Thursday, March 20, 2008

When it is chant and when it is not

The famously unfulfilled mandate of the Second Vatican Council, that Gregorian chant should enjoy a principal place (principem locum obtineat) in liturgy, is finally being taken more seriously by Catholic musicians and ecclesiastical bodies. But there are many issues that are unresolved, mostly due to the lack of consciousness on the part of the musicians and clergy.

The Vatican document from 1963 assumed more knowledge than most Catholic musicians and pastors currently have on this issue. For example, people might believe that one way to implement the mandate is to add a chant to the hymn selections. We can think of once-popular such as Adoro te Devote, Veni Creator Spiritus, Attende Domine, or Salve Regina.

The belief persists that if you add one of those into the mix, you are living up to the ideal of the Council. There is nothing wrong and much right about taking this approach if the goal is a transition measure toward actually using chant in the Mass. These chant hymns are a great place to begin. A choral director can easily add one of these in at offertory or communion, and invite people to sing. The people will pick them up and learn that Latin is a beautiful language and that chant has a special capacity for lifting the heart and mind toward heaven.

But let us be clear that this action alone, as meritorious as it might be, has essentially nothing to do with with the Council envisions, what the GIRM states, or what the new USCCB document on music calls for. There is a massive difference between using an old Latin hymn as a one in a selection of musical picks for Mass, and actually using the chants as part of the Mass.

The difference is not clear to most people involved in Catholic music. When the Vatican documents speak of Gregorian chant, it is calling to mind the vast and long tradition of chant having nothing to do with popular chant hymns. It is speaking specifically of the chants that are woven into the fabric of the liturgy itself.

In short, it is speaking of using the chants that are part of the structure of the Mass. In their order of appearance in Mass, they are as follows: Introit, Kyrie, Gloria, Gradual, Alleluia or Tract, Credo, Offertory, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and Communion. There is a Gregorian chant for each of these parts of the Mass. In addition, there are sung parts of the liturgy that might also be considered part of Gregorian chant.

That's not to say that chant hymns don't have a place. They certainly do and they are especially appropriate because they follow up on the style and language of the parts of the Mass that are sung according to the Gregorian tradition.

Now, at this point in the discussion, many Catholic musicians throw up their hands in despair or disbelief. They have a mass set of hymnals and resources on their bookshelf, materials they have accumulated from many years of workshops and mailings from mainstream publishers. Not one of them includes any of what I've mentioned above. How can this music be considered the normative part of Mass if it makes no appearance in the hundreds of materials on my own music shelf - and this after decades as a full-time Catholic musician?

Well, the answer is that the contents of one's bookshelf doesn't change the reality of the musical structure of the Mass itself. There is only one book that tends to be missing from the shelf of Catholic musicians (or perhaps it is unused) and it is the one book that unlocks the door to the music of the Mass: The Graduale Romanum. Alternatively, English speakers can acquire the Gregorian Missal, which is the core of the Roman Gradual. This one book will show the way.

When the music in this book becomes part of the liturgy, you are singing Gregorian chant. When it is not, you are not, no matter how many beautiful hymns one might plug into the mix.

Now, the question is: will the musicians who are in a position to make decisions concerning Papal Masses in April in America live up to their responsibilities or will they not?

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