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.


The O Antiphons

Every day at Vespers (Evening Prayer), the Magnificat (Canticle of Mary) is accompanied by an antiphon or refrain which gives a particular focus to the celebration. From the 17 to 23 December a special sequence of antiphons is used known as the O antiphons (all begin with the word ‘O’) or Greater antiphons. They are of ancient origin although no one is quite sure when they were first used. Boethius (fifth century) mentions them, and by the eighth century the abbey of St Benoît sur Loire had elaborated a solemn ritual which most Benedictines still use today.

The antiphons are sung by different members of the community (usually the seniors), and ‘care’ is taken to ensure that certain officials receive antiphons appropriate to their office. Thus, the gardener is thought a good choice for O Radix Jesse, while the cellarer (bursar) is considered a fitting match for O Clavis David.

The Stanbrook O Antiphon Book
The O Antiphon Book used at Stanbrook Abbey

A specially grand book is used for the antiphons and the singing of them is accompanied by the ringing of all the church bells. In former times there were pittances in the refectory to mark the day. Thus, the gardener might give the community a few dried plums or raisins; the cellarer might add an extra allowance of wine, and so on. The intention was to mark these days out as days of proximate preparation to Christmas, at once solemn and joyful.

At present, there are seven O antiphons in use. Each addresses Christ using a Messianic title drawn from the prophecies of the Old Testament. Read backwards, the initials of each title in Latin form the words Cras ero or ‘Tomorrow I shall be (with you)’.

Sapientia (Wisdom)
Adonai (Holy Lord)
Radix Jesse (Root of Jesse)
Clavis David (Key of David)
Oriens (Dayspring or Morning Star)
Rex Gentium (King of the Nations)
Emmanuel (God-with-us)

In the Middle Ages not only were different melodies sometimes used (the Worcester Antiphoner, for example, has some very elaborate settings for the antiphons) but even the number of antiphons varied. According to the Sarum Use, eight antiphons were sung so the whole sequence began a day earlier and ended on 23 December with O Virgo virginum. That made the initials read Vero cras. ‘Truly tomorrow (I shall be with you).’

The structure of the seven antiphons we now use is essentially the same. After the invocation of Christ as Messiah comes the plea: come and show us the way of prudence, come and save us with outstretched arm, and so on, and all the antiphons follow a similar musical pattern. The music for the first of the antiphons is shown below, but you can hear each being sung if you click on the player button beneath the texts. The melody ducts and weaves around what our oblate, Fr Alex Lane, describes as ‘an unstable note in the Second Mode, which suggests just how fragile we are.’

O Sapientia: music and text

If you want to follow the antiphons through the week, I’ll give the texts each day in Latin and English, with a few suggestions about the scriptural texts you might ponder in connection with each. Probably the best-known version in English is the hymn ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’.

17 December
O Sapientia, quæ ex ore Altissimi prodiisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiæ.
O Wisdom, you come forth from the mouth of the Most High. You fill the universe and hold all things together in a strong yet gentle manner: come to teach us the way of truth.
Have a look at Isaiah 11:2-3; Isaiah 28:29 and think about the parallel between Wisdom and the Word of God, endlessly creative. Now listen to the antiphon being sung:


Of Music and Musicians

The feast of St Cecilia is a good day on which to think about music and musicians. Let me say straight away that I am very average choir fodder. Indeed, when being taught to sing plainchant, I so exasperated my teacher that she exclaimed, ‘It’s just a matter of intelligence!’ Whereupon, to my eternal discredit, I did an off-the-cuff translation of one of the trickier hymns in the Hymnale. Pride 1; humility nil.

Inability to sing or play should not be confused with the ability to enjoy. There are very few who do not enjoy music, although we certainly don’t all enjoy the same music. I think it’s no accident that the concept of ‘heavenly harmony’ and the ‘music of the spheres’ runs so deeply through western culture and civilization. For instance, I often use the image of playing a string quartet to describe the dynamic of community living. Each brings to the whole an individual talent, but through intense listening to each other, periods of silence as well as playing, something greater and more beautiful is produced than one alone could achieve.

So today, when we thank God for the joy and beauty that music and musicians bring to our lives and to the liturgy of the Church, we might also spend a few moments thinking about something less abstract: the way in which we ourselves contribute to the music of the universe. We may be only ‘average choir fodder’ but we each have something worth giving.

Fundraising Update
We’ll be issuing a statement later today after we have met with our advisers. We’ll tweet when it’s up.


How to Make a Holy Ringtone

Yesterday I spent a few moments creating a ringtone from the Salve Regina for the community iPhone. It occurred to me that others might like to do the same; so, if you don’t know how, here is a simple method using nothing but iTunes.

1. Choose your music and make sure that you have the legal right to copy it. Load the mp3 into iTunes.

2. Ctrl-click (right click) the file and select Get info.

3. Go to the options tab and look at the Start time and Stop time boxes. To work on an iPhone, your ringtone must be 30 seconds or less; so if the mp3 has a longer duration, set the start time at 0:00 and the stop time at 0:30. (If you want to use a section of the mp3 rather than just the beginning,  use Audacity or Garageband to get the section you want to use and load that into iTunes.) Click OK.

4. Ctrl-click (right click) your newly-clipped file and select Convert to AAC. (If your menu item does not read Convert Selection to AAC but says Convert Selection to mp3 (or some other format), please go to iTunes > Preferences > Advanced > Importing and change the Import Using drop-down menu to AAC Encoder).

5. From your iTunes music folder, drag the AAC file to your desktop. Then go back to iTunes and delete the item from your iTunes library. N.B. This is essential: it won’t delete the file from your computer, just from iTunes. To find out why, read on.

6. Ctrl-click (right click) the file on your desktop and select Get info. Go to the Name and extension tab and change the extension from .m4a to .m4r. (Alternatively, you could just retype the name on the desktop file, but this is the fool-proof method.)

7. Now double-click on your newly renamed file, which will automatically bring it into the Ringtones section of iTunes. If you don’t see it in the menu, go to iTunes preferences and make sure that you have checked Show ringtones.

8. Sync your phone with iTunes (make sure you have sync ringtones selected) and go on your way rejoicing.

9. Remember to uncheck the start and stop times on your original mp3 file, or it will only ever play the first 30 seconds of the recording.

There is another method using just Garageband, but the above is fine for all DRM-free files.


Pitch-Pipes Are No More

iChant Gergorian Keyboard
iChant Gregorian Keyboard

While the rest of humanity was preparing for the end of the world, we were playing with iChant Gregorian, one of those iPhone apps one wishes one had designed oneself and about which I tweeted a few days ago. It is essentially a keyboard which helps one practise singing by enabling transpositions on the fly. So, no more incantations of ‘it’s fourth mode transposed, so . . .’ or ‘the reciting note will be A but . . .’ or ‘the semitones are . . .’ and some fumbling with the pitch-pipe (which, in Digitalnun’s hands, at least, can lead to unexpected results.) It’s £1.79/$2.99 in the iTunes store; so, if you love singing the chant but are not a brilliant musician, I recommend it to you as a great help, much easier and more convenient than dashing up to the organ loft or digging out a pitch-pipe. Click the icon below to go to the iTunes store. (N.B. we are not associated with the developer or with Apple.)

iChant Gregorian