Sep 15, 2004

How can we restore Gregorian Chant to "pride of place"?

Online Edition – Vol. X, No. 6: September 2004

How can we restore Gregorian Chant to "pride of place"?

by Lucy Carroll

From before the time of Saint Gregory the Great, through the Council of Trent, via Pope Saint Pius X, to the Second Vatican Council, to the recent chirography by Pope John II, the Holy See has continuously affirmed plain-chant as the most appropriate music to carry the sacred texts of the Liturgy.

Vatican II’s Constitution on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, stated that chant was to be given "pride of place" — a phrase echoed by Pope Paul VI in Musicam Sacram (March 5, 1967) and repeated in the current General Instruction of the Roman Missal. (41)

Chant is eminently suitable for the sacred Liturgy because it is sacred in nature. That is, its form and structure make it separate and distinct from the music of the popular culture. Chant in its pure form evolved solely to serve the Liturgy. Deriving from Hebraic cantillations of Jewish worship, its long lines weave around the sacred texts, reaching upward like gothic spires or hands raised in prayer. It has no pounding rhythm, no strong downbeat; it does not induce dancing, frenzy, clapping, finger-snapping, swaying, or other earth-bound activity. Its sole purpose is to carry the sacred texts, pulling our hearts and minds away from the mundane and up toward God.

Chant is timeless. It doesn’t sound like a 1950s dance tune, a Broadway ballad, a Sousa march, or anything else that will call up secular or worldly images and feelings. Many beautiful chants have been sung for centuries and can continue to edify, such as the Salve Regina, Jesu Dulcis Memoria, the Regina Caeli at Easter, and Puer Natus in Bethlehem at Christmas.

What could be lovelier at a funeral Mass than the In Paradisum, or more stunning on Holy Thursday than the chanted Pange Lingua?

Some chant hymns work well even in vernacular translation, such as Adoro te Devote ("Humbly We Adore Thee"), Conditor Alme Siderum ("Creator of the Stars of Night"), and Cordis natus ex Parentis ("Of the Father’s Love Begotten").

Recall any movie, television show, or commercial featuring a Catholic church or monastery, and what will be on the soundtrack? Most likely, it will be a Gregorian chant. The world knows that the Church and chant are intrinsically intertwined – even if Catholics have forgotten.

Visit the average parish today, however, and instead of chant, one hears the popular music of the secular culture. Where is the chant? Is it the language barrier? While some chants — particularly hymns — can make the translation transition successfully, many liturgical chants are best sung in their original Latin language.

In too many parts of the country, the belief persists that the Second Vatican Council ordered the cessation of Latin. This is untrue. The truth is that during the Council, Pope John XXIII wrote an apostolic constitution, Veterum Sapientia, On the Promotion and Study of Latin (February 22, 1962) reaffirming the importance of Latin in the Church, and urging that Latin be well-taught in schools and seminaries.

Sacrosanctum Concilium stated "the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites". (36.1) The Vatican has never given any directive to the contrary.

Indeed, the recent liturgical instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum confirms that "Priests are always and everywhere permitted to celebrate Mass in Latin". (112)

Learning the Latin texts for Mass is not difficult. Any Jewish student preparing for bat, bar or bas mitzvah learns to sing traditional Hebraic chants. Near our Carmelite monastery in Philadelphia is a conservative synagogue where the entire congregation can chant the entire Shabbas [Sabbath] service in Hebrew. Certainly Catholics today can sing a some Latin! Their ancestors did!

Our little congregation at the monastery can sing historic chants like the Asperges, a Gloria, various settings of Kyrie (Greek), Sanctus, Agnus Dei, Pater Noster, and a number of Latin chant hymns.

In schools and colleges, both Catholic and non-Catholic students sing the great Latin choral works of the Church by composers such as Palestrina, Lotti, and Victoria. Classical singers perform Latin masterworks such as the Bruckner Te Deum or the Verdi and Mozart Requiems with orchestra on concert stages. Any trained singer will tell you that Latin is one of the easiest languages to sing, with its open vowels and consistent pronunciation rules.

Yet chant is sadly absent in our churches. If publishers do include chant, they offer only the Missa Jubilate Deo, leading many Catholics to think it is the one and only chant Mass. (The Missa Jubilate Deo, ordered to be published by Pope Paul VI, is actually a composite of Missa XVI, Missa VIII, and Missa Deus Genitor Alme, but that is another topic.)

When copies of chant music are given to congregations, the chant often appears in the currently-popular style of black and white standard note-heads without stems. But it is best to read chant in its own square-note notation. This "Roman square notation" evolved slowly over several centuries, and was accessible to all the many monks, nuns, and faithful who sang it.

Given rudimentary instruction, most singers will actually prefer to have the square notation, for it is more visually indicative of the musical tones. Both the pew and choir editions of the Adoremus Hymnal use this notation for the chant Masses it contains.

However, the use of eighth and quarter notes in standard notation (used in the organ edition of the Adoremus Hymnal ) can give a close approximation of chant rhythms.

Workshops on Latin chant would be useful — but few are available, as church music workshops are usually presented by music publishers — understandably eager to to vend only their own new wares. Printed music in Gregorian notation is difficult to obtain (the Adoremus Hymnal is an exception), and most musicians are not trained to read, sing, teach and accompany it.

Until the Church hierarchy insists that Catholic music publishers provide chant (and other more suitable music), and someone provides correct instruction, it rests with the individual parishes to implement the music directives that give "pride of place" to Gregorian chant.

How Can Chant Be Restored

How do we restore chant to a Church that has improperly discarded it? One cannot simply order it to re-appear! Yet it is not an impossible task.

