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Christmas: the Birthday of Chant

December 19, 2010

Most classical musicians do not receive any instruction at all in Gregorian chant.  I’m one of the lucky ones.  In music history class at the conservatory we were introduced to the Liber Usualis and taught how to transcribe chant into modern notation, which is a good tool for learning the chant notation itself.  We did not, to my recollection, actually sing these chants, but we were given a good start, and the musicologist in charge of the class invested a great deal of enthusiasm into the enterprise.

Around the same time I found a wonderful CD put out by Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort which depicts how the Third Mass of Christmas might have been celebrated at St. Mary Major in the early seventeenth century.  I listened to it obsessively and fell in love with the Introit, Puer natus est nobis.  I dreamed of the day that I might be able to sing this trumpet-like tune in the context of the liturgy, or at least hear it.  This was at the turn of the 21st century, when it still seemed as if the long tradition of the Church’s music might be buried for good.

After I graduated and took my first job as a church music director, I decided that I wanted to do Puer natus at Christmas Midnight Mass.  I wasn’t sure if it was really a chant for Midnight Mass, or if it was just for the Mass during the Day.  I had no way of knowing because I had no access to a Liber Usualis, which at the time I thought was the only book with the chant in it.  I was left with only one option:  transcribing the chant from the Paul McCreesh CD.  I rendered it as well as I could, taking the best guesses I could muster in terms of whether or not a particular note was supposed to be a dotted punctum or a punctum with a horizontal episema, for instance.  Those papers are probably tucked away in the basement somewhere, though I haven’t the energy to dig for them.  They’d make a great monument to how far we’ve come.

When first confronted with the chant, the choir wasn’t quite sure what to make of it, but they were eager  and open-minded and ended up singing it fairly well.  This was in a “liberal” diocese, by the way.  Of course, I wouldn’t have dared to program this melody during the liturgy proper; we sang it as a prelude.  But it was there.

A few months later, the assistant pastor at the church—himself a good musician—dropped off a box of books in my office, filled with stuff he said he didn’t need any more.  There were treasures in that box which I have to this day.  Halfway through the box I found a blue book.  “What’s this?” I asked myself as I tried to figure out what a Gregorian Missal would be.  I opened it to discover that it contained all the Proper antiphons of the Mass.  I had found the book that I had needed.

I still had a long way to go, and thanks to the help of people like Scott Turkington and the late Calvert Shenk, I look back on my early experiences with chant and shudder and some of my interpretational foibles.  But I count these episodes primarily as occasions to be thankful for how far we’ve come.  Even five years ago I would never have believed that the liturgical landscape could evolve to the point that Puer natus is a regular part of my Christmas, as it is now.  There is no longer any need to transcribe chant from CD’s; the CMAA, thanks in large part to the energetic efforts of people like Jeffrey Tucker, has made a whole host of chant material available online for free.  The world is a different place.

People like to wax eloquent about the power of Christmas to change the world.  The rhetoric often feels empty, but for me there is a grain of truth to it, at least when it comes to Gregorian chant.

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