Ruff on chant book at The Catholic Channel

Last week, Jennifer Pascual (music director at St. Pat’s cathedral in NY and chair of the NPM Board of Directors), interviewed me on “Sounds from the Spires,” the program she does on The Catholic Channel of SIRIUS/ XM Satellite Radio. (We don’t have a spire here, we have a bell banner, but oh well.)

Topic was my new book and CD from GIA, Canticum novum. Here, with permission of The Catholic Channel, is the soundtrack of the program.



  1. Thanks for posting this interview!

    I’ve looked at the book, and honestly, I am a little confused. You say that you want to make the chant accessible, and you do so by offering options in terms of notation, etc. So one one side we have the square notes, and on the other, something that resembles modern notation, but vaguely (ok, the notes are rounded). There are still lots of lines and squiggles that people with no exposure to chant notation will have a hard time making out…unless they listen to the cd while they are looking at the book.

    If a novice chanter (and lots of music directors are just that) picks up the book, aiming to use it with his or her choir, aren’t you concerned that it might be a source of more confusion (sometimes too many options isn’t a good thing) among the singers? Do you intend for choir members to sing from this book, or is it basically a resource for the director? If the novice chanter/director isn’t prepared to answer the questions, how might he or she defend his decision to use this book?

    Fr. Ruff, I’m curious about your opinion on another matter, too, which you touch on in your interview. You and Jennifer talked about the different kinds of notation, which is easier to read, etc. Imagine a person has no background in reading musical notation of any kind. Wouldn’t you agree that learning square notes is easier than learning modern notation with its system of clefs and keys and accidentals and everything else? The former really wins out when it comes to the details and theory one has to learn to read it on a basic level.

    1. @Arlene Oost-Zinner – comment #2:
      Arlene, thanks for your excellent, interesting Qs.

      I hope providing both notations, 4-line and 5-line, will keep everyone happy! Both can be used at once, whatever each singer is comfortable with. Many singers and choir members ALREADY can read 5-line, & in my experience they appreciate the 5-line with all the usual conventions of key signature, pitches on lines/spaces, etc. For those who have never read any notation before, can they more easily begin with 4-line or with 5-line? It’s an interesting question and I’ve honestly never thought about it. 4-line may well be a bit easier. I believe that 4-line isn’t that difficult, and can be learned rather quickly. But however much you and I know that and would like to convince singers of it, lots of them find 5-line less daunting. Even the non-singers have been using missalettes or hymnals their whole life with 5-line, so there is familiarity with it. Maybe it’s only a psychological barrier to 4-line, and if people would just try it they’d find out how ‘easy’ it is – but psychological barriers are also real, so I prefer to provide a helpful option.

      Early lineless notation in red – you’re right, most singers can ignore it and I’m sure they will. I guess I provided it to signal to everyone that chant is now sung (in Europe, in the new editions from Solesmes and the Holy See) with a text-based understanding based on early neumes. And for those who are interested, they can see how the (revised) 4-line and the (AWR-developed) 5-line both convey nuances of the early notation. I hope others can ignore it without being confused by its presence.

      Now, some singers or choirs won’t yet be ready to incorporate the nunace of liquescents and still sing things in the old equaled out way. But they’ll be ignoring the liquescent hooks or smaller notes in either notation – they can ignore it in my 5-line just as well as in 4-line.

      Hope that helps.


      1. @Anthony Ruff, OSB – comment #3:

        One more anecdote. I learned to read modern notation in second grade when I began playing the accordian (which was that day’s equivalent of a “guitar” among Slavic nationalities). Two years later I made it into the parish children’s choir, which was directed by a Atchison Benedictine sister, and I learned 4-line chant notation. I sang from the Liber Usualis every day I was in high school and through my first year in college. I learned chironomy and conducted chant when I was a senior in high school.

        I can read four staves of a Rachmaninov piano prelude. I can read piano four hand music across the two facing pages. I can read orchestral scores of the Classical and Romantic periods without much sweat. But I find that my brain works overtime reading a single four-line staff of Gregorian chant. Why is that?

      2. @Fr. Ron Krisman – comment #5:

        Fr. Krisman,

        I am not surprised by your experience. I agree in theory with Arlene that the simpler 4-line staff SHOULD be easier to read. I would be interested in any studies or simply anecdotes of experience teaching chant to singers with no prior musical education. The issue with the chant notation is really for those of us who spent years learning modern notation, before ever learning chant notation. Even when I am reading the 4-line staff these days, my brain translates it into modern notation, and moving the pitch around causes many problems. I suppose it’s a bit like learning a foreign language – after a while, you learn to think in the system, but it’s better if learned at a young age. There is also a systemic problem in our musical education, which if dealing with chant at all, spends only a very little time on it in musicology classes, and even then without performance practice in mind. Maybe things will change again over time, and in 100 years we will regard modern chant transcription as we now view heavily edited editions of Palestrina. But we are not there yet, so anything like this to help classically educated musicians is greatly appreciated.

  2. Fr. Anthony, to illustrate your comment in post #3: I have taught 4-line notation to my Gregorian Schola and our principal choir with a moderate degree of success. Ironically, the professional musicians and music teachers in our choirs find it more difficult than those who are not used to reading music, per se. They are so used to pitches being fixed and absolute on the 5-line scale, that the moveable -do or -fa causes much confusion. Go figure…

    Thanks for posting the interview Fr. Anthony!

  3. It seems to be a fact that most people lose their ability to easily learn a new language as they grow older. Maybe this is true of learning musical notation as well. Musical notation is also, after all, a language.

    Maybe a learning psychologist could enlighten us about lost abilities.

  4. I think that it is a superb book, and intend to use it as a text at the courses offered by St Basil’s School of Gregorian Chant in Houston. I think that Father has chosen a format which will show that chant is not some wierd kind of music, but one that can be sung with ‘regular’ notes, and having lost fear, one will be enticed to notice that the square notes, too, are not bizarre, but are an easily learnt feather in one’s cap. There are, I think, many who could profit from this appraoch, and OUR CAUSE will be better served for it. Kudos to Fr Ruff.

    BY THE WAY – for any interested parties – we (St Basil’s School of Gregorian Chant) are offering our fall course this year on Saturdays from 13th October through 17th November at St Basil’s Chapel at UST. The course covers early and late history, a thorough treatment of the propers (processional and meditative dealt with separately. Also, the ordinary, with a thourough account of the role and history of each in the liturgy. Plus analysis of chant types and form, cheironomy. We will study and sing from historic manuscripts, and, under Charles Stewart ,PhD we will examine the art and archaeological evidence; while The Rev Msgr Jeffrey Steenson of the Anglican Ordinariate will reveal the theological dimensions of chant. The course closes with a solemn English NO mass in St Basil’s Chapel, which is followed by a banquet and the Black Labrador.
    [Full Syllabus, tuition, and details will be sent upon request.]

    ALSO – we will have another Winter Workshop featuring Fr Columba Kelley and others in February. We hope to make this a truly national event. More details later.

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