In almost any parish there will be people in the pews old enough to have sung Latin at Mass before the Council. There are also students in high school and college choirs who are learning the great masterworks in Latin. There will be former school choir members, too. There are folks who have learned a second language who will find learning enough Latin to be able to sing plain-chant less difficult than they may think. There are little patches of readiness out there.

If the parish music director is unschooled in chant, a guest musician can be invited to do a chant workshop with the choir and cantors. Private lessons for the music director might be in order. Good recordings of chant can be purchased and studied. (All the chant Masses in the Adoremus Hymnal are recorded on a set of CDs.)

Preparing the Parish to Chant

But first the parish as a whole must be prepared. Statements from the Vatican directives can be read from the pulpit and should be printed in the parish bulletin. Liturgy committees need to formulate a plan and timetable to implement the restoration of some chant to the Mass. Other parish organizations must be schooled as well.

Almost any congregation can add at least two pieces of chant to its repertoire a year. What a fine beginning that would be! The Latin chant hymns mentioned above that translate well into English would be a good starting point to familiarize people with these historic tunes. (Then they could sing them with the Latin words later.)

The best way to restore liturgical chant in its original Latin is to have the choir sing one of the simpler chant pieces of the sacred liturgical texts of the Mass. The music should be provided so that the congregation can follow along. After they hear the piece several times, the congregation will be able participate. At least the choir members should have copies of the Adoremus Hymnal if they do not already have them.

An easy Mass to start with is the Missa Jubilate Deo. (Adoremus Hymnal [AH] 200 to 204) Some parishioners may already know the Kyrie, Sanctus and Agnus Dei, and are ready to add to their repertoire. If not, select one segment, perhaps the Agnus Dei, and have the choir sing it week after week. Provide pew copies of the hymnal for the congregation. Once the pattern is set, new pieces can be added in the same manner: have the choir sing the piece; after a few weeks the congregation will begin joining in.

When the congregation has been singing some chant, a more ambitious work, such as the Gloria, could be added. If the choir sings the Gloria each week, the congregation will join in. (The Gloria was originally a congregational hymn.) In the pre-conciliar rite the celebrant turned around to face the people to sing the first line of the Gloria, their cue to join in singing the rest of it together. Now, however, if the Gloria is sung at Mass, the congregation too often sings only one refrain line. (In one version, the choir or cantor sings the text in English, and the congregation responds in Latin, Gloria, gloria in excelsis Deo — unhappily, however, the phrase is interrupted by rhythmic clapping.)

How much more appropriate for the people to sing the entire Gloria in its original format, particularly on great feasts! And how much more wondrous to sing in the universal language of the Church!

At the Carmelite monastery, the entire congregation sings the Gloria from the Mass of the Angels on both Holy Thursday and Easter Vigil, and our organ is silent from one Gloria to the next, in keeping with tradition. When the organ returns at the Easter Vigil Gloria, many hand bells are rung by the congregation as well as the servers, with the most joyful paean of sound, and the most remarkable feeling of continuity with our sacred past.

Another way to introduce a chant piece is to share it with the choir. The Kyrie from the Missa de Angelis (Missa VIII, AH 210) is so structured that the "eleison" tune is identical in each of the statements. The choir can intone the "Kyrie" or "Christe" segment, and the cantor or choir director can indicate to the congregation that they are to join in on the nine notes of the "eleison".

Very soon, if that Kyrie is done each week, the congregation can sing the entire piece along with the choir.

Some of the Latin hymns may prove daunting because of the number of verses: Adoro te devote — a most appropriate Blessed Sacrament hymn — has seven verses. But if the congregation can learn even the first two verses, this is commendable.

The General Instruction tells us that "Since faithful from different countries come together ever more frequently, it is fitting that they know how to sing together at least some parts of the Ordinary of the Mass in Latin, especially the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, set to the simpler melodies". (GIRM 41)

Since the great truths of our faith are contained in the Creed, and since Jesus Himself gave us the Lord’s Prayer, it is understandable that the Church would want all her children to be able to sing these in a common tongue.

The Creed, being longer, is more difficult; even at the monastery, we are not yet at the point of giving the entire Latin Credo to the congregation, although we have done a simple chanted Creed in English. But the Pater Noster (AH 84) can easily be sung by any congregation in Latin. And is there any modern musical setting that so effectively ties the music to the words?

Many American Catholics who attend a papal audience in Rome often find they are the only ones not singing along with the Holy Father and other pilgrims as he intones the Pater Noster. It is long past time for this to change, and for American Catholics to re-connect with their heritage and tradition.

Chanting the Psalms

In addition to the liturgical chants and hymns, Gregorian Psalm tones should be restored to the vernacular Responsorial Psalm. (Tones 2 and 8G are the best adapted to English, and can be easily learned and "marked" by cantors.) Restoring chant tunes to the sung psalm will restore music of a truly sacred nature to this part of the Liturgy of the Word, and again tie us to our ancient traditions.

Chant recordings could be sold in the parish bookshop to help acquaint people with its distinctive sound. Guest choirs who have chant selections in their repertoires can be invited.

There are many creative ways to bring chant back into its rightful home — the Catholic Church — and to return music that is truly sacred to the most sacred event of all, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

Sing to the Lord! Cantate Domino!


Lucy E. Carroll, DMA, is organist and music director at the Carmelite monastery in Philadelphia, and adjunct associate professor at Westminster Choir College, Princeton. She is also the creator of the Churchmouse Squeaks cartoon that frequently appears on the pages of the AB "Readers’ Forum".



Lucy E. Carroll

Lucy Carroll, organist and choir director at the Carmelite monastery in Philadelphia, teaches at the Westminster Choir College in Princeton. She frequently contributes essays on Catholic music to AB, and is the creator of the “Churchmouse Squeaks” cartoons regularly featured in these pages. In Memoriam: Dr. Lucy E. Carroll, DMA