“…. directors of music are encouraged to help congregations to discover afresh the beauty and subtlety of this timeless music.”

– Musical Preface, Church Hymnal

On this page:

  • Two articles from Soundboard

  • Link to RSCM YouTube video

  • Useful publications

Parish Church Plainsong

David O’Shea discusses the benefits of introducing plainsong to parish choirs

[Reprint from Soundboard No. 35, Summer 2016]

Having spent my formative years as a church musician playing mostly in the Presbyterian tradition, my early exposure to plainsong was limited, and it is only in the last few years that I have developed an appreciation for this subtle and highly devotional style of liturgical music. On several visits to Glenstal Abbey I have attended Compline and have always been enthralled by this simple yet powerfully atmospheric service. While a member of Selwyn College Chapel Choir in Cambridge, I had the opportunity to sing at occasional services of Choral Compline: the chapel was always full for these late-night candlelit services, which were enormously popular with students at the college.

Selling plainsong to a parish choir is not easy, as it is a language entirely removed from the experience of someone whose taste has been formed by the musical diet of the average Church of Ireland parish. However, like my own experience, the understated devotional character of the music has grown gradually on members of my parish. In July 2015, following discussions with the Rector, we established a weekly service of Choral Compline on Fridays at 6.30pm at Sandford Parish Church, sung entirely to plainsong by unaccompanied voices.

Useful starting points for introducing plainsong to your parish choir include David McConnell’s excellent piece in Soundboard of March 2006 (below) and the RSCM Guide to Plainchant, published in 2015. In parishes where Anglican chant is used, it might be a good idea occasionally to sing a psalm to a plainsong tone (perhaps for services of a penitential character): as a transitional device, the psalm could be pointed in a similar manner to glican chant. This was the method followed by Thomas Helmore, one of the leading lights of the choral revival in the Church of England, whose volume The Psalter Noted was an early attempt to reintroduce plainsong psalmody. Its successor volume, A Manual of Plainsong (edited by H. B. Briggs and W. H. Frere, revised by J. H. Arnold, and reprinted in an inexpensive edition by Novello) contains much useful information, as well as a complete set of psalms and canticles in traditional language with corresponding plainsong tones.

The key to effective performance of plainsong is precision of diction, evenness of tone and fluency of delivery. The difficulty of ensuring these three aspects in your choir’s singing should not be underestimated, and may prove a little challenging even to quite experienced singers. Earlier this year I taught a plainsong hymn to the choir of Kildare Cathedral, and the transformation of it from the first rehearsal to the service was really remarkable: rhythmic stodginess and blurs of intonation had given way to a compelling sense of flow and a pristine unison sound.

Aside from its devotional character, plainsong is also a style that can be sung very effectively by small forces. Why not try teaching hymn 425 in Church Hymnal to your parish choir (to the first tune) and sing it either unaccompanied or with a quiet and unobtrusive organ accompaniment during the distribution of holy communion?

Enjoying Plainchant

David McConnell describes how the introduction of plainchant has added value to a choir’s work [Reprint from Soundboard No. 11, March 2006]

One of the greatest challenges I face as choir director in a local church is how to provide satisfying SATB music when one or more voice parts is not present. Singers enjoy part singing. Basses and altos often find unison singing difficult. So there is little point in explaining to choirs that to sing with a part missing does not make musical sense; nor do they wish to hear that Erik Routley believed that singing in unison increases Christian zeal and that the German theologian Bonhoeffer supported unison singing on theological grounds. When a voice part is absent, is it ever possible to maintain musical integrity andat the same time retain the interest of a small local choir? The solution may lie partly in regarding (reluctantly) the organ accompaniment as an aesthetic crutch, a musical prosthesis, and then working to demonstrate that to sing some items in unison is neither boring nor demeaning. This line of thought naturally leads to considering Plainchant. Unison singing is fundamental to its philosophy and a group of even five singers can use it effectively to add value to worship.

