Today’s Redeemer Journal post is by Joshua Ford, who has written about chanting of the psalms in our worship service. Although chant is one of the earliest modes of Christian worship, it may be new to many of us, and Church of the Redeemer has been blessed by Joshua’s knowledge and gifts in this form of musical worship. In addition to being a skilled and gifted musician, Joshua is a graduate of St. Vladimir’s Seminary in New York and has great knowledge of the bible, theology, and liturgy. It’s a blessing to our church to have Joshua’s help and expertise in coordinating choral music this Lent and in the upcoming Easter season. – Pastor Paul
By Joshua Ford
From the earliest days, the psalms have provided the backbone to the Church’s liturgical life. Many of the worship practices of the early Church were borrowed from the synagogue, where the prophetic writings were read aloud and the psalms were chanted plainly. That became the established practice throughout the Mediterranean, as the gospel spread throughout the Roman Empire.
But what does it mean to “chant” the psalms? Chanting consists of reciting the psalms in a musical tone and was done for two reasons. First, in an age where electronic amplification did not exist, it was necessary to amplify the text. It is physiologically easier to sing loudly than to shout loudly. Anyone who’s been to an exciting sporting event (shouting) or an opera house (singing) can attest to that. Second, the chant tones beautify the liturgical experience in a way that is intended to lift the hearer from earth to heaven. Also, chant tones are repetitive, making it easier to remember the psalm text long after you’ve left the church. As a professor of mine used to say, “Of course it’s boring! It’s BORING Scripture into your brain!”
But what are chant tones? To put it simply, a chant tone is a unison melodic pattern. As the gospel spread from culture to culture, various chant tones arose and were arranged throughout the liturgical year and used for psalms and other hymns. There are many different styles: The Byzantines still use a system called the Ochtoechos (“Eight tones”); Rome had Old Roman chant; Milan has Ambrosian chant, and Mozarabic was in southern Spain. Thanks to the political power and liturgical influence of the Holy Roman Empire, Gregorian chant supplanted almost every other style throughout the Latin West. Only Ambrosian (since it was older) survived.
So where does harmony come in? Not satisfied with mere plain chanting of hymns, several monastic houses and universities (Paris, for example) began ornamenting the plainchant melodies with a distinct harmonic sound. Our style is no different. Unlike other art forms that moved from continental Europe outward to England and the edges of the continent, the chant style we use is called “fauxbourdon” and began in England and made its way to the continent during the 14th and 15th centuries. So not only is it medieval, it’s also Anglican. In fauxbourdon, the plainchant melody is adorned with harmonies either a perfect fourth above or below and a sixth below for the lowest voice. It’s my “semi-professional” opinion that monks developed this style because it’s easier for non-professional musicians to adopt. In time, hopefully we’ll be able to develop this style not just for our choir, but also for our whole congregation to get involved. Stay tuned!
Oh, and a brief word about how I’m garbed during our chant and why we’re positioned the way we are: I wear a black cassock, traditionally the “base garment” for those serving in the services. I also wear a master’s hood, colored scarlet for divinity. Nowadays we don’t think of academic hoods as ecclesiastical garments, but they come out of the medieval universities, nearly all of which were sponsored by the Church. Even today it is frequently the practice in the English universities to have the choirmaster or cantor dressed in cassock and hood, as can be seen in this video: https://youtu.be/1Q4YcKsImZU. As you can see, the choir is positioned sideways along the length of the church (you’re actually looking from the altar area toward the back of the church), similar to how we’ve been arranged at Church of the Redeemer. This is done to keep the singers together, as well as to emphasize worship before the Lord rather than performance for the congregation. It also creates the opportunity for double, alternating choirs that can lead “halves” of the laity (divided by the center aisle). Perhaps we will try that someday as a congregation.
Joshua and Malene live in White Bear Township with their four children.