Learning the Office part XIVB: Singing the Office continued

I want to continue, in this part (if you've just found this series, start at Part I, to be found n the righthand side bar) to say something about singing the Office, and I'm going to do this by working through the various types of chant you will find in the Office.

I can't, of course, in one part, teach you how to sing the office. But I can give you some pointers to resources to help you, and provide a bit of a guide through as you attempt to work it out for yourself. The key text is of course the Antiphonale Monasticum, a page of which (for Sunday Vespers) is pictured above - click on the picture to see a larger version of it.

How music reflects the solemnity of the Office

One of the reasons it is important to tackle the music of the Office is that music is used, amongst other things, to indicate the degree of solemnity of the particular hour and day. For example:
  • for many basic chants, such as the introductory 'Deus in adjutorium' there are different versions to use at the little hours (the simple tone), and a 'solemn tone' to use at Lauds and Vespers;
  • the tone for standard hymns (at the minor hours) can differ between Sundays and weekdays, for different classes of feasts, and in particular seasons and feasts; and
  • there are lots of beautiful settings of the concluding 'Benedicamus Domino...Deo Gratias' that vary depending on the type and level of feast, hour and season.
Start recto tono

I said in the last part that it is always an option to sing everything on one note - called recto tono. My suggestion is to stat by doing just that - it will get you singing the Latin aloud and getting familiar with how it sounds. And that will help you immensely when you come to sing to the proper tones.

There are basically two methods of singing the psalms. The first is to follow speech rhythm, lengthening the accented syllables of the words (either the first syllable or the one marked). The second is to make all syllables the same length, slightly lengthening the last two syllables of each half of the verse. The first method allows you to put more meaning into the text - but the second is a lot simpler and particularly useful in keeping together large groups of singers, so is often used in monasteries.

Build up gradually

My second suggestion is, build up gradually. Pick a little section to add each week. There are many variants to the Office chants - ignore these at first and stick to it until you know it really well without worrying to much about whether it is the correct tone for the day or season at first. Then, once you are comfortable with it, add the next variant or element to your repertoire.

And start with the simpler types of chant in the Office. The main types of chant in the Office, in increasing degree of elaborateness, are:
  • the common tones used for things like the Deus in adjutorium.., versicles and so forth, which often aren't much more than a few variations on one note. They generally come in two or more variants, a simple tone for the little hours, and a solemn tone for Lauds and Vespers;
  • the set patterns - called psalm tones - used for the psalms and canticles. I'll say more about these below;
  • the antiphons, which are typically very short, and often use the same tunes or phrases over and over, but can be quite elaborate;
  • the hymns;

  • more elaborate chants, often for feasts, such as the 'prolix responsories' that are an option for First Vespers of major feasts.
You might want to skip down this list a little and say add a few hymns in fairly early on, but in general, I'd suggest starting at the top of this list, and working down it.

The Liber Usualis and Roman Office chant books

One way of starting off is to start off by working from the Liber Usualis, which contains most of the chants for the Mass, and a lot of the chants for the (Roman) Office, particularly the common tones. It is available online, contains instructions on how to sing the psalms, and is rather easier to follow in places to the Antiphonale, so a good place to begin. As well as setting out most of the chants for the (Roman) Sunday day Office (which is very similar to the Benedictine, but remember to skip the extra psalm!), as well as the antiphons for most major feasts, the Liber also has the proper antiphon for the Magnificat in with the Mass propers for each week (though for the Roman Office, they are normally pretty much the same as the Benedictine ones).

There are some minor differences in the chants between the Roman Office and the Benedictine - but a lot of them, I suspect, reflect nothing other than the state of the monastery of Solesmes' views at the date the various books were published (in general, Benedictine chant is the source for Roman chant!). In any case, if you start off by working from the Liber, you can always correct to the Monastic version once you feel more confident of the chant and have acquired the Monastic Antiphonary.

I won't attempt to give page references, you really need to sit down and look through the section starting 'The Ordinary Chants of the Office', and looking through the Offices provided for Sunday for yourself. Be careful though - though the chant tones are often the same, or differ only in minor ways, the Offices themselves are do have significant differences, so watch out for those as you work your way through it.

The psalms and antiphons

The psalms are of course the core of the Office. Essentially, the psalms are normally sung to one of eight set patterns. Which pattern or 'psalm tone' is to be used depends on the antiphon. If you look at the page from the Antiphonale above, for example, you will see it says 'VIIc2' on the line above the antiphon. The VII means psalm tone 7, and the 'c2' refers to the particular ending to be used (there is usually a choice of several) in this case. And in fact if you look down three lines of chants you will see a few notes with 'euouae' underneath them - this is the abbreviation for 'Et in saecula saeculorum. Amen', and shows you how those words fits against ending c2 in case you have forgotten which one it is!

