PRAYERCAzT: Sunday Vespers, with lots of frills (Liber Usualis) – 3rd Sunday after Epiphany – Fr. Z rants a little.

Lots of frills this time, for the tired brethren.

However, I did something different time. I sang the whole thing from beginning to end using the Liber Usualis.

NOTE: Most of the year people will sing the Salve Regina rather than the Alma Redemptoris Mater (Christmas season).  I include, therefore, the Salve.

[UPDATE: A couple people have freaked out that I didn’t do the Alma Redemptoris Mater with the response for after 1st Vespers of Christmas to the Feast of the Purification.  They may not have read this post.  Therefore, I am including, in the media player below, the whoooole thing but with the Alma Redemptoris Mater.  So there!]

A group of men is getting Sunday Vespers in the older, traditional form of the office, going in NYC.  I thought something like this might be helpful for them as they get familiar with the chants.  Since this is one of those green Sundays which has psalms that are repeated often during the year, I figured this would be a good time to record something for them to review as they start learning psalm tones, etc.  Repetita iuvant.

Let’s also have a look at the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium (my emphases and comments):

99. Since the divine office is the voice of the Church, that is of the whole mystical body publicly praising God, those clerics who are not obliged to office in choir, especially priests who live together or who assemble for any purpose, are urged to pray at least some part of the divine office in common.

All who pray the divine office, whether in choir or in common, should fulfill the task entrusted to them as perfectly as possible: this refers not only to the internal devotion of their minds but also to their external manner of celebration.

It is, moreover, fitting that the office, both in choir and in common, be sung when possible.

100. Pastors of souls should see to it that the chief hours, especially Vespers, are celebrated in common in church on Sundays and the more solemn feasts. And the laity, too, are encouraged to recite the divine office, either with the priests, or among themselves, or even individually.  [Get that?  Vespers on Sundays?  At least in cathedrals of dioceses and ‘major’ churches where there are greater resources.  There it is in Sacrosanctum Concilium.  What part of this is hard to understand?  Nothing is more in the Spirit of the Council than to have sung Vespers on a Sunday.]

101. 1. In accordance with the centuries-old tradition of the Latin rite, the Latin language is to be retained by clerics in the divine office. But in individual cases the ordinary has the power of granting the use of a vernacular translation to those clerics for whom the use of Latin constitutes a grave obstacle to their praying the office properly. The vernacular version, however, must be one that is drawn up according to the provision of Art. 36.  [In other words, the cleric has to go to the bishop and say “I can’t understand Latin.  Please give me permission to use a translation”.  The bishop then would say “But Father! But Father!”, with a furrowed brow, “You studied Latin in seminary, right?  Doesn’t the Code of Canon Law require that seminarians be “very well trained” in Latin? Father, I now quote can. 249 – Institutionis sacerdotalis Ratione provideatur ut alumni non tantum accurate linguam patriam edoceantur, sed etiam linguam latinam bene calleant necnon congruam habeant cognitionem alienarum linguarum, quarum scientia ad eorum formationem aut ad ministerium pastorale exercendum necessaria vel utilis videatur.   But since you, Father, say you don’t know Latin, here it is in English… ‘The program for priestly formation is to make provision that the students are not only carefully taught their native language but also that they are well skilled in the Latin language; they are also to have a suitable familiarity with those foreign languages which seem necessary of useful for their own formation or for the exercise of their pastoral ministry.’  If you, Father, are a priest of the Latin Church, why don’t you know the language of your Church?  Am I… I the diocesan bishop to blame?!? …. …. Don’t answer that.  Yes, Father, you have permission to use the vernacular for your office.”  ]

2. The competent superior has the power to grant the use of the vernacular in the celebration of the divine office, even in choir, to nuns and to members of institutes dedicated to acquiring perfection, both men who are not clerics and women. The version, however, must be one that is approved.

WDTPRS applauds those who wish to sing the office in Latin.

Finally, I have a few suggestions for singing chant, psalms, etc.

In no particular order.

  • Try to soften your volume a bit at the ends of phrases so you leave the impression that you are not really trying to holler.
  • Soften the high notes a bit, so you don’t hammer them.
  • You can start a phrase a bit softer and then increase your force during the middle part of the phrases, but rein yourself in at the ends.
  • Don’t race and don’t plod.  It is hard to describe the right rate.  Each genre of chant has its own purpose.  Remember that all chants are actual texts.  They are language.  Too slow and you lose the sense of the language.  Too fast and you don’t respect the content.  Keep it moving.  Psalms are quicker than other chants, but don’t race.  There is no prize for the first to finish.
  • Don’t sing in different octaves.  Get everyone on the same pitch… no really.  You can do it.
  • I don’t like mixed chant, that is male and female voices singing together.  I just don’t.  I think there should be a schola for men and a schola for women.  I love chant sung by women!  When it is good, it has an ethereal quality that men can’t accomplish.  Segregation, I say.  Separate but equal.
  • Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  At the same time, if someone can’t hit the pitch… really can’t… is really tone deaf… be diplomatic, but find them some candle to carry even as you remove the book from their hands. If you know you aren’t singing well… can’t get those notes, perhaps there is another way in which you can help.  There are lots of cool things to do during Vespers and Mass.  Necessary things.
  • When you are singing in a group, for the love of God, LISTEN TO EACH OTHER!  Look UP once in a while to be sure you know what is going on!
  • Be careful when singing psalms not to drift flat.  This is pretty common when people AREN’T LISTENING or paying attention to each other or to the cantor(s), who will usually have a good sense of pitch.  LISTEN.   Going flat is excruciating to people who have to listen.
  • You are not Caruso.   You are not Renee Fleming.  You are not Jussi Bjorling.  Sing with everyone else, for PITY’S SAKE!  You (WE) don’t want to hear YOU.  We want to hear you merged with, singing with, every one else, singing exactly the same thing, at the same time, on the same pitch, with the same force.  If you are not designated to sing a solo bit, then get a grip!  This isn’t about you, anyway.

Thus endeth the rant.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. marija says:

    You had asked for ideas for the “Summorum Pontificum” and mine were all about training the laity. Your post sounds like my choir practise. It is very important to teach, teach, teach. Good ideas. Thanks.

  2. AnAmericanMother says:

    Amen! Father. What you said.

    Choral singing is NOT solo singing. Listen to each other. Our choirmaster points out that Renaissance choirs didn’t have directors, and the best early music ensembles don’t sing to a director either. You all listen to each other and adjust as necessary.

    The trick with high notes is not to ‘scoop’ or ‘hammer’ – you should try to keep your tone forward in the mask (you can actually feel your sinuses vibrating if you do it right) and open up the inside of your head and relax the jaw to rise gently but firmly up into the high note. This will also stop your going flat. “Go down to go up” is the way our choirmaster explains it. I’m a very deep contralto so I really have to consciously work on this all the time.

    If you don’t have separate scholas, you can achieve the same effect by having the men and the women alternate verses. We did exactly that this morning. It sounded great. [If you say so. I say: separate but equal. Keep the cooties away. No mixing, of chants or even alternating.]

    As far as the volume and emphasis, agree with everything you say. There is an overarching principle: chant is more like speaking than singing. If you chant as you speak, the phrases will rise and fall, the emphasis will get into the right place, and the volume will correct itself. And the Solesmes books have convenient little tick marks where the emphasis should go. AND if you divide up your chant into little groups of 2 and 3 syllables, you will get the emphasis falling in the right place (choirmaster taught us that neat trick).

  3. AnAmericanMother says:

    Oh, yeah . . . one pet peeve I forgot to mention.

    Would all you aspiring opera singers and pop stars knock it off already with the vibrato?

    It’s o.k. for Verdi (I guess) but it’s wrong!!! for chant. And for all Renaissance music. It pops out of the choral sound like a neon sign, and it also will mess up your pitch because vibrato is oscillating all around the actual pitch and two people with vibrato are never on exactly the same pitch at the same time.

    Go on YouTube and listen to the Clare College choir. That’s what you’re aiming for.

