Monday, September 05, 2011

A Future for English Chant

The new English Missal currently being rolled out throughout the world publishes more music than any previous edition of the Roman Missal. All of it is English chant - vernacular versions of traditional Gregorian chant. With this Missal, the Church has very wisely seen that if liturgical/sacred music is to have a future in the current environment, it will need to begin with the vernacular, not only for pastoral and pedagogical reasons but also because there is an inherent integrity associated with this genre of singing.

The Missal chants will cover the ordinary chants and dialogues of the Mass. This music is the foundational song of the new Missal. The International Commission on English in the Liturgy has given away sheet music for these chants and encourages their download and use. ICEL has also posted high-quality accompaniments.

It is a requirement that all pew hymnbooks now being printed including this Missal setting of the Mass. Many organizations such as the CMAA have posted tutorial and videos (see this page). For those of us who love sacred music and seek to teach it to a new generation, it is a fantastic thing for us to be able to say, with clarity and conviction, "this is the music that the Church desires for the ordinary form of the Roman Rite." Truly, this represents a sea change in what is arguably the most problematic area of Catholic liturgy today.

English chant is the great missed opportunity of the 1960s. A few composers worked to provide it following the council but the editions were spotty and entered into a contentious world of cultural upheaval and liturgical struggle. It was squeezed out during these years of turmoil. By the time the new Missal was finally promulgated in 1969, the opportunity seemed to have already passed - especially given that the language of the Missal was very unlike the vernacular translations that had commonly circulated for the previous 10 years. All these 40 years of wandering around have finally led us back to where some people thought we should have been immediately following the close of the Council.

Of course the ideal music for the Roman Rite in either form is found in the Graduale Romanum. This book as it applies to the ordinary form came out in 1974 - at which point the cause of all chant (whether English or Latin) seemed largely lost. But in order to have any hope of getting to this point, there will have to be several steps on the way that include: 1) making music that recaptures the primacy of the human voice, 2) making music that is based in plainsong and not strict meters and pop music stylings, and 3) making music the text of which is drawn from the liturgy of the Church and not something else. This is the beginning of the skills and tools that musicians must have to get on the right track. The Missal chants in English make this possible.

However, there is more to the music of the Roman Rite than just the ordinary chants and the dialogues. There are also the sung proper chants that have formed the basis of the changing sung texts of the Mass since the earliest centuries. The most sensitive places within the Roman Rite are the entrance chant, the offertory chant, and communion. These are the places within the Mass where the propers are usually replaced by some hymn chosen by the director of music - a choice that may or may not be appropriate to the liturgy or the day.

A major problem in finding English chant for the propers of the Mass has been to have accessible editions available to average parish singers. There have been attempts and I've posted many of them over the years here at the New Liturgical Movement. In each case, there was some problem with the edition that prevented it from entering in to wider circulation: dated language, old calender, insufficient Psalms to cover the entire liturgical action, and the difficulty of the music itself. This has been very tragic, for it has meant that even those pastors and singers who have wanted to upgrade their music programs haven't had the tools they have needed.

This situation changed dramatically in June of this year with with the publication of the Simple English Propers by Adam Bartlett and published by the Church Music Association of America. This book provides introits, offertories, and communions for the entire liturgical year. The music preserves the Gregorian sensibility by retaining not only the modal structure but also the precise mode of its Latin equivalent. The text is English. Each chant includes more than enough Psalms to sing along with the antiphon so that there is music for the full liturgical procession for which it is to be used.

I would say that this is the first generally accessible book of music for the ordinary form of the Roman Rite in English - and it is no surprise that it has been a huge hit in such a short time. We can bemoan the amazing reality that it took forty years for a book like this to appear or we can simply rejoice that at long last such a book does in fact exist. It is no longer the case that singing the propers of the Mass is out of reach of the average parish. This music can be sung by any cantor or choir in any parish - and it is current being used in everything from small rural parishes to big-city cathedrals.

They also help train singers to really sing - not merely eke out a melody karaoke style while hiding being the organ or piano. They train people to really declaim the text in song - to develop the skill of projecting the word of God in song in a liturgical environment. They underscore the point that the music that is most appropriate to the Roman Rite is (no surprise except to most singers in the Catholic Church today) the music of the Roman Rite. They also prepare the way for the realization of the chants of the Roman Gradual in Latin in the proverbial "brick by brick" manner that has proven so successful in parish after parish.

Shawn Tribe has asked that these chants be posted on this site on a weekly basis according to the new calendar, as an appropriate parallel to the emphasis on chant in the Third Edition of the Roman Missal. Of course I'm very pleased to do so.

I have hundreds of testimonies to their success in parishes. The testimonies come from people who have long trained in Latin Gregorian chant but have not found a way to introduce it to their parishes for a variety of the usual reasons (no singers, no pastoral support, fear of the reaction, etc.). This fact doesn't surprise me, for the music in the Simple English Propers can be used immediately in any parish in a way that most everyone will consider an improvement.

More tellingly, I have an equal amount of testimony from people who have only sung pop music but know in their bones that chant is more appropriate to liturgy. There is also something wonderfully thrilling about leaving the weekly hymn roulette and embracing the sung texts of the Mass itself. This change provides new energy to the whole vocation of being a Church singer.

And for pastors and celebrants, this book has meant blessed relief from the hymn wars that are always roiling around barely under the surface in every parish and also permits them to say Mass without have their sensibilities shocked by hymn choices that they feel they can't control. And given the wide demographic appeal of these chants, it can mean an end to having to endure radically different Mass cultures every Sunday, each crafted with a special demographic appeal in mind.

Finally, let us turn to this past Sunday's entrance chant, which, according to the Roman Gradual, is Justus es, Domine. It has ancient origins, and we sang the Gregorian original in my parish. I understand that this is an extremely rare event. The version of this chant in the Simple English Propers preserves the themes and mode from the Gregorian but resets it for the language and the current pastoral need in most parishes. This is merely a practice video, not a final performance version, but you can see how this works. Keep in mind that the edition provides many Psalm verses to cover the entire procession.

As you listen, I encourage you not to treat this as a performance piece and judge it the way one might judge a performance of Schubert or Bach. This music serves one purpose: to accompany the procession with the proclamation of the word of God according to the approach that has been urged by Popes from the earliest centuries until our own time.

INTROIT • 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time from Church Music Association of Amer on Vimeo.

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