A useful resource to get a flavour of the various psalm tones can be found in the sidebar of the chant blog. The examples given on the MP3s are, I think, all in English, but it will still give you the basic idea. Note that there are some minor variants in the ending labels etc between the Antiphonale and the Liber, plus a few extra purely monastic psalm tones, so if you switch from one to the other, watch out for these!

In order to sing using the psalm tones of course you need to know which tone to use (which tees off the antiphon) and then when to change from the reciting note to the midpoint and ending patterns in the verse. The Liber uses italics and bolding to 'point' the psalms to tell you when to change note so is a very useful resource. It points most of the psalms for Sunday Vespers, and a few others - you will find a lot more of the ones needed for the monastic office in the book I noted yesterday for Vespers and Compline (and the publication details can also be found by following the link in the sidebar under Office books available via Amazon - although 'available' might be too strong a word in reality - as they are mostly out of print, you will probably need to search out other sources for them!).

In terms of learning the psalm tones, I would strongly suggest learning them one at a time, then adding relevant psalms (or perhaps the Magnificat on Sunday in the simple tone version) in that tone into your Office. Start with the easiest, tone 8, then 5, then 2. Tones 3, 4 and 7 are the hardest.

Good luck!


Séamas Choilm Chille said...

Personally, I have never learned to sight read (I have tried, but never could get it. Wish I could). Further, my vocal abilities are substandard at best. Perhaps some others are in the same boat.

For me, learning the music involves taking the music to my keyboard, assigning the fah clef of the music to middle C on my keyboard, then counting lines and spaces, slowly plunking out the melody a little at a time, then repeating vocally, until I memorize the entire thing.

Even better, though, is if I can find a good recording. A recording of a schola will do, but better yet is a clear recording of a single voice, going slowly (like the recordings of the Jubilate Deo booklets over at Father Castor's site). Or, even a good, single instrument midi of the melody works.

After learning the melody, I just use the music as a memory guide on the more difficult, or infrequently used chants.

I have trouble with the more complex pieces like hymns, the dreaded Great Responsories, or anything melismatic. Even the more complicated syllabic chants, like the antiphons, are difficult for me, but I am working on learning them.

With constant practice, singing chants whenever I have time to myself, in the shower, in the car, etc., I have noticed an improvement. With enough work, singing can be learned, at least to a degree.

For me, singing the office means singing some of the dialogues (though I always sing the opening dialogue, "Deus in adjutorium meum intende," or "Domine, labia mea aperie" with it's Gloria Patri, according to the simple tone for it) antiphons, responsories, etc. recto tono.

However, I vary things a bit, for instance by dropping the pitch of the last note, maybe raising the median note, or even by adding 2-3 note groupings here or there, etc. I highly recommend that anyone using recto tono experiment with this, as just a little variation can add greater solemnity to the chanting.

I choose whatever Psalm tone strikes my fancy for the Psalms and Canticles.

The lessons/chapters I use the reciting tones as found in the Liber Usualis. For the prayers, I use the simple tones for orations found in the same book (if you have ever been to a sung Mass, you have likely heard the prayers and scripture sung with these tones)

As for the hymn, I just bellow it to the best of my ability--or choose one I know and can handle better. I don't think most of the hymns given are proper to the office, so I believe it is usually allowable to choose another suitable hymn, though I could be wrong and would gladly stand corrected.

A couple of general chant links I have found useful:




Terra said...

Yes the hymns are proper to the Office! Although there is some flexibility in relatin to the tunes to be used (there are a number of tunes in use, mostly appropriate to the season/feast etc).

If you are serious about singing the Office, my strong advice is to take the time to learn either sol-fah or another system to sightread. Find a chant worskhop and go to it! You don't have to be perfect, but the repertoire for the Office is huge, there aren't many recordings, and you will never manage it otherwise.

Séamas Choilm Chille said...

Hi Terra,

Regarding hymns, I know they are proper in the sense of changing according to the season, day and hour. I meant "proper" in the sense of not being licit to select other hymns.

I have been told in the past that one is free to choose other suitable hymns besides the ones given for a particular day and hour (or "office"). So that, for instance, on Vespers on Corpus Christi, instead of Pange Lingua, I could choose another suitable Eucharistic oriented hymn.

I have heard this is true except for some of the hymns for major feasts, which are proper and traditional and not licit to substitute.

Is that not true?

You say there is "some flexibility." Is that flexibility limited to certain, prescribed choices? Is there some resource which lists all the possibilities?