  4. Rachel says:

    “You don’t want to hear YOU. We want to hear you merged with, singing with, every one else, singing exactly the same thing, at the same time, on the same pitch, with the same force.”

    Good words for the congregation to hear too! I think some folks at sung TLMs are so proud to have the Latin Credo memorized that they don’t realize the rest of us aren’t impressed. No matter how good the voice, it sounds terrible if it’s sticking out louder than everyone else… and people who sing like that are never in sync with the choir either, because they’re not listening.

  5. Precentrix says:

    ROTFLMHO at the first part of this post!

  6. Once at a meeting of lay Dominicans from around the province, we did Vespers in plainchant in choirs. Started out in the attic, ended up in the basement. It was pretty painful to listen to, and there wasn’t a thing I could do about it. Then recently I got hold of a recording of friars chanting the Dominican Ave Maris Stella in choirs, and noticed that the same thing happened to them (only it was more like starting at the top of the stairs and ending at the middle of the stairs). So I felt a little better to realize that even the friars are not immune to that phenomenon.

  7. terryprest says:

    Every Sunday Westminster Cathedral in London has sung Solemn Vespers with Benediction at 3.30pm with Canons and full choir. Most of it is sung and in Latin. They provide leaflets with the Latin words and with the English translation. The average congregation is 100 – 200 sometimes more. Today they did the Alma Redemptoris Mater and Magnificat in Latin

  8. irishgirl says:

    I have never sung in a schola, but I have been in parish choirs. And your ‘rules’ are spot on, Father Z!
    Especially when you emphasize ‘staying together’ and [most important] LISTENING TO EACH OTHER!

  9. Joan M says:

    Father, you bring back memories of being at Vespers in the chapel of the Benedictine Monastery here in Trinidad.

    The monks were chanting beautifully, but it was a total disaster because of one of the congregation who couldn’t chant a note to save his life loudly chanting over the monks…..

    I had a migraine by the time I got out of there!!

  10. Fr. B says:

    Thank you for the mp3’s. It really helps me following along in my copy of the Brevarium Romanum. You know, I’m one of those priests you mentioned. When I was in seminary, Latin was NOT even a part of the curriculum. Fortunately it has been restored to the curriculum now, but 15 years too late for me. Its self-study for me now well after the fact, and I struggle with it. That being said, I agree wholeheartedly with what you posted.

  11. For Miss Anita Moore, T.O.P., and others,

    You do know that the entire Liturgy of the Hours in Dominican Gregorian chant is available in 5 volumes (PDFs) here:

  12. Fr. TK says:

    Thank you for that! It did uplift a tired cleric.

  13. Lioba says:

    Thank you so much for recording Vespers, and doing such a beautiful job! Earlier today I was able to attend the EF Sung Mass at Saint Paul’s Church in South Philadelphia (with a fine Men’s Schola and a choir doing polyphony), so the Vespers were the end of a perfect day.

  14. Luvadoxi says:

    I haven’t listened to much chant…a recording and some sisters in a convent. It’s ethereal, it’s beautiful, but there’s something in it, something in the constancy of the tone, that does keep me let’s say–un-relaxed. I have a tendency to migraines…someone mentioned it so I thought of this. Something about the repetition, or constancy of the tone, maybe? Is it me, or is it possible it’s not being sung right? (This is sort of a rhetorical question, but I really am bothered that I can’t totally relax and enjoy chant like I would like to.)

  15. Ed the Roman says:

    If you are not designated to sing a solo bit, then get a grip! This isn’t about you, anyway.

    Speaking as a soloist, it isn’t about you even if you DO have a solo bit.

  16. nmoerbeek says:

    The recording was extremely useful and I think that your rules should be posted where the scholas hang their cassocks and the choir loft sings.

    Do you think it would be possible to record sung Lauds for Sunday eventually?

  17. Rob Cartusciello says:

    In accordance with the centuries-old tradition of the Latin rite, the Latin language is to be retained by clerics in the divine office.

    Indulge me in a mini-rant of my own.

    I was in religious life for eight years. Despite the frequent references by formation staff to the “Spirit of Vatican II”, we were never educated about this particular passage from Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Second Vatican Council).

    Indeed, our first novice master had a near meltdown when one of the novices led Morning Prayer in Latin one day. He >forbade< the use of Latin at Morning Prayer in perpetuity.

    Said novice master left religious life shortly thereafter – the benefit of all involved. Yet the damage had been done.

  18. Pedantic Classicist says:

    Thanks, Fr. Z, for the recording, the rest of the post, and for the good advice! There’s been a great Sunday evening chant group at Duke for a number of years, run pretty much completely by lay people (with Professor Kerry McCarthy, a great young Catholic scholar and specialist in Byrd, as leader). We had our first meeting in a while tonight; it was nice to get a little “preview” from you here.

    (folks in the “Triangle” area of North Carolina: the group meets at Duke’s Catholic Center off of East Campus every Sunday at 7!)

    Where is this group in NYC? I am often there and the prospect of Sunday night Vespers certainly makes New York that much more palatable.

  19. Teresa-1962 says:

    Thanks so much for these posts. I am trying to learn and listening to the language spoken, (sung and chanted) correctly is the absolute best way to get past the awkwardness of the language. Plus, it’s just plain beautiful.

  20. AnAmericanMother says:


    What’s probably getting to you is the “pointed” tone — hard to explain, but it is a clear and sharp edge to the initial attack. It’s customary and it’s helpful for diction and to keep the choir together in a large church with lots of reverberation, but it can be too much at close quarters or on a recording.

    Have a listen to this sort of modified use of chant by a male chorus from YouTube — Chanticleer singing the Franz Biebl “Ave Maria” – they do not point, either in the chant or the choral elaboration (they don’t need to in a studio recording, plus they are so good they don’t have to.)

  21. MJ says:

    GREAT post, Fr Z! I sing with the polyphony choir at my parish but also in the women’s schola – we’ll be doing the chants for the Feast of the Purification on February 2nd.

    Love your guidelines! I couldn’t help but chuckle at many of them. I think I may print them out and tack them to the wall in the choir rehearsal room, hahaaa. :-P

  22. Tina in Ashburn says:

    You can tell a community in disarray by the chaos in its singing. Doesn’t matter whether it is a congregation, a parish choir or a community of monks.

  23. GirlCanChant says:

    If you are not designated to sing a solo bit, then get a grip! This isn’t about you, anyway.

    Ed the Roman says:

    Speaking as a soloist, it isn’t about you even if you DO have a solo bit.

    I second this. I am also a soloist, and I think it is actually most important for those who sing on their own to remember that it is not about them. When I used to cantor, I would always pray, Lord, help me to remember that it’s all about You. It’s not about me. I started offering up the Masses I cantored for the intentions of my friends, and I think that was some of the best singing I’ve ever done. Prayer is an awesome thing.

  24. Hans says:

    Rob Cartusciello says:

    Indulge me in a mini-rant of my own.

    Certainly. (Though Fr. Z might have more to say to the point.)

    I was in religious life for eight years. Despite the frequent references by formation staff to the “Spirit of Vatican II”, we were never educated about this particular passage from Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Second Vatican Council).

    Perhaps that’s because the “Spirit of Vatican II” has about the same relationship to Vatican II that a hijacker has to an airplane.

  25. carl b says:

    Fr Z,

    Did you do both Vespers and Compline on thsi prayercazt? I would think the Alma/Salve issue would come up only with Compline, and not when praying Vespers. [Take a look at the rubrics in your Liber Usualis.]

  26. pgoings says:

    Our esteemed host is welcome to delete this if he thinks it inopportune, but I’d mention to anyone who might be interested that Vespers from the Breviarium Romanum is sung on Sunday afternoons at three o’clock at S. Clement’s (Episcopal) Church in Philadelphia. The antiphons, etc., are rendered by a volunteer schola and the responses and psalms are sung by all.

  27. Luvadoxi says:

    The Chanticleer Ave Maria was divine–thank you for posting that! It’s definitely more pleasing; I don’t know if it’s the lack of “pointing” or the male voices, or the harmony, but I definitely love it!

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