would be as if all the notes in that section were on the same line. The bit at the top right is the end of the tone (termination). It's not intentionally separate. If I had a bit more spare time I would have joined it to the rest of the tone.

I left in a little terminology, because it's related to the structure. A practical guide to the meaning of it would be as follows:

Int(onation) - Beginning
Tenor and Flex [] - Singing on the same note (with the exception of [] where applicable)
Mediant - Middle
Tenor - Singing on the same note
Termination (not written) - End

You start off by singing the intonation; the first syllable on the first neume, the second syllable on the two (ascending) notes of the second neume. Then you can look at the accents above the stave; the accents are your cues:
At last, all-powerful Máster,
you give léave to your sérvant*
to go in peace, according to your prómise.
The first accent that you see is for the flex (Ma-ster). If there's no dagger, there's no flex. In fact, if you want to make life really simple, you could just leave it out anyway and sing one long line without having to think in the middle of it.

The first syllable of 'Mas-ter' is the same note as the tenor note, then you drop down for '-ter' and return to the tenor ('tenor' comes from the Latin tenere, to hold - it's a note that you hold on to) until you head up on 'leave' then down again until you head down on the 'ser-' (it's two notes on the same syllable) of 'servant' then back to the tenor note for '-vant'.

Slightly more trickly is the termination, after singing the second tenor part; that's the unmarked part at the top right. Here you need to drop down on the syllable before the accent then return on the accent before descending (again, two notes on the same syllable) - "your pró mi-se".

And that's it bascially; you sing it like that, repeating the two-line pattern of the tone over the text, following the accents until you come to the end.


Here's another version of the tone. It lacks some of the detail of the other version but, being more essential, I find it's easier to read.

Last time I deleted the various choices of termination leaving just one of the simplest ones (a). For most of the tones there are a few alternatives, of varying complexity.

I should also say that, usually, you only consider the intonation at the start of the tone and begin the 3rd, 5th, 7th etc. lines by jumping straight to the tenor, which makes life a little easier. However, the gospel canticles, including the Nunc Dimittis, should apparently be sung repeating the intonation.

Hopefully that should be all that you need to enter the world of Gregorian chant for the Office! Please let me know if you have any questions or it's otherwise unclear. I'll do my best to make it intelligible.
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