The Caesura

Those who love Gregorian Chant are probably thinking, ‘We all know what the caesura is. We merely disagree how long it should be!’ If you think I am going to propound any new theories about its duration, you will be disappointed. I’m more concerned with its meaning.

The caesura — the pause in the musical line which occurs midway through a verse of psalmody — is an important element of plainchant. It gives shape to the music but also, more significantly, provides a brief silence in the midst of the singing to allow the words to sink in. This embrace of silence in the very midst of choir is a reminder that we are meditating on the Word as we sing it. Even at our ‘noisiest’ there is a silent dimension to monastic life. It is this silence that makes monastic life seem at odds with the world around us, where a constant stream of sound is the accompaniment to everything from jogging in the park to driving the car. Silence is one of the great asceticisms of monastic life and one that many an outsider finds unnerving, but it is also a source of profound joy and peace, a blessing to all who experience it.

The monk carries within him a vast silence, but it is not an empty silence, nor an uncomfortable silence. It is the silence of the attentive heart, waiting for God to speak, aware that the Word may be spoken in the brief pause between two halves of a psalm verse.

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9 thoughts on “The Caesura”

  1. “The monk carries within him a vast silence, but it is not an empty silence, nor an uncomfortable silence. It is the silence of the attentive heart, waiting for God to speak, aware that the Word may be spoken in the brief pause between two halves of a psalm verse.” Absolutely beautiful. Your thought on pausing to let the meaning of the song penetrate the noise…beautiful.

  2. In my experience it took 6 months in a monastery before the noise of my mind began to subside sufficiently to find space between the noise. Brains can be such busy places. I miss the silence. It must be possible in everyday life, surely?

    I’ve often wondered why there is only a pause in the middle of the verse, but not one at the end of the verse before the other side of choir comes in.

    Is it perhaps because from the perspective of the choir, each side has the opportunity to contemplate what they have just sung while the other side sings the next verse?

  3. Much as I love monastic silence, I have always found the caesura very distracting. I yearn for the pause to be at the end of the line and not in the middle. Why does it happen in mid thought? In some verses it works because of the way the thought in the line is constructed but in most I find it quite irritating. How do I get over my aversion?

  4. I was privileged to go on a retreat to the Anglican Benedictine Community at Malling Abbey a year or so ago and I was wonderful to share their worship as they Chant the Psalms in the seven Monastic Offices daily.

    Being a listener, not an active participant is uplifting and a wonderful experience to have. It formed the framework for the retreat and the hospitality was second to none.

    I will be returning there this autumn with my Spiritual Director has goes their several times a year.

    http://www.mallingabbey.org/

  5. Thank you for your comments. The caesura is a practical, as well as spiritual and musical, necessity. With Latin psalmody sung to Gregorian modes, a half-verse is about as much as can be conveniently sung with one breath. The one beat pause before the other side comes in is half the length of the caesura, but as the side not singing does not have to concentrate on the complexities of the psalm tone, there is more ‘leisure’ to absorb the words. It all really boils down to focus, I suppose.

  6. Interesting that the caesura has been the object of much attention over the centuries. In the late middle-ages and the Renaissance, during a visitation of a monastery, it was one of the things to be checked to ensure it was properly observed. The length of the caesura has changed much over the centuries- at the the time of Peter the Venerable it lasted the space of a Pater Noster! One can easily see that there would be much time for silent contemplation but also the necessity of lay brothers…

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