Thursday, April 16, 2015

Book Review: The Proper of the Mass for Sundays and Solemnities

The Proper of the Mass for Sundays and Solemnities: Chants for the Roman Missal in English. Fr. Samuel F. Weber, O.S.B. of The Benedict XVI Institute of the Archdiocese of San Francisco. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2015. xx + 995 pages. List $34.95. Publisher’s link.

THIS is the book so many choirs and scholas have been waiting for, I would even say for 40+ years. If you want to sing Propers (specifically: Entrance, Offertory, and Communion antiphons) for the Mass in English, and you would like to do so with chant melodies that are inspired by Gregorian exemplars and at the same time idiomatic and comfortable in their vernacular adaptation, Fr. Weber’s magnum opus does the job better overall than it has ever been done before. This is hardly a surprise, since Fr. Weber has been chipping away at the task — introit by introit, offertory by offertory, communion by communion — for over twenty years. It can be said without exaggeration that this book has been in progress for decades. It is the definitive book of English plainchant for the Catholic liturgy.


First, the nuts and bolts. What exactly do we find in this 1,000-page volume?

1. An excellent Foreword by Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone (pp. ix–xiii), explaining why the Propers should have pride of place at Mass, how this fits in with Vatican II’s call for participatio actuosa, and how this book responds to the call for a renewal of sacred music.

2. An “Introduction concerning Chant Technique” (pp. xiv–xx), reminiscent of the introductions in older Solesmes volumes. Fr. Weber explains the fundamentals of chant (notation, neums, modes) in crystal clear prose for the non-expert, and offers a wonderful mini-treatise on the art of singing chant, with an explanation of how he has approached the task of setting the English language.

3. The rest of the book, divided into the Proper of Time (pp. 1–771: Advent, Christmas Time, Lent, Holy Week, Sacred Triduum, Easter Time, Ordinary Time, and Solemnities of the Lord), the Proper of Saints (pp. 772–917: solemnities of saints), Ritual Masses (pp. 918–67: ordinations and marriage), Varia (pp. 968–84: Asperges, Vidi aquam, Glory Be tones), and Indices (985–93).

The Chants 

The Proper of the Mass contains English chant settings for the Entrance and Communion Antiphons as given in The Roman Missal (2010), as well as Offertory Antiphons in line with the Graduale Romanum (1974). (I will return below to the question of the source of the texts.)

For most antiphons, four settings are provided, from complex to simple: (i) through-composed melismatic; (ii) through-composed simple; (iii) Gregorian psalm tone; (iv) English psalm tone. Cantors or choirs that are ready to tackle it can choose a more melismatic setting, while beginners could easily render the psalm tone; or the choice can be made depending on the length of the liturgical action or other factors. Verses are given for all the antiphons, as well. Other collections tend to presume either absolute beginners or advanced scholas, but Fr. Weber has arranged his book in a way that suits every possible situation, so that it’s easy to “shift gears.”

Jeffrey Ostrowski has already been posting recordings of some of the chants. Here are the four settings given for the Introit of Christmas Day, “A child is born for us.” Notice how close in spirit and melody the first setting is to its Gregorian model.

The Ritual Masses include the Ordination of a Bishop, the Ordination of a Priest, the Ordination of a Deacon, and the Nuptial Mass. Chants given for All Souls, November 2, are set out in a way that facilitates their use at funerals as well. English settings of the Asperges me, Vidi aquam, and Gloria Patri (two settings, complex and simple, in all eight modes) round out the collection.

I can speak from experience about the value of this Proper. On Sundays at Wyoming Catholic College, the chaplaincy offers two Masses: an EF High Mass in the morning, and an OF English Sung Mass in the evening. Music for both Masses is provided by the Choir (different members of the choir at each service). For the evening Mass over the past year, we’ve been singing from a proof copy of Fr. Weber’s Proper, and it has been PERFECT for the liturgy. The combination of well-crafted Gregorian-inspired melodies and approved liturgical texts, usually drawn from Scripture, yields an unambiguously liturgical chant that invests the entrance procession and incensation, the offertory, and the communion procession with due dignity, formality, peacefulness, and a transcendent focus — just as all good sacred music should do. In this sense, The Proper of the Mass is by far the closest thing I’ve ever seen to the Graduale Romanum, from which our schola chants at daily Masses. Going back and forth between these two books, one in English and the other in Latin, has been a surprising and welcome experience of a seamless spiritual and liturgical continuity.

