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Saint Matthew’s Church
Big Lamp, Summerhill Street, Newcastle upon Tyne

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The Plainsong Offices

Singing the Liturgy


plain song


THE HABIT OF SINGING THE LITURGY waned considerably during the latter part of the twentieth century. The reasons for this may be various, but it does represent an impoverishment of the Liturgical life of the Church. Visitors often comment at how much singing there is at Saint Matthew’s; this has been a deliberate choice over the years.

Many of the Liturgical texts were composed specifically to be sung – not least the psalms and canticles; but more widely, the tradition inherited from the synagogues suggested the singing of worship.  It raises the recitation of our worship above the mundane and, in fact, helps us concentrate on the words we are articulating.

Some Christian traditions, particularly in the East (and which retain a more ancient practice, more closely rooted in its Jewish antecedents) sing at every service. This practice waned in the West as the practice of private Masses and recitation of the Offices proliferated.

It is true that moving to a point where singing is a routine aspect of daily worship involves a considerable amount of preparation; but once that work is accomplished, there is no reason why singing can not be more widely used than often it is in parish liturgical life.

At Saint Matthew’s we employ a range of musical styles as part of our Liturgical repertoire. At the Offices, plainsong proliferates, but at the Mass, we try to include appropriate compositions from the vast treasury of material, both old and new.

 

Plainsong

The origins of plainsong are lost in the mists of time.  The connexion with Saint Gregory is doubted by most scholars on the subject.  It may just have emerged with the development of the Roman Rite: though, of course, somebody must have been the first to write it down and begin to codify its notation.

Interestingly, other rites such as the Mozarabic Rite of Spain had their own systems of musical notation; but these have not survived the centuries and few if any have any idea at all how they should be sung. Having said that, we cannot really be sure what plainsong sounded like before the late Middle Ages.

The plainsong repertoire ranges from the fairly simple to the fiendishly difficult and much of the more complex material is beyond the resources of a parish church. Some melodies sing one syllable to tens of notes and the sense of the words can rather be lost. This was, in part, why many of the Reformers were suspicious of it.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there was something of a revival in its use; but that was short lived. While, today, sales of plainsong cds are strong, its use in churches has waned considerably and it is rare to hear it used regularly at liturgies. However, at Saint Matthew’s we have taken a deliberate decision to try and maintain its regular use at the offices and some of the Masses that we sing.

Although, plainsong can be accompanied, it is properly sung without instrumental support. This adds to its rather understated feel. Even on the great festivals, the music is meditative, lacking the drama of a good harmonised hymn tune, let alone the great operatic settings, which began to shunt plainsong aside as the Renaissance settled in.

This permits the words to speak for themselves much more clearly than can often be the case once instruments are introduced, as the Eastern Orthodox Churches would generally agree. Furthermore, plainsong, imposes a particular discipline on a congregation. Lacking instrumental underpinning and the rhythmic beat of modern music, people have to listen much more carefully to one another as they sing if they are to sing together.

The feel of the common endeavour is emphasised further by the fact that plainsong is sung in unison. As well as the fact that everyone sings the same thing, the pitch of the singing (which is not prescribed by the notation) has to be chosen to accommodate the range of voices present.


The Offices

The Offices, in this connexion, refer to the framework of non-Sacramental services comprising a sequence of Biblical texts, hymns and prayers. In the Church of England this means mainly Mattins and Evensong (Morning and Evening Prayer) and sometimes Compline (a service sung in the late evening).

People often think that these services were inherited from the monasteries, but that is not quite true. The New Testament makes reference to prayer being offered by Christians at set times during the day. This would probably have been accomplished by individuals or families in their homes – united with Christians elsewhere by the common time at which the prayers were said or sung.

As the Church emerged from persecution, this domestic prayer was transferred, at least in part, to the great ecclesiastical buildings, which were being constructed. As the monastic communities developed, they elaborated this pattern into what became for many communities of monks and nuns the Seven-fold office – seven services, which were interspersed through the day. Outside the monasteries, the Offices were gradually eclipsed by the rising pre-eminence of the Mass and by the Middle Ages were largely the preserve of the clergy and reflected the monastic provision.

When Archbishop Cranmer composed his Book of Common Prayer he drew on material from the monastic Offices to create the services of Morning and Evening Prayer, which were to become for centuries the staple fare for Anglicans. In recent years, however, once again the Offices have been eclipsed – not just the rise of the Parish Communion, but also the rather vague liturgical compilation of the family service and a sharp decline in the appetite for returning to church on Sunday evening.

At Saint Matthew’s our desire to re-establish a tradition of plainsong is achieved mainly through the medium of the sung Office. As well as Evensong on Sunday evenings, we regularly sing Mattins on Tuesday and Thursday mornings and Compline on the first Wednesday of the Month. There are other occasional plainsong Offices. As a broader range of expertise becomes available, we would hope to expand this repertoire.

Singing plainsong is an acquired skill, both with regard to learning the individual melodies and also the manner in which it is sung, which is more free flowing than music with a time signature. Groups of people who regularly sing together come to know how the others will perform and a certain esprit de corps can develop.

The congregations for these services are not large, but they are increasingly accomplished at the task and would be happy to share their skills to others.


Further material on the Liturgy will follow in due course.

 

 


 

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