Also, if you are disagreeing with what I had heard elsewhere, could you provide an "official" or scholarly source (not that I doubt you, I'm just trying to sort through apparently conflicting information and arrive at the truth). Is it in the general rubrics of the Breviary?

Séamas Choilm Chille said...

Hi again,

Sorry I keep posting all these long comments. I keep finding I have lots of questions and comments that I want to run by you (and anyone else who feels like giving an opinion), and unfortunately conciseness has never been my strong suit. Don't feel you have to read and respond to every one, though. I know people are busy.

Regarding learning chant; I would love to learn to sight read, but I have just never been able to. I'm not sure if it is beyond me, or if it has just never "clicked." I have been involved in music for many years, playing instruments, and have always played by ear. I know how to read music, including a basic understanding of neums. But sight reading has always proven elusive.

There are no chant workshops close to me that I know of, and since I am chronically ill, traveling long distances are very difficult for me. Besides, a lot of the repertoire is simply beyond my vocal abilities, and maybe beyond my ability to learn.

It's not that I don't want to learn. But I can only do what I can do.

In the meantime, I think the way I have been doing it suffices for now, since I am by myself. As you yourself have said, even for those with an obligation it is licit to merely recite the office or chant it recto tono. So I use the proper chants when I can, and the rest I do recto tono.

In my opinion, though it may not be ideal, it is better than merely reciting the office. Wouldn't you agree?

Terra said...

You should assume everything is proper unless explicitly indicated otherwise (or you can point to a rubric that says otherwise!). The relevant general rubrics are nos177-181 which talks about the hymns in teh psalter being proper to the hour etc, and not to be transferred.

Terra said...

And yes, I agree recto is better than just saying it, and doing what you cna is the right approach.

If you can read music and play an instrument, I don't see why you can't learn to sightread neumes though, even if not the more difficult stuff. It is simply a matter of tackling it slowly and systematically.

I have to admit that because I learnt an orchestral instrument first, I don't personally use sol-fah - I mentally translate the notes into conventional terms, working out from the c or f clef and transposing as necessary. When I first started, I found holding a recorder and moving fingers or some such instrument, or holding fingers over the keyboard but not sounding each note, helped!

But I do urge you to save up for one of the summer schools - what country are you in Seamas?

Séamas Choilm Chille said...

Thanks for the reference about the hymns. It is possible that the one who told me the hymns were flexible was referring to the LOTH. I don't remember for sure.

As to sightreading, and why I can't learn to sightread if I can read music and play instruments--well, I can read music very slowly. Like a child reading "See Jane Run" and sounding out the words.

One thing is, I can't see a note on a line or space and immediately translate it to the proper pitch. With classical notation, I know which lines or spaces are which (FACE, EBDGF), but I still have to count to find the pitch. (That note is on the (1st, 2nd) 3RD space, which is (f, a) C).

With Plainchant notation, it's even worse, as everything is do re mi. I either have to count the do re me, forward or backward, or I have to first assign the do or fah clef to C or F, then count.

But with time I could probably learn all that.

The other and the more important thing, is that although I know which key on a piano is C, or F, or A, I don't know where C, F or A is on my voice. In other words, if you asked me to sing a C, I couldn't do it unless you played or sung it for me first.

Likewise, if you asked me to sing a sol, I couldn't do it. I would either have to hear it first, or sing "do re mi fa SOL..." and even that is hit or miss for me.

So, even if I could read a note and immediately translate it to the proper pitch, and even play it on an instrument, I wouldn't be able to sing it. I don't know what a C or a F or an A sounds like from memory, even though have played them thousands of times (I just tried to sing a C without hearing it, and it turned out to be an F).

I live in the U.S. btw, Southwest Washington State. But like I said, traveling is difficult if not out of the question.

Séamas Choilm Chille said...


"When I first started, I found holding a recorder and moving fingers or some such instrument, or holding fingers over the keyboard but not sounding each note, helped!

Yes, that is what I try to do on a keyboard, and it does help memorize which lines or spaces are which note.

But there is still the problem--for me it's a problem, anyway--of knowing what the notes sound like so that I can sing them without hearing them first.

Do you or anyone have any suggestions to help me with that?

As I have said, I have played and heard the notes so many times, yet I still can't remember what they sound like so as to repeat them vocally (and hence, I have never been able to tune my guitar by ear, either).

Terra said...

Sounds like you need to find a good muscianship teacher. But don't worry too much about it! I was thinking that if you hope to form a community, it would be important to be able to sing all the texts. But perhaps God will send you someone with the necessary skills!