To provide a sense of the book’s layout and the four options given for each chant, below are the sets of propers for Easter Sunday. (At the end of the article are appended photos of the propers for the 5th Sunday of Easter, as well as chants from Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and Christ the King, just to offer a good sample.)

Source of Texts

In some circles, much is being made of the fact that Fr. Weber's Proper takes the texts of its Entrance and Communion antiphons from the Roman Missal rather than from the Graduale Romanum. (The Offertory antiphons had, of course, to be drawn from the Graduale Romanum, since they are not printed in the altar missal.)

To go into this recondite matter extensively would require a much longer article (there are already several such online); it will suffice here to note a few points.

1. The GIRM lists the Roman Missal as a legitimate source of these two antiphons; indeed, it is listed prior to the Graduale Romanum. This is not to say that the GR should not be considered prior from some other point of view — unquestionably, if one is singing the chants in Latin, one would use the GR — but merely to say that the Missal is a fully legitimate source text.

2. There is no official English translation of the Graduale Romanum, so setting its texts in English means translating them oneself or picking an off-the-shelf Bible. It is understandable that some musicians and pastors will be happier to see liturgical texts drawn from the official liturgical books of our language territory.

3. Many of these antiphons from the Missal already correspond with those of the Graduale Romanum, so not infrequently, there is no difference between the sources.

An antiphon with an identical source text in Missal and Gradual

4. Finally, one could definitely make too big a deal out of this issue. The first step that most parishes need to take, in order to revitalize sacred music, is to have beautiful English plainchant based on Scriptural texts drawn from the liturgy — away from the desert of the four-hymn sandwich and into a land flowing with antiphons, as befits our Roman liturgical heritage. This is exactly what Fr. Weber has provided, filling an embarrassing lacuna with proper chants of exquisite musicality.

Book Quality

I was pleasantly surprised by the handy size of the volume — I was somehow imagining that it would be a lot thicker, to judge from my old proof copy. It’s just about the size of a Graduale Romanum. The cover is also quite handsome, and I like the fact that it’s black rather than blue, which, by this time, has become a kind of Solesmes trademark.

The printing is crystal clear. There is some bleed-through due to the thinness of the paper, but it’s no more than I find in the contemporary Solesmes editions or, for that matter, in almost any Bible one purchases.

Objection & Reply

Before concluding this review, I would like to address a concern that I’m sure will be on the minds of many NLM readers. Is it not a step in the wrong direction to promote vernacular chant, when clearly the “gold standard” for the Church, and the expectation of Vatican II, was that we utilize the Latin Gregorian chants?

Fr. Weber is the first to admit, as he has done in past interviews, that the authentic Latin Gregorian chant is the best and most beautiful music in the Church’s repertoire, and that it should be recovered whenever and wherever possible. In fact, with a wonderful humility, he has said to me that he would be happy if someday his vernacular chants were forgotten because everyone had taken up the Latin chants again. However, Fr. Weber is also a realist who knows that the Church in the modern world is not even remotely ready for a widespread and comprehensive restoration of Latin. The unexpectedly burgeoning EF movement, as wonderful as it is, touches but a small minority of believers, and while its steady growth promises longevity and influence, at this rate we might be looking into the next century before most Catholics would be fortunate enough to hear either Latin or Gregorian plainchant at their Masses.

With the vast majority of parishes today so far removed from the Latin liturgical heritage and even from a basic sense of sacredness in music, a sudden introduction of melismatic Latin plainchant is either inconceivable or inadvisable. Really, it is a step in the right direction to introduce the sacred idiom of plainchant in the vernacular, so that one of the major neuralgic reactions (“we can’t understand the language”) is off the table. As a choir and schola director, I have seen the incredible difference it makes in a liturgy simply to be chanting propers rather than always singing yet another hymn (or, for that matter, never having any liturgical music — the long revenge of the Low Mass culture). Fr. Weber’s chant settings are distinguished by a spirit of reverