Friday, February 24, 2006

Book Review: Reflections on the Spirituality of Gregorian Chant

Author: Dom Jacques Hourlier.
Paraclete Press, 1995. 80pp.

Reviewed by Shawn Tribe

There are many books which get into the technical "how-to's" of Gregorian chant, or which are suited to a musicologist, but this book is not about that. This book is intended not for the specialist, interested perhaps only in its technical or historical aspects, but rather is intended for the believer. It is for one whom sees in Gregorian Chant a unique spiritual and liturgical treasure and recognizes its value as sung prayer.

The book is actually a collection of five lectures given by Dom Hourlier during a youth seminar on Gregorian chant, and looks at its history, spirituality and liturgical nature. The book takes us through those qualities of Gregorian chant which make it so unique and such a treasure of Catholic sacred music. Dom Hourlier explores is qualities as prayer, and that which gives rise to prayer; as a music which is intrinsically liturgical in nature (as opposed to merely ornamental); as something sacred and entirely religious in nature, having been made for the worship of God.

From this point, Dom Hourlier begins to dig deeper, attempting to elucidate why Gregorian chant has such a power. To do so he looks at Dom Gueranger's analysis of the qualities of the sacred liturgy and thus defines why it is liturgical music par excellence: "it successfully imparts the fullness of meaning in the words of the Latin liturgy; it transmits a spiritual message from age to age." As Hourlier sees it, and his perception seems to ring true with our experience of Gregorian chant, it is always incessantly driving towards God. The beauty of the chant allows the transmission of its message, despite being in a foreign tongue (Latin). Moreover, it transports us to the world of the sacred, separating us from that which is profane and worldly, and causes us to enter within ourselves to there rediscover God who dwells within us. It opens us up to spiritual values and expresses the seemingly inexpressible.

Dom Jacques Hourlier's book is at one and the same time a look at the spiritual depth of Gregorian chant, and of the sacred liturgy itself. So inter-twined are these two things that it would seem that one cannot speak of the nature and spirituality of Gregorian chant without also making comment the nature and spirituality of the liturgy. They are rather like two sides of the same Roman coin.

I would recommend this book to anyone, but particularly for one who has an appreciation of Gregorian chant, but wishes to explore what makes it unique, or who simply wishes to find a better way to express what the Second Vatican Council has already expressed: why Gregorian chant is especially suited to the Roman liturgy and deserves pride of place.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: