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Anglican chant is a way to sing unmetrical texts, such as prose translations of the psalms, canticles and other similar biblical texts by matching the natural speech-rhythm of the words in each verse to a short piece of metrical music. It may be described as "harmonised recitative". It is said to have the twofold purpose of enhancing the words of the sacred text and serving as an aid for both the singer and listener to attain a meditative state.
Anglican chant was developed in England at the time of the English Reformation and appears to be an adaptation of the plainchant method that was in common use at the time for singing the same texts but in Latin. These Latin-language texts were also unmetrical as they were also prose translations of the earlier Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew originals. Although previously in more widespread use throughout the Anglican churches, today Anglican chant is used primarily in Anglican cathedrals and also in parish churches that have retained a choral liturgical tradition.
Each individual verse, pair of verses, or group of three or four verses of a text, is set to a simple harmonised melody of 7, 14, 21 or 28 bars (known respectively as a single, double, triple or quadruple chant).
When singing a text in Anglican chant the natural rhythm of the words as they would be spoken by a careful speaker governs how the music is fitted to the words. The majority of the words are freely and rhythmically chanted over the reciting notes, which are found in the first, fourth, eighth, eleventh (etc.) bars of the chant and with the other notes of the music appropriately fitted to the words at the end of each half-verse. The rhythm is based on the natural cadence of the text as carefully spoken. Thus the length of each of these notes bears little relation to the normal musical value of a note such as a minim or semi-breve.
Anglican chant was well established by the 18th century. The earliest known examples are single chants, dating from the late 16th century, written by Thomas Tallis and his contemporaries, so it seems likely that Anglican chant was devised by them to provide musical settings for the English-language version of the psalter translated by Myles Coverdale, as published in the then new Book of Common Prayer. The earliest double chants are from about 1700.
An example of a single chant is shown above. Below are the first four verses of the Magnificat, with the text coloured to show which words correspond to which notes in the music ("the chant").
- 1. My soul doth ' magnify the ' Lord : And my spirit hath re'joiced in ' God my ' Saviour.
- 2. For ' he hath re'garded : the ' lowliness ' of his ' handmaiden.
- 3. For be'hold from ' henceforth : all gene ' rations shall ' call me ' blessed.
- 4. For he that is mighty hath ' magnified ' me : and ' holy ' is his ' Name.
Various psalters have been published over the years, with each one showing how the chant is to be fitted to the words and each having its own variation on the precise rules for doing so. The rules used in the Parish Psalter (one of the more popular psalters, edited by Sydney Nicholson) are as follows:
- Each verse is sung to seven bars of music (the whole chant in the example above, though most chants are 14 bars = 2 verses long)
- The bar lines in the music correspond to inverted commas ("pointing marks") in the text.
- The double bar line in the music corresponds to the colon in the text.
- Where there is one note (a semibreve) to a bar, all the words for the corresponding part of the text are sung to that one note.
- Where there are two notes (two minims) to a bar, unless indicated otherwise all the words except the last syllable are sung to the first minim. The final syllable is sung to the second minim. Where more than the last syllable is to be sung to the second minim, a dot (·) (between words) or a hyphen (within a word) is used in the text to indicate where the note change should occur.
Other psalters use different notation; modern psalters such as the New St Paul's Cathedral Psalter (John Scott, 1997) have adopted the following convention:
- A vertical bar (|) is used to indicate a barline.
- Whenever there are 3 or more syllables in a bar containing two minims, a dot (·) or hyphen is used, even if the change of note is on the final syllable.
There are various additional rules which apply occasionally:
- Some chants have more complicated rhythms than the example above, generally in the form of a dotted minim and a crotchet (in any bar except the last of a quarter) or of two crotchets taking the place of a minim.
- When a minim in an internal bar (i.e. not the first or last bar of a quarter) is replaced by two crotchets, one of two things happens. If there is only one syllable, both notes are sung to it in quick succession. If there are two (or occasionally more) syllables, they are split as appropriate to smoothly match the rhythm of the words to the two notes.
