Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Proper Music for Mass: The Chants of the Graduale Romanum Versus "Other Suitable Songs"

It is not uncommon to see an article from time to time which laments the contemporary songs used at Mass in most places. "What happened to all the great hymns of yesterday?" is often a question asked in anguish in such publications.

Little ink seems to be spilled, however, over the treasure that the widespread use of hymns has seemingly buried--the Proper chants of the Mass (Introit, Offertory, and Communion; the Gradual and Alleluia are a bit different and will be discussed below). It is quite probable that most Catholics are unaware of the Propers and that they would be surprised to find out that the only hymns integral to the Mass itself are the Gloria and the several Sequences that occur throughout the year. Even many Catholics who consider themselves to be traditional are perfectly content with using hymns at the Mass in place of the Propers.

It should be said that the use of a hymn (the Church calls it "another suitable song") instead of a Proper is permissible, but I wonder how many people might question this practice, particularly in light of liturgical tradition, if they pondered the subject at length. The Propers, after all, have been around for centuries, indeed the great majority of the history of the Church. Pope St. Gregory the Great (+604) is said to have given each one its particular place in the liturgical year. It seems then that they ought to be fostered with the greatest of care. Before they can be implemented, however, there must be an understanding as to why they ought to occupy so prominent a place in our liturgical life.

Therefore I have decided to discuss this topic and expose some reasons why the Propers of the Graduale Romanum are theologically, liturgically, and musically most suitable to the Mass of the Roman Rite.

I. The fittingness of the text

Hymn texts can be vague, questionable, or downright theologically erroneous. This has necessitated the present conversation in the bishops' conference about the suitability of the various hymn texts. Ironically, many Protestant hymns, especially adaptations of hymns from the Divine Office, are actually more true to Catholic doctrine than some of the contemporary songs which are considered Catholic. Propers, on the other hand, carry the guarantee of orthodoxy, having come from Tradition or Scripture. It is particularly noteworthy that the Propers help to fulfill the II Vatican Council's call for the use of more Scripture at Mass, particularly the Psalms. (This is, of course, in addition to the Council's call for more emphasis on Gregorian chant.)

Both the Proper antiphons and hymns employ various types of texts, but one kind of prayer occurs much more frequently in the Propers--supplication. Oftentimes I have discovered that there is very little vernacular hymnody presently in use that can even approximate this posture. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is of the Requiem Mass. There are very few hymns whose text prays for the departed. The few exceptions to this are songs composed for the Final Commendation, which can hardly be used at other parts of the Mass. Is this good, that our congregations rarely, if ever, sing prayers of supplication such as the ones in the Propers? Is it to be commended that many funerals pass by with not one single word sung as a prayer for the soul of the deceased?

II. Propers are more well-suited to the various liturgical actions and roles

Current Church guidelines dictate that each person in the liturgy is to fulfill all of the duties pertaining to his office, and no more. With respect to singing, we might look at it this way: The priest sings the various dialogues with the congregation, the presidential prayers, etc. The deacon sings the Gospel, the Mysterium Fidei, the Ite Missa est, etc. The cantor sings the Gradual and Alleluia. The lector sings (!!!) the readings, the congregation sings its parts, and the choir sings the parts which have traditionally belonged exclusively to it--namely the Introit, Offertory, and Communion antiphons.

The choir's role, however, has been usurped in most places, reducing the musicians to mere leaders of a congregation which is now expected to sing nearly all of the music at Mass. This practice is not in keeping with Catholic tradition. This doesn't mean that the congregation should be drastically marginalized, as in some Anglican churches, but it does mean that the choir's role should be preserved.

Having the choir and cantors sing the Propers allows the congregation to take in, to receive, other aspects of the liturgy. Oftentimes, by the way, congregations sing better when they aren't asked to sing so often in the Mass. Some examples follow:(1)


Having been freed from reading words in a hymnal, the faithful can watch the opening procession as it makes its pilgrimage to the High Altar, the New Jerusalem which we anticipate at each Mass. They can observe the thurible swinging and the smell of the incense, the crucifix being carried high, the flowing robes and the colorful vestments--and the sound of the choir, singing the Introit, which in its neumatic style (several, but not too many notes to a syllable) suggests the movement of a procession. When the pew-dweller is given too much to do, this cannot all be accomplished, and I have been to Masses where people simply put down the hymnal so that they could take everything in more effectively.

Interlectionary Chants (Gradual, Alleluia, Tract)

While these texts are not replaced with hymns, at least licitly, it is worthwhile to compare the responsorial pieces in the present lectionary with the traditional chants in the Graduale Romanum. Traditionally, the interlectionary chants are to be listened to, meditated upon, just like the readings and the Gospel. But with the responsorial Psalm in particular, are people able to receive the text efficaciously while simultaneously trying to sing a refrain that they're hearing for the first time? Moreover, the Gradual and Alleluia as they appear in the Graduale Romanum are higly melismatic, with many notes to each syllable. This slows down the rate at which the text is sung, allowing the listener to absorb it more completely.


The Offertory chants could well be said to occupy a stylistic place somewhere between the Introit and the interelectionary chants.(2) While they do convey some sense of motion as the Introit does, they are also more melismatic than the Introits, though not as melismatic as the interlectionary chants. This is a musical way of matching the liturgical action: While there is a small procession here, it is also a solemn moment of anticipation of the most important part of the Mass.

