Thoughts on Anglican Chant

The Michaelmas term has just begun, here in Andrew Lang’s ‘auld Grey Toon’ and as ever we are seeing the recommencement of choirs across town. The St Andrews Chorus is well underway learning Hayden’s The Creation, the chapel and Compline choirs have been revitalised, and away on North Castle Street we are anxiously waiting the advent of singers, be they scholars or otherwise, to swell the ranks of our small but capable choir.

As ever, we have looked forward to these new beginnings and the new music that comes with them, and have observed with much interest the progress of the new Compline choir. Listening to them settle into the pattern of singing the evening office these last few weeks has led us to think over the difficulties, even the awkardnesses of singing Anglican Chant.

This is not because the new choir is struggling, far from it, but an erstwhile chorister at the Compline service, and still in a position to be regularly confronted with chant, we remember clearly the difficulty we faced when first confronted with that week’s chant and accordant pointing. Lest you also are unfamiliar with it, Anglican Chant was best described to me as ‘singing speech rhythms at pitch.’

It was reflecting on this idea during a lovely but protracted rendition one of the psams some weeks ago that we became able to fully articulate why psalms must be snappy, and at the root of this is the speech rhythm. We do not speak slowly, nor do we emphasise every aspect of every word, and this holds true of chant too. By very nature, Anglican Chant is repetitive, and it can be difficult to enervate the text when it is canted too slowly. And inevitably, without energy, the chant runs a risk of dragging.

There is of course an argument for the slow psalm; better-informed people than us have suggested before now that sung quickly not only does the singers’ diction suffer but the chant runs the risk of turning into something resembling a G&S patter-song. We think though that an argument could equally be made that taken to the other extreme, chant that is canted too slowly is just as distortive to diction. The psalm from some weeks ago, for instance, was not recognisable to until the middle of the third verse because the words were so drawn out.

At its best the diction should be good, pointing instinctive and the chant drive forward, at speech pulse if you like. At least we think so, what do you think?

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