The History of Plainchant Tradition in the Community of St. Mary by Mother Miriam, CSM
The Sisters of St. Mary in Greenwich, New York, live a vowed life of poverty, chastity, and obedience in Community, centered around the daily Eucharist and a five-fold Divine Office. Our way of life is a modern expression of traditional monastic practice, strongly influenced by the Benedictine ethos, including silent meals in common, plain chant in English for much of our corporate worship, a distinctive habit, and a measure of enclosure.
The Community was founded in New York City on the Feast of the Purification, February 2, 1865. The Book of Common Prayer served as the first Office Book. The chaplain, the Rev. Morgan Dix, (then rector of Trinity Parish, Wall Street) began at once to prepare a Diurnal on traditional monastic lines. This Book of Hours(1), as it was called, was first used on Epiphany 1866. It was superseded in 1875 by an adaptation of the Sarum Office(2) prepared by Dr. John Mason Neale for the Sisters of St. Margaret, East Grinstead, England. At first the Offices were spoken, but the introduction of A Manual of Plain Song(3) after 1868 was the beginning of the musical rendering of the Office in English. Vespers and Little Hours were sung to tonal settings. Special Offices were setto melodies from Beethoven and other composers, and were hand copied into manuscript books by each Sister. When the Rev. Canon C. Winfred Douglas became the choirmaster for the Community in 1906, he introduced a new edition of A Manual of Plain Song(4) to the choir, and later his own St. Dunstan Psalter(5). Prior to assuming his new position, he spent time in England, France, and Germany studying early church music. What he always valued most was the course in plainsong given by the Benedictine monks, who, exiled from their home monastery at Solesmes, had taken up residence at Quarr Abbey in the Isle of Wight. In an article for The Catholic Choirmaster published in March 1926, Canon Douglas explained his reasoning for welcoming the opportunity to be choirmaster for the Community of St. Mary.
"Parish Churches are too subject to changing policies with changing rectors for much hope of permanent stability in a musical tradition. It seemed to the writer that seminaries and schools, with their comparatively fixed policies, and above all, religious orders, offered the best field for constructive work... St. Mary's Convent and the group of institutions clustered around it seemed an admirable field for the establishment of a Plainsong tradition."(6)
The transition from modern notation, measured rhythm and polyphonic settings tothe Solesmes method of unison, equi-measured square notation chant presented quite an adjustment for the Sisters. Canon Douglas' patience and skill had them singing Compline in ten days and the other simple offices over the next weeks. The school girls also learned the chant with the Sisters. Over the years many alumnae returned to Peekskill to sing at major liturgical feasts in St. Mary's Chapel.
The Night Office was first recited in May 1874 from the Neale edition of the Sarum Office(7). On March 12, 1916, a shortened form of the Benedictine Night Hours was introduced(8), and a revision of this came into use Pentecost, June 13, 1943. At Tenebrae and on great feasts such as Christmas, Purification, and Easter, the Night Office was sung in full, adapted from monastic melodies in use in the Latin with local variances since at least the tenth century.
The music for special occasional offices(9) was adapted to English from ancient monastic manuscripts and presented to the Community on the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, 1923. Father Douglas' instructor from Solesmes, the Rev. Dom Eudine, paid several visits to America and lectured and conducted choir lessons in our schools and convents. On one occasion as he went over his student's adaptations in The Ceremonial Noted, he exclaimed, “Ah! Père Doo-glass you have robbed us well!”
The time had come to offer the Episcopal Church a full English monastic Office. In researching among the minor variations of so many versions of the Benedictine Office, Canon Douglas chose from the oldest available and best physically preserved manuscripts found in his day in Europe.(10) His primary principle of adaptation to English was that the sense of the words must be supported by the flow of the music. The praise of God must take precedence over the virtuosity of the plainsong. It took twenty years from Canon Douglas' first lesson with the Sisters in psalmody to the day they sang an English language Vespers complete in every musical detail. On September 8, 1919, his translation of the Benedictine Diurnal(11) was used for the first time, and in 1932 The Monastic Diurnal, a revision of it, was published by Oxford University Press. Having completed The Monastic Diurnal, Canon Douglas turned his attention to publishing the Community's mass music settings in the St. Dunstan's Kyrial.(12)
Towards the end of his life Canon Douglas worked on an Antiphoner to accompany The Monastic Diurnal. He worked and experimented with the Sisters' choir for over thirty years to translate and adapt appropriate antiphons from manuscripts found in the Solesmes Paléographie Musicale— primarily the10th century Hartker Antiphoner(13), the 12th century Lucca Antiphoner,(14) and the 13th century Worcester Antiphoner.(15) He was obliged to interrupt this work in order to work with the 1940 Hymnal Committee, and death overtook him in 1944 before its completion. Sister Hildegarde from the Western Province of the Community of St. Mary and Sister Benedicta from the Eastern Province (with the help of Mrs. Ann Douglas) completed the work. The Monastic Diurnal Noted(16) (hereafter known as the MDN) was published in 1952 and Lauds Noted(17) in 1960.