Hymns, which are essentially syllabic (one note per syllable), tell us little about their liturgical function. Indeed, they can be used interchangeably at any of the processions. Furthermore, in this age, much of our music struggles even to communicate the fact that we're performing a sacred action. The Gregorian chant antiphons, however, communicate quite clearly 1) that we are truly performing a sacred action and 2) what the features of each particular action are.

III. Other musical properties which complement the liturgy

Many maintain, as I do, that the meaning of the sung text can often be illustrated by the chant melody. This is, of course, a controversial subject which has been discussed passionately on this very blog, but if the exposition of word painting in chant helps people to pray, then for that reason alone it should be supported. Perhaps it should be mentioned that word painting in chant might not be as obvious as it is in other types of music, particularly that of the Baroque era. Some exceptions may apply, but word painting in chant is not going to hit the listener between the eyes as it might in a Handel oratorio.

Let's consider a few examples:

Justorum animae (468),(3) the Offertory for the Feast of All Saints, depicts the foolish with many repeated notes on re over the word insipientium in order to show the foolishness of believing that the just soul is dead. The chant goes on to say, "however they are in peace," and on autem (however), the chant explores a long melisma which emphasizes this happy shift in thought from death to eternal life in a most powerful way.

In Viri Galilei (237), the ad libitum Offertory for the Feast of the Ascension, the melody soars on the word ascendentem. Interestingly, this particular phrase is identical to the music set to autem in the Justorum animae. In fact, a great part of this chant uses musical material which is also contained in the Justorum. The fact that word painting can take place with centonization is a powerful argument which supports the thesis that these melodies do reflect the meaning of the text.(4)

A third example should suffice. Angleus Domini (217), the Offertory for Quasimodo Sunday, with its melismatic melody that oscillates up and down reflects the movement of an angel. Moreover, on the word descendit, the chant melody descends to its lowest point, and on caelo it ascends to one of its highest points.

These examples serve to show that the text and music of the Propers of the Graduale Romanum are interrelated and that the music grew out of the text and is therefore integral to it. It is perhaps the most poignant illustration as to why the Propers of the Graduale Romanum should be set aside, whether in favor of hymns or alternative Proper settings, only with the most profound sense of hesitation.

Hymns are generally unable to illustrate the meaning of the text because of their strophic form. Occasionally the first verse of a hymn may be capable of such a depiction, and even more rarely a subsequent verse might enjoy a kind of word painting by happenstance, but on the whole the general rule applies. Even in the cases in which this may happen, it is hardly as striking as the Gregorian chant examples laid out above.

More than word painting, however, some proper chants for a given feast are musically interrelated. For the Feast of Pope St. Pius X, appropriately enough, the beginning of the Introit, Statuit ei Domini (445), and Offertory, Benedicam Dominum (293) are nearly identical. For the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, the Alleluia Tu puer (571) and Communion Tu puer (572) share musical material on altissimi and parare, respectively. This particular line, with a strong triple feel, is also faintly echoed in the Introit, De ventre (570), at sub tegumento. One gets the feeling that the propers of these two Masses act as a musical thread which helps to tie the Mass together, without resorting to obvious means. It seems hardly necessary to comment on the inability of hymns to tie together the music of a Mass in so sublime a fashion. How common is it for the hymns of a given Mass to be somehow unified in both text and music?

IV. Concluding thoughts

One final argument in favor of the Propers of the Graduale Romanum is perhaps the most compelling: The Propers are ordained by the Church, while hymns are chosen by a person or a committee. The process of selecting hymns seems to be a possible contributor to the mistaken perception that man makes the liturgy. What orthodox liturgist would suggest "another suitable reading" or "another suitable prayer" instead of the selections the Church has given us?
Why, then, should we sing "another suitable song" instead of the Propers? We should rather allow ourselves to receive what the Church has given us in the Propers and to ponder why she has made it so. What could be a more beautiful commentary on the consequences of the Resurrection than the Introit for Quasimodo Sunday: "Like newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word...."? And it doesn't seem as if there could be a better apology for the doctrine of the Assumption than the text of that feast day's Introit: "A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon was under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars." (Apoc. 12, 1)

Indeed, the voice of these chants is the voice of the Church herself speaking to us and teaching us. We hear these sweet Gregorian melodies, and we recognize this "still, small voice" of the Church, just as an infant recognizes the voice of his mother, and our souls are stirred to devotion to her bridegroom, who is Christ.


1 I am highly indebted to Prof. William Mahrt, faculty member at the Sacred Music Colloquium and President of the CMAA, for many, if not most, of these insights from his various lectures and writings. Any errors or exagerrations are strictly mine.

2 For further reading, see Prof. Mahrt's article in the Spring 2006 issue of Sacred Music.

3 Numbers in parenthesis behind each chant are page numbers from the Graduale Triplex, published by the monks of Solesmes. ISBN 2-85274-094-X I apologize that I do not currently have the technology at my fingertips to include the musical examples in the posting.

4 For more on this, see Prof. Mahrt's article, "Word Painting and Formulaic Chant," in Cum Angelis Canere, Robert Skeris, ed. (St. Paul, MN: Catholic Church Music Associates, 1990). For a different opinion one might wish to consult Willi Apel's book Gregorian Chant.

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