Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Gregorian Missal

All the world knows that Americans are peculiar people when it comes to language. If it is not in American English or if an American-English translation isn't nearby, we tend to treat the text as if it belongs to someone on another planet and has no possible application for us. Foreign tongues boggle our minds, and rather than get busy and actually learn another language (never!) we just toss it aside.

It's my own private theory that this tendency has long hindered the dissemination of the church's music in the United States. The Graduale Romanum, the official songbook of the Roman Rite, is entirely in Latin. Hand it to a typical musician and it will not penetrate their brains. It's not the Latin in the music so much as the absence of English. Call it ignorance or bigotry if you want but it is a fact of reality. Latin chant will never go anywhere in this country until singers can feel a sense of ownership over the meaning, and that means translations.

This is why the CMAA produced the Parish Book of Chant as the new book for people. It opens up the Latin hymn tradition to all English speakers.

The complementary book for the scholas--the book containing the propers of the Mass--is the Gregorian Missal published by the Solesmes Abbey in France. This book is a treasure, a glorious thing to behold. The running headers are all in English. All Latin texts are translated. And this allows the great revelation to unfold: here is the music of the Mass.

Probably 9 in 10 Catholic musicians would be shocked to know that music at Mass isn't really about picking hymns. The Mass comes with music already built into its structure--and that is as true of the new Missal as the old Missal. There is the ordinary but there is also the great repertoire of the propers inherited from the whole history of the Church. This is not only the music of the Mass; it is also the most wonderful and meaningful music ever written.

I can personally recall the first time I saw this book and opened its pages. It was like the dawn. Here it all is right before: the Sunday and its music, the next Sunday and its music, the next Sunday and its music, for the entire year. And there is more music than you can possibly sing week to week, which is an inspiration!

Why didn't I know? Why didn't someone tell me? Here are the jewels long hidden from view. What a liberation. What a exciting challenge. What a comfort to know that this critical part of the Mass is not something we make up on our own but rather can embrace in the same way we embrace all the teachings of the Church!

It's been my dream--and many share it--that the Gregorian Missal could be examined by every Catholic musician in the English-speaking world. It wouldn't cause an immediate outbreak of chant in every parish. I know this. But it would change the debate. It would illustrate what we fanatics have been saying for so long. It would illustrate what Vatican II intended. It would instill a sense of the ideal. It would make it clear that chant is the music of the Roman Rite. It would provide direction for the future. The hermeneutic of continuity between old and new would become clear. We could begin again to stitch together our practice with our tradition.

Glorious news: the Solesmes Abbey has made this possible. The monastery has given permission to the Church Music Association of America to upload a beautiful copy, fully bookmarked, online at It is here, the first universally downloadable presentation of the Gregorian Missal. Now and for the first time, it will be clear to musicians in the postconcilar period that chant is deeply and intimately connected with the rite.

I strongly suggest that you send this link to every priest and every Catholic musician you know. They will be astounded. They might ask where this music comes from. The answer is that it dates to the earliest years of the Church. It developed as the Mass developed, with the music as the perfect expression of the liturgical meaning of the moment in the year and in the Mass.

How did it manage to come to be so integrated into the 1970 Missal? It was part of what the Vatican did in response to the changes in the calendar. It also adapted the chant books. Solesmes completed the job with its Graduale Romanum of 1974.

This wonderful book came out in 1990. The magnificent decision of Solesmes to go digital with this publication is the fulfillment of a long heritage of progressive means of chant scholarship and distribution. The monastery had previously worked with the Church Music Association of America with the Liber Cantualis, so it was a natural partnership to take modern chant into the modern age.

What this means from an educational point of view is extraordinary. I fully expect to see a massive and rising demand for this book, which is also available from many distributors linked in the front matter of the digital version. In addition, poor parishes will now have a resource from which they can sing -- consistent with the Benedictine dedication to the poor. In many ways, it is the fulfillment of the dream of Dom Gueranger, the founder of the monastery who prayed for a worldwide re-dedication to the beauty of the liturgy.

The first thought of people when seeing this for the first time is likely shock that the Mass is not just a text but a song. The next is likely to be disappointment that most musicians are not able to sing this music or even read it. It does indeed take a bit of study but it is not nearly as tricky as it seems. The staves have 4 lines because that is all the human voice needs. The opening clef marks the Do or Fah, below which the half step occurs. Every note gets a pulse, and the dots add a pulse. That's all you need to know to get started.

Other interesting features: note the near total absence of hymns. No processional hymn; rather we have an introit. The offertory is a chant, not an intermission. When the GIRM refers to the communion chant, this is what it means. And note the inclusion of the Gradual Psalm instead of the Responsorial Psalm. The Gradual Psalm has a far deeper history in the Roman Rite and remains a valued option in the rite. It is also a wonderful challenge for musicians.

In any case, all Catholics everywhere should say a prayer of thanksgiving for the Solesmes Monastery, for its founding, for its remarkable work over the years, and for its inspired vision to take the music of the Roman Rite into the new millennium with this far-seeing and progressive step.

Te Deum laudamus:
te Dominum confitemur.
Te aeternum Patrem
omnis terra veneratur.
Tibi omnes Angeli;
tibi caeli et universae Potestates;
Tibi Cherubim et Seraphim
incessabili voce proclamant:
Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus,
Dominus Deus Sabaoth.

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