The years between 1960 and 1979, when the latest revision of the American Book of Common Prayer was approved by General Convention, were years of experimentation, loose leaf notebooks, and stray pieces of paper on the Sisters’ prayer desks. With the multiple rites for the Eucharist and the new three-year Mass and two-year daily Office lectionaries, the Monastic Diurnal no longer followed the lectionary of the Church year and the Kyrial was limited to Rite I services. The challenge for the Community was
to revise the language of the Diurnal to contemporary usage and conformity to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer,
to find sufficient antiphons for psalms and canticles to match the new liturgical Scripture reading cycles, and
to adapt Canon Douglas’ St. Dunstan's Kyrial to Rite II modern international contemporary English texts (ICET) texts for the ordinary.
The first draft revision of the Monastic Diurnal was the work of many Sisters’ hands and began the acid test of use in choir by October 1979. By Advent 1982, the Sisters spiral-bound two volumes for the ordinary Psalter and the Office Propers to accompany it. The music was still in loose-leaf notebooks. The antiphons were laboriously cut from an old Monastic Diurnal and put in the proper order to match the lectionary, changed to modern English, and then photocopied and sung in choir to see if the adaptations were singable according to Canon Douglas’ style of chant. By Lent 1983 the Community printed a third spiral-bound volume for the Triduum with a complete Tenebrae.
Finding antiphons for the Gospel of Mark, made necessary by the Lectionary for Sundays’ Year B readings, was the most difficult task because much of the Roman Rite concentrates on Matthew and Luke. We cross-referenced the Monastic Diurnal Noted to Scripture. Where there were parallel texts used from the Synoptic Gospels, we would use the slightly changed wording of an antiphon from an alternative Gospel. Where there were no appropriate antiphons in the MDN, we searched through the Paléographie Musicale manuscript facsimiles Canon Douglas left us and those he left to the Archives of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. A few Latin antiphons were found this way and translated. A couple of Communion verses were even adapted. The last resort when no appropriate texts for antiphons were found was to adapt the desired Scripture text to a plainsong antiphon structure with compatible phrasing and accentuation.
By Advent 1989 The Monastic Diurnal Revised(18) was published in a hard-bound volume and is available today to the general public from the Sisters in Greenwich. In this revision the sisters have sought to adapt St. Benedict's principles for the structure of the Divine Office to the needs of people in our day, both individuals and small religious communities with outreach work. The Hours have been simplified by a reduction of repetitions, and particularly by a combination of Matins and Lauds. In keeping with modern Benedictine usage, Prime as a separate office is omitted. In addition, the other traditional “Little Hours” of Terce, Sext, and None have been simplified. Like other modern revisions, this book does not attempt to retain St. Benedict's sevenfold Office and the recitation of the entire Psalter every week. Unlike others, however, the Psalm distribution normally associated with Benedictine Little Hours, Vespers, and Compline has been retained. The remaining Psalms are used at Matins on a monthly cycle. The Monastic Diurnal Revised has gone through two printings so far because of demand outside the Convent. The music for Little Hours and Vespers is essentially complete in photocopied form, and the Community hopes to publish when there is sufficient interest in it.
Presently, the Community has four Rite II Mass Settings of the Ordinary that have been adapted from the St. Dunstan's Kyrial: Missa Marialis(19), Missa de Angelis(20), Missa Dominicalis(21), and Missa Penitentialis.(22) Missa Marialis was printed in modern notation and an accompaniment edition was developed, since this was the one Plainsong setting in the 1940 Hymnal and much loved in parishes. The other three are less well known, but add variety to the Community’s liturgical year.
The life and work of Canon Charles Winfred Douglas has added immeasurably to the richness of the praise of God in the Community of St. Mary and in the Church, not only in his lifetime, but now in a second and third generation of Sisters continually praying the Benedictine Opus Dei in a modern setting.
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