- When an internal bar has a dotted rhythm, it is to be sung as above, excepting that the crotchet can be omitted from the music if the natural rhythm of the words and the sentiment of the words indicate that it is appropriate to do so.
- When the first bar of a quarter has a dotted minim and a crotchet, all syllables except the last are sung to the note of the dotted minim, with the crotchet being tucked in on the last syllable before the barline. If there is only one syllable, both notes are sung to it in quick succession with the subtle emphasis being on the first note.
- Sometimes the last bar of a quarter has two minims instead of the usual semibreve, in which case a dot/hyphen may be required after the last barline in the text: (e.g. even as | though they | were mine | ene-mies.)
- Particularly in long psalms, changes of chant may be used to signal thematic shifts in the words. Psalm 119, which is the longest in the psalter, is generally sung with a change of chant after every 8 of its 176 verses, corresponding to the 22 stanzas of the original Hebrew text. However, it is never sung all at once, but spread over successive days.
Double, triple and quadruple chants
The example above is a single chant. This is mostly only used for very short psalms (half a dozen verses or so).
The most commonly used chants are double chants. These are twice the length of a single chant. The music of the chant is repeated for every pair of verses. This reflects the structure of the Hebrew poetry of many of the psalms: Each verse is in two halves - the second half answers the first; the verses are in pairs - the second verse answers the first. If the entire text (or a section of it) has an odd number of verses, the second half of the chant is usually repeated at an appropriate point, which may be marked "2nd part". Similarly, "3rd part" markings may be used for triple chants.
Triple and quadruple chants appeared from the latter part of the 19th century, to cover some of the exceptions to this format. They set the verses of the psalm in groups of three or four verses respectively. Psalm 2 (for example) is suited to a triple chant; a quadruple chant might be used for Psalm 78.
A double chant is divided into "quarters", each of which has the music for half a verse. Triple and quadruple chants may also be described as containing six or eight quarters.
- to a single chant sung twice,
- to a double chant,
- to an appropriate 14 bars (usually specified by the composer) of a triple chant or quadruple chant.
Psalms may be sung unaccompanied or accompanied by an organ or other instrument. Organists use a variety of registrations to mirror the changing mood of the words from verse to verse; but the organ should never be so loud that the words cannot be clearly heard. Organists may sometimes indulge in word painting, using effects such as a deep pedal note on the word "thunder", a harsh reed tone for "darkness" contrasting with a mixture for "light", or (more frivolously) applying the Zymbelstern to the phrases "round about" and "fair ground". Psalm 102 may be the hardest to illustrate, including both a "pelican of the wilderness" and an "owl of the waste places".
A further stylistic technique is used in cathedrals and churches which use an antiphonal style of singing. In this case, the choir is divided into two equal half-choirs, each having representation for the four musical parts, and usually facing one another. They are typically named Decani (usually the half-choir to the south side) and Cantoris (usually the half-choir to the north side). Then the choir may employ either of the techniques known as quarter-chanting and half-chanting. In quarter-chanting, the side that starts (usually decani) sing the first quarter of the chant (and thus the first half of the verse). The side that did not start (usually cantoris) then sing the second quarter of the chant (and thus the second half of the verse). This sequence then repeats. In half-chanting (which is more true to antiphonal singing in the Gregorian style), decani sing the first two quarters of the chant, and cantoris the next two quarters (so that each half-choir sings a whole verse at a time).
With antiphonal singing, the first two verses, the Gloria and perhaps the last two verses are often sung by the whole choir.
A few choirs (such as King's College, Cambridge) elaborate further, e.g. by having some verses sung by soloists, trebles only, alto/tenor/bass only (with the treble line transferred into one of the other parts) or one part or soloists singing the melody while the rest of the choir hums. Occasionally some or all trebles may sing a descant; this usually happens only in the final verse of the psalm and/or the Gloria.
- inverted comma - bar line (point)
- semibreve - whole note
- minim - half note
- crotchet - quarter note