Aug 15, 2011

The Musical Language of the American Church

Online Edition:
August 2011
Vol. XVII, No. 5

The Musical Language of the American Church

by Arlene Oost-Zinner

“The implementation of the English translation of the third typical edition of the Roman Missal later this year will be the biggest single moment of change for Catholics who worship in English in the forty years since the revisions of the liturgy which followed Vatican II.

“It is a moment of unparalleled significance, not least because it represents a natural opportunity to reassess all that we do when we celebrate the Mass.

“The new edition of the Missal contains more music than any of its predecessors and includes a complete set of chants for the principal parts of the Order of Mass. All the chants of the Latin original have been adapted to the English text….

“The elevated register of the language, the euphony of its phrases and the cadence of its orations have all been prepared with the thought that most of these texts are by nature sung. For that reason, and without wishing to exclude the use of other genres where appropriate, the musical language of the Missal is Gregorian Chant”.

These words are from the address by Monsignor Andrew Wadsworth, General Secretary of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL), at the Church Music Association of America’s twenty-first annual Sacred Music Colloquium, held June 13-19, 2011, at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Monsignor Wadsworth’s lecture, heralding the new translation and the importance of the singing of Gregorian chant in the celebration of the Catholic liturgy, characterizes the hope-filled sentiment that easily became the animating thread at this year’s CMAA Colloquium. On the eve of the implementation of the new translation of the Roman Missal, more than 250 Catholic musicians — music directors, scholars, cantors, singers, and organists — gathered to experience “Seven Days of Music Heaven”, as the colloquium was referred to years ago by a participant.

Among the week’s plenary sessions was a lecture by Dr. William Mahrt, CMAA president and professor of musicology at Stanford University, on the paradigm of liturgical processions. An evening of singing the new Missal chants was led by Monsignor Wadsworth and Jeffrey Tucker, managing editor of the CMAA journal, Sacred Music.

Chant and polyphony rehearsals at every level under a world-class faculty were featured through the week. A variety of breakout sessions focused on conducting, vocal training, organ repertoire, Gregorian semiology, priest training, and more.

Conference attendees included individuals from around the world and almost twenty clergy, who gathered daily to celebrate sung Masses in both the ordinary and extraordinary forms. Of primary musical focus were Gregorian chant and its nearest cousin, Renaissance polyphony, presented to demonstrate the ideal for sacred music at Mass prescribed by Church documents.

Liturgical high points of the week included an Ember Day Mass, a rare experience for all present, including those clergy who often celebrate Mass in the extraordinary form; and a sung Mass for the week of Pentecost in the ordinary form, with all English Propers (the parts of the Mass that change, such as collects, offertories, etc. according to the Church calendar).

Elements of the choral parts sung at this Mass were taken from the CMAA’s groundbreaking new offering, the Simple Choral Gradual, by composer Richard Rice, and the Simple English Propers, compiled and edited by Adam Bartlett, a collection whose aim is to provide the English-speaking world, for the first time since the Second Vatican Council, with an accessible option for singing the Propers in English according to the current liturgical calendar.

Reverent fervor for what lies ahead in the realm of Catholic liturgy — with the promulgation of the new translation of the Missal and the availability of these many new resources — provided the stamina necessary to carry the group through the heavy demands of the eventful week. Anticipation runs high for next year’s colloquium, which will be held at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City, Utah, June 25-July 1, 2012.

A video presentation of CMAA’s Colloquium XXI by Jeffrey Ostrowski, director of the schola cantorum at the Corpus Christi Cathedral, and president of Corpus Christi Watershed, may be viewed online:


Arlene Oost-Zinner serves on the board of the Church Music Association of America as Director of Programs, and is on the faculty of the Sacred Music Colloquium.  She is the chant director of the St. Cecilia Schola in Auburn, Alabama.  Write to her at [email protected]. CMAA web site:



Arlene Oost-Zinner