Plainchant in Zion Church

At Zion Church, Rathgar, singing is led by a small, deeply committed group of singers. In the early 2000s, when twice monthly eucharists at the main Sunday worship slot became the norm, we had increasingly to concentrate on supplying quiet items, sung while holy communion was distributed. I insisted that these performances must reflect some degree of quality assurance if they were to fulfil their purpose. To sing a four-part piece with one or more parts missing was unacceptable. The plainchant in the current and previous editions of the Church Hymnal was an obvious resource. I recalled, too, Tom Gordon telling me that he had successfully ‘rescued’ the singing in St Nicholas Collegiate Church, Galway by using a mix of plainchant and Taizé-style music.

I adopted a pragmatic approach and quite quickly the choir became familiar with and sang with style melodies such as Verbum supernum (242), Veni Creator (296) and Adoro te (449). With the arrival of CH5, we added Conditor alme (121), now an established choir favourite. All these are primarily syllabic. In 2005, with Passiontide in mind, we tackled the more melismatic but very beautiful Vexilla Regis (243). This proved to be quite a hurdle. To shorten the teaching process, I enlarged a melody-and-words-only version to A1 size. This enabled us to learn the music without the use of books. Everybody simply kept their eyes on a flipchart.

RSCM influence

At the 2005 RSCM International Summer School in York, plainchant was included in the music sung by all delegates at the short prayer service in the Minster each day. This simple morning worship had a profound effect on everybody (cf. Soundboard, Issue 10). During that week we also experienced the recent RSCM publication Night Prayer: Compline, which sets the version in Common Worship (the Church of England’s prayer book) to traditional chant. I mentioned all this to Zion Church choir in September, when outlining my plans for the season. While sceptical, they agreed to try Compline.

Celebrating St Brigid’s Day

We worked at the service consistently during November. Affirmation came from one of the older members of the choir who recalled with pleasure his experience of Compline at the school he attended in England. Another man remembered his schooldays at Glenstal Abbey. The attractive RSCM booklet supplied context and credibility. We returned to Compline at the rehearsal on 4 January, at the end of which I recognized that our struggle was over. We were singing the chant with personal ownership, enjoyment and some style. I was quick to affirm my singers in their success. Four weeks later, on 1 February 2006, the Feast Day of Saint Brigid of Kildare, sixteen singers and their director walked into the church at 8 o’clock to sing the Office. The plainchant needed no accompaniment. Word had spread, and forty people from various faith communities locally had come to join us in offering praise and prayer at night to the Triune God.

In one way, to be able to sing a monastic office to simple chant is not something worthy of special comment. But for us, it represented both a step outside the normal limits of our work and also something completely new. Above all, the experiment was eminently successful. The sense of achievement and pride was palpable, repertoire had been expanded, people outside the immediate faith community were aware of what our small group was doing.

Choirs of all kinds need stimuli such as these. I recommend to others who lead church choirs to seek out new ways of doing things that stretch the expertise and expectations of their singers. It is part of the process of life-long learning!

RSCM Direct

Some useful publications : available from RSCM Direct

The RSCM Guide to Plainchant – an introduction to plainsong. A revision of the seminal and best selling ‘Plainchant for everyone’ by Dr Mary Berry, the leading plainchant expert who died in 2008. This edition is re-set with improved and clearer layout. It includes a new anthology of plainchant that singers and choir directors will find invaluable.

A Manual of Plainsong for Divine Service. ed. Briggs & Frere (Novello)

First published in 1902 and revised and reprinted. A collection of the psalms, canticles, litany and responses at the eucharist, together with a lengthy introduction containing practical instructions, a discussion on the principles of pointing and an explanation of the method of chanting.

There are 14 plainsong hymn melodies in the 1960 edition of Church Hymnal (CH4) and 17 such melodies in the 2004 edition (CH5). The Note on the Plainsong Settings on pp. xii-xiii in CH4 is elegantly written and worth careful study. There is a shorter guide to singing plainsong on p. xvii in CH5.