The Introit to the Missa Pro Defunctis (Mass for the Dead) the Requiem Aeternam, is a very familiar piece to most people. Virtually any Catholic will be familiar with the text and the music is regularly sung due to its simplicity and of course its importance. There are plenty of recordings on the internet but most of these are all sung in a similar vein. It might come as a surprise to you that the current Solesmes practice of singing this Introit, as I discovered last Saturday at St Cecilia’s Abbey on the Isle of Wight, is very different to anything you might have heard before.
What follows is a synopsis of the current practice of singing Requiem Aeternam as taught to my Schola by Sister Bernadette, the choir mistress of St. Cecilia’s. (Any quotations in speech marks are from St Bernadette. )
Firstly a couple of points on Mode VI. This mode found a lot in Paschaltide is the mode of rebirth. “The mode of simple and solid faith.” It is often pentatonic and characterised by a major third. The dominant is LA, the range of the mode is from Do to Do and the Final is FA. FA and LA are therefore the structural notes of this mode. Sister has a theory that children naturally sing in Mode VI and would be grateful if someone would like to do a Phd on the subject to prove her thesis.
Moving on to the practice of singing the Requiem Aeternam, it is important at the very beginning that you start with a solid repetition on the FA FA on the Req of Requiem. Those first two notes are so commonly heard as one longer note. (Incidentally, the ideal note to start the chant on is F.)
The next and probably the most marked difference in how this introit it is commonly sung and how Solesmes interpret it are on the four identical salicus’ FA, SO, LAH. They are found on the ae of aeternum, on the do of dona, the mi of Domine and the e of eis. Listen to virtually any recording and you will hear the practice of sitting on the vertical episema found on the second note in the Salicus. The Solesmes practice is that when it is sung, the first note is light, the second note is a contradiction note which then draws you to the top note, the most important and the strongest note.
(If you are wondering what a contradiction note is, in some monastic houses, it is referred to as the ‘John the Baptist note.’ Meaning ‘l am not the important note, the one who comes after me is the important one. ‘ The contradiction note should not be confused with a quilisma which is not important even when in this chant it falls on the ‘lah. “A quilisma serves the purpose of being purely ornamental. “)
Don’t put a heavy stress on the bottom notes. You must always be drawn to the top note on the ‘lah.”In Gregorian Chant, the force of gravity works the opposite way round. You are always drawn upwards, up to the top notes.” Therefore, it the top note that should be lengthened and NOT the middle note.
One of the theories behind this change in phrasing is based around the school of thought now that the vertical episema found on the salicus indicates an oriscus, not an ictus. Dom Gregory Sunol said that an Oriscus is ” a soft light notes which may be ushered in by an acclerando of the group to which is it attached in execution. It may either occupy the degree above the preceding note or be placed on the same degree.”
Moving on to the eis this must be sung as a light run, up and down.
After dona eis, put in a comma before you sing Domine.
After the bar line it is important not to rush the vowel sound on lux. In the St Gall manuscript it is drawn as a torculus. Treat it almost as though there is a liquescent before the x, so you enunciate the consonant x clearly.
When you reach the final eis, remember to elongate the LA on the e of eis and the sixth neume of that group SOL before falling gently to your final resting note.
One final tip, be careful when you have people singing this chant from different books. The psalm verse from the Liber Usualis is different to that it in the Graduale Romanum, the former is from the old vulgate (I think.)