IDLE SPECULATIONS: The singing of Psalms and the Divine Office

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Thursday, September 17, 2009

The singing of Psalms and the Divine Office

Gradual--Use of Saint-Michel de Gaillac,
Near Albi, before 1079.
Manuscripts Department, Western Section, Lat. 766, Parchment
The Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris

Psalter-Hymnal of Saint-Germain-des-Prés,
Paris, middle of the 11th century.
Manuscripts Department, Western Section, Lat. 11550, Parchment
The Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris

Arundel 83 f. 55v Musical notation, heraldic decoration and David
From the Howard Psalter (Arundel 83 I) showing the incipit of Psalm 80 ("Exultate Deo"). In the initial 'E', a seated king plays bells. In the border, hybrids hold trumpets bearing the Fitton and Freville arms, and other hybrids play musical instruments.
c. 1310 - c. 1320
Parchment 360 x 235 (250 x 165) in two columns
The British Library, London

The Last Judgement in The Winchester Psalter ('St Swithun Psalter')
Ink and pigments on vellum
1150
Cotton MS Nero C IV f.39r
Length: 32 x Width: 22.1 centimetres
The British Library, London
(The Psalter was probably used by Hugh of Blois, Bishop of Winchester (1129-1171), patron of the arts, and brother of King Stephen. Hugh had been a monk at Cluny where sumptuous visual art abounded.)

Hymns by Bernard de Clairvaux
15th century
Parchment
Houghton Library
MS Typ 550
Harvard University, Cambridge


The singing of the Divine Office (the Opus Dei) and the Psalms was at the very heart of the spiritual experience of medieval men and women in religious communities.

Chant was not an ornament. Psalmody was not a merely formal obligation.

The monastic day revolved around the seven canonical hours that were celebrated during the day, and an eighth night office of Vigils. The exact time of each office varied depending on the season, but the sequence remained the same: the night office of Vigils was followed by Lauds at daybreak, and thereafter the daily offices of Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and the concluding office of Compline. [Seven times a day have I given praise to thee (Psalm 119: 164)]

The Hymnal (a choir book of hymns used in the canonical hours), the Psalter, the Antiphoner (a choir book of chants sung at the canonical hours), the Gradual, the Breviarium, the Office Books, the Missals and so on were probably the most important books used in these communities. A great deal of time and effort was spent in the production of these works.

They were central to the institution, its vocation and its way of life

The religious ideal was that during worship the mind, soul, and heart should be filled by what the mouth proclaims.

This basic precept was not only a moral commandment, but the most fundamental aspect of Christian meditational practice

The Benedictine rule was based on 1 Cor 14, 15: "Psallam spiritu, psallam et mente." ("Psallentium in ecclesia Domino mens concordare debet cum voce, ut impleatur illud apostoli: Psallam spiritu, psallam et mente")

St Augustine said: "Hoc versetur corde quod profertur in voce." "Let that be considered in the heart which is proclaimed by the voice"

The Rule of Augustine, 12. provided: “When you pray to God in Psalms and hymns, think over in your hearts the words that come from your lips.”

St Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermo 47 in Cantica Canticorum, PL 183, wrote:
"Pure vero [vos moneo divinis officiis interesse], ut nil aliud dum psallitis, quam quod psallitis cogitetis.... Magna abusio est os habere in choro et cor in foro."

Bernard of Clairvaux’s letter to the Victorines of Montier-Ramey about the Office he composed for St Victor reveals his views on the nature of music:
“The sense of the words should be unmistakable, and they should shine with truth, tell of righteousness, incite to humility and inculcate justice; they should bring truth to the minds of the hearers, devotion to their affections, the Cross to their vices and discipline to their senses.

If there is to be singing, the melody should be grave and not flippant or uncouth. It should be sweet but not frivolous; it should both enchant the ears and move the heart; it should lighten sad hearts and soften angry passions; it should never obscure but enhance the sense of the words.

Not a little spiritual profit is lost when minds are distracted from the sense of the words by the frivolity of the melody, when more is conveyed by the modulations of the voice than by variations of meaning.” (The Letters of Bernard of Clairvaux, Epistle 398/ 430.)

The Abbey of Cluny was a treasure of the arts. But Bernard of Clairvaux preferred a more simple austere approach:
"But these are small things; I will pass on to matters greater in themselves, yet seeming smaller because they are more usual. I say naught of the vast height of your churches, their immoderate length, their superfluous breadth, the costly polishing, the curious carvings and paintings which attract the worshipper's gaze and hinder his attention, and seem to me in some sort a revival of the ancient Jewish rites.

Let this pass; however, say that this is done for God's honour. But I, as a monk, ask of my brother monks as the pagan asked of his fellow-pagans, "Tell me, O Pontiffs," says he, "what is the purpose of this gold in the sanctuary." So say I, "Tell me, you poor men" for I break the verse to keep the sense, "tell me, you poor if, indeed, you are poor, what does this gold in your sanctuary" And indeed the bishops have an excuse which monks have not, for we know that they, being debtors both to the wise and the unwise, and unable to excite the devotion of carnal folk by spiritual things, do so by bodily adornments.

But we who have now come forth from the people, we who have left all the precious and beautiful things of the world for Christ's sake, who have counted but dung, that we may win Christ, all things fair to see or soothing to hear, sweet to smell, delightful to taste, or pleasant to touch--in word, all bodily delights--whose devotion, pray, do we monks intend to excite by these things. What profit, I say, do we expect therefrom. The admiration of fools, or the oblations of the simple.

Or, since we are scattered among the nations, have we perchance learnt their works and do we yet serve their graven images. To speak plainly, does the root of all this lie in covetousness, which is idolatry, and do we seek not profit, but a gift. If you ask, "How," I say, "In a strange fashion." For money is so artfully scattered that it may multiply, it is expended that it may give increase, and prodigality gives birth to plenty, for at the very sight of these costly yet marvellous vanities men are more kindled to offer gifts than to pray.

Thus wealth is drawn up by ropes of wealth, thus money brings money, for I know not how it is that, wheresoever more abundant wealth is seen, there do men offer more freely. Their eyes are feasted with relics cased in gold, and their purse-strings are loosed. They are shown a most comely image of some saint, whom they think all the more saintly that he is the gaudily painted. Men run to kiss him, and are invited to give; there is more admiration for his comeliness than veneration for his sanctity.

Hence the church is adorned with gemmed crowns of light--no, with lustres like cartwheels, circled all round with lamps, but no less brilliant with precious stones that stud them. Moreover we see candelabra standing like trees of massive bronze, fashioned with marvellous subtlety of art, and glistening no less brightly with gems than with the lights they carry. What, think you, is the purpose of all this! The compunction of penitents, or the admiration of beholders.

O vanity of vanities, yet no more vain than insane.”
From Bernard of Clairvaux, Letter to William of St. Thierry, trans. G.G. Coulton, A Mediaeval Garner, London, 1910, 70-72

Aelred of Rievaulx: The Mirror of Charity, Bk. II, Chapter 23: ‘The vain pleasure of the ears’, tr. E. Connor (Kalamazoo, 1990) pp. 209-212 castigated what he saw were the improper uses of music in Divine Office:
“Where, I ask, do all these organs in the church come from, all these chimes? To what purpose, I ask you, is the terrible snorting of bellows, more like a clap of thunder than the sweetness of a voice?

Why that swelling and swooping of the voice? One person sings bass, another sings alto, yet another sings soprano. Still another ornaments and trills up and down on the melody. At one moment the voice strains, the next it wanes. First it speeds up, then it slows down with all manner of sounds. Sometimes - it is shameful to say – it is expelled like the neighing of horses, sometimes manly strength set aside, it is constricted to the shrillness of a woman’s voice.

Sometimes it is turned and twisted in some sort of artful trill. Sometimes you see a man with his mouth open as if he were breathing his last breath, not singing but threatening silence, as it were, by ridiculous interruption of the melody into snatches. Now he imitates the agonies of the dying or the swooning of persons in pain.

In the meantime his whole body is violently agitated by histrionic gesticulations – contorted lips, rolling eyes, and hunching shoulders – and drumming fingers keep time with every single note.

And this ridiculous dissipation is called religious observance. And it is loudly claimed that where this sort of agitation is more frequent, God is more honourably served.

Meanwhile ordinary folk stand there awestruck, stupefied, marvelling at the din of bellows, the humming of chimes and the harmony of pipes. But they regard the saucy gestures of the singers and the alluring variation and dropping of the voices with considerable jeering and snickering, until you would think they had come, not into an oratory, but to a theatre, not to pray but to gawk. …

Sound should not be given precedence over meaning, but sound with meaning should generally be allowed to stimulate greater attachment.

Therefore the sound should be so moderate, so marked by gravity that it does not captivate the whole spirit to amusement in itself, but leaves the greater part to the meaning.

Blessed Augustine, of course, said, ‘The soul is moved to a sentiment of piety on hearing sacred chant. But if a longing to listen desires the sound more than the meaning, it should be censured.’ And elsewhere he says, ‘When the singing delights me more than the words I acknowledge that I have sinned through my fault, and I would prefer not to listen to the singer.’ “

Pope Benedict XVI again has stressed the importance of Chant and Music in regard to Divine Office and the singing of the Psalms. He put it into historical and theological context in his Address at the Collège des Bernardins, Paris on Friday, 12 September 2008 with Meetings from the Representatives of the World of Culture:
“We ourselves are brought into conversation with God by the word of God.

The God who speaks in the Bible teaches us how to speak with him ourselves. Particularly in the book of Psalms, he gives us the words with which we can address him, with which we can bring our life, with all its highpoints and low points, into conversation with him, so that life itself thereby becomes a movement towards him.

The Psalms also contain frequent instructions about how they should be sung and accompanied by instruments.

For prayer that issues from the word of God, speech is not enough: music is required.

Two chants from the Christian liturgy come from biblical texts in which they are placed on the lips of angels: the Gloria, which is sung by the angels at the birth of Jesus, and the Sanctus, which according to Isaiah 6 is the cry of the seraphim who stand directly before God.

Christian worship is therefore an invitation to sing with the angels, and thus to lead the word to its highest destination.

Once again, Jean Leclercq says on this subject: “The monks had to find melodies which translate into music the acceptance by redeemed man of the mysteries that he celebrates. The few surviving capitula from Cluny thus show the Christological symbols of the individual modes” (cf. ibid. p. 229).

For Benedict, the words of the Psalm: coram angelis psallam Tibi, Domine – in the presence of the angels, I will sing your praise (cf. 138:1) – are the decisive rule governing the prayer and chant of the monks.

What this expresses is the awareness that in communal prayer one is singing in the presence of the entire heavenly court, and is thereby measured according to the very highest standards: that one is praying and singing in such a way as to harmonize with the music of the noble spirits who were considered the originators of the harmony of the cosmos, the music of the spheres.

From this perspective one can understand the seriousness of a remark by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, who used an expression from the Platonic tradition handed down by Augustine, to pass judgement on the poor singing of monks, which for him was evidently very far from being a mishap of only minor importance.

He describes the confusion resulting from a poorly executed chant as a falling into the “zone of dissimilarity” – the regio dissimilitudinis.

Augustine had borrowed this phrase from Platonic philosophy, in order to designate his condition prior to conversion (cf. Confessions, VII, 10.16): man, who is created in God’s likeness, falls in his godforsakenness into the “zone of dissimilarity” – into a remoteness from God, in which he no longer reflects him, and so has become dissimilar not only to God, but to himself, to what being human truly is.

Bernard is certainly putting it strongly when he uses this phrase, which indicates man’s falling away from himself, to describe bad singing by monks. But it shows how seriously he viewed the matter.

It shows that the culture of singing is also the culture of being, and that the monks have to pray and sing in a manner commensurate with the grandeur of the word handed down to them, with its claim on true beauty. This intrinsic requirement of speaking with God and singing of him with words he himself has given, is what gave rise to the great tradition of Western music.

It was not a form of private “creativity”, in which the individual leaves a memorial to himself and makes self-representation his essential criterion. Rather it is about vigilantly recognizing with the “ears of the heart” the inner laws of the music of creation, the archetypes of music that the Creator built into his world and into men, and thus discovering music that is worthy of God, and at the same time truly worthy of man, music whose worthiness resounds in purity.”

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