Part XIVA: Singing the Office - Overview

It is important to realise that the Benedictine Office is intended to be sung, not said! Firstly the psalms, the core of the Office are songs. And the hymns set for each hour were of course composed with a view to being sung. Secondly, you will find that singing it gives you a quite different experience of the Office, and is far more conducive to contemplation.

So I want now to focus on learning to sing the Office. This part is a bit of an overview. Then next part will go through some more specific strategies to actually tackle the task, including saying a bit about the different types of chant used in the Office.

Singing is the Benedictine tradition

Private recitation is a much later tradition invented by other religious orders; by contrast many Benedictine communities (used to) pride themselves on the maintenance of the choral office without a break across decades or even centuries.

'Singing' the Office doesn't necessarily mean anything elaborate - virtually every traditional monastery sings at least some of the hours most days 'recto tono', at least for the psalms.

But in the Office, the musical settings are used to indicate the level of the feast, the season, the importance of the particular hour and much more. The different chant tones used help add variety to the Office, which is important given the repetitiousness of the cycle of psalms, and also help give a subtlely different flavour and perhaps interpretation to to the texts set for each day.

In order to sing the Office you need to....

There are basically three requisites for singing the Office which I'll talk a little more about below:
  • being able to sing - St Benedict of course specifies that only those whose voices are edifying should sing in choir. But in the privacy of your own home, if you croak like a frog, only God will know, and will perhaps appreciate you making the effort in any case...;
  • being able to read chant 'square notation' - this is actually much easier than conventional modern musical notation to learn, and there are some good resources around to help you on this which I'll point to below;
  • access to the chant books. There is actually a fair amount of chant available online that you can use to at least get yourself started. I'll say a little about the books to buy below.
Being able to sing - listen first!

To be able to sing chant, you need to be able to sing. I'm personally in the camp that claims that even the most tone deaf person can actually to be taught to sing with a bit of work. Because most people are not really deaf - they just don't know how to reproduce what they hear. And that's mostly because they have never been taught to really listen properly.

And since listening is a very Benedictine virtue, it is a good one to learn! If you fear you might be in this category (and even if you aren't), record yourself to check how you are going. Even monks in some of the traditional monasteries regularly do this as a cross-check on themselves, as we often hear what we want to , not what we are really doing! The key point is to know what you are aiming at sound-wise, and keep testing how far off you are from achieving it.

So one of the the best ways to learn to sing the Office is to listen to examples of it being sung over and over again until you have it in your head and can imitate it. I've posted a few youtube and other chant links as we've gone along in this series, and I'll point you to a few more in the next part of this series.

But google key texts to see what you can find on the net, and look out for CDs. One of the most useful starting points in terms of CD's is Solesmes' recording of Sunday Vespers and Compline - it is a slightly novus ordoized version of the Office, and the (Latin) psalm translation is a different one to that used in the Diurnal, but it is still an excellent reference point. I've put an Amazon link in the sidebar to it in case you are interested in listening to some of it (and if you order it via the link, Amazon rewards me a little too for all my hard work!).

Be aware though that there are some very different singing styles around (and I'll talk a little more on that in the next part) - personally I prefer the more robust sound of the Norcia monks for example, to Solesmes, but it is all a matter of personal taste.

Reading square notation

In terms of learning to read chant notation, particularly if you can already read conventional notation, a useful starting point is The Idiot's Guide to Square Notes by Oost-Zinner and Tucker. If you don't find that's enough, there are a number of books around aimed at teaching it more systematically, often accompanied by CDs. Readers might be able to recommend one or other of them!

The chant books

The basic book you need for the day hours is the Antiphonale Monasticum. Make sure you buy the 1934 edition with updates through the 1950s if possible (so you have later feasts) - do not buy the most recent Solesmes edition of this book (which comes in three parts) as the texts do not match those in the Diurnal. You can either buy it new through the Monastery of Le Barroux and other places, or secondhand.

There are however, a few supplementary books that are worth thinking about, and a few other possible starting places. As the name suggests, the Antiphonale contains all of the antiphons, along with the tones for the hymns and the other chants used in the Office. However, it doesn't write out all the variants for the psalms and hymns in full, and that makes for hard work and lots of mistakes at first.

So to make it easier for yourself, two books are particularly helpful to acquire if you can:
  • the Liber Hymnarius published by Solesmes often sets all of the verses of a hymn to the music, making things a lot easier than being presented with one verse set to the music and the rest to work out how it fits for yourself. It also contains a lot of the music for Matins if you eventually decide to add that hour to your regime (or do it occasionally on special occasions) so it is useful to have. Be warned though, it is a bit frustrating, and isn't cheap. It doesn't always write out all the verses for key hymns, and some of the hymns have been changed or dropped altogether in line with Solesmes' later revisions of the Office;
  • Psalmi Vespertini ad Antiphonale Monasticum...put out by St Meinrad's (available secondhand only) is a truly invaluable publication to have. It writes out all of the psalms, plus the Magnificat, used in Vespers throughout the week and year and against the psalm tone to be used. It also covers Compline.
The other useful text - particularly since you can download it for free - is the Liber Usualis, which I'll talk a little more abut in the next part, since it can provide a useful starting point for learning the chants of the Office.

The key point on singing is that, just like learning the Office itself, or learning to say the Latin, you need to start slowly and build up as you become more confident. So by all means start off singing it all just on one note. I'll talk a bit about how to built up from that in the next part.


CG said...

Thank you, Terra. I was hoping you would write about learning to chant. As a complete beginner I found this Australian resource useful although it is geared to learning chant for the Mass rather than for the Office. The author tells me that, if there is sufficient interest, he may offer a workshop for Office chant in Melbourne, but probably not until next year.

Meanwhile can you explain to me which of the numbers preceding the music for an antiphon - like this viij. 1 - refers to the antiphon and which to the tone of the following psalm.

I'll look forward to your next instalment on chant.

Terra said...

Yes unfortunately most of the chant resources are geared at the mass - which is much harder than the Office in general, so it would be great if someone did something more directly aimed at the Office.

If he ran a workshop, would it be based on the Roman Office (although the two are pretty similar)? In fact if there was sufficient interest I could probably run something myself a lot sooner than that (just got to get a thesis finished, almost there!), perhaps over a long weekend.

And yes, I will talk about those mysterious numeric indications in the next part of this.

Terra said...

Hmm, or maybe I could work how to do podcasts...when I've finished my thesis!

CG said...

Best wishes for the completion of the thesis.
You asked >>If he ran a workshop, would it be based on the Roman Office<< - don't know, you'd have to ask him (Jeremy at
But for yours I'd even consider coming to Adelaide.

Terra said...

I'm not actually in Adelaide CG, but I appreciate the thought! I'll think about what might be possible in a few weeks!

Séamas Choilm Chille said...

You can get the Antiphonal from the same place you get the Diurnal, St. Michael's Abbey Press. Here's a direct link to it:

Séamas Choilm Chille said...

Speaking of the Antiphonale, which I am excited to have received yesterday, I notice there is a supplement in the back which gives a second set of antiphons for various feasts.

Tomorrow, for instance, there is a second set of antiphons Ad Laudes Et Per Horas for the feast of St. Benedict.

I can't read the Latin well enough to really make sense of it.

I did notice the title is different in this supplement, i.e. "In Translatione SS. P. N. Benedicti Abbatis" as opposed to "In Solemnitate SS. P. N. Benedicti Abbatis."

I am wondering it this is something peculiar to certain monasteries? Are these antiphons for the commemoration of the translation of his relics in the monastery (-ies) which possess(es) them, perhaps?

Or are they merely an alternative set of antiphons?

Terra said...

The supplement gives three options for the celebration of the Feast of St Benedict on July 11 - the antiphons from the feast of his transition to heaven (March 21), those in the main part of the book (as in the Diurnal) or from the supplement, and basically says chose freely which according to the custom of the Congregation.

The ones given in the supplement are actually those used by Solemnes in their recording of chants for the feast.

I imagine that the different sets just reflect the existence of local cults, and in particular in this case the fact that lot of monks had a go at composing antiphons etc in honour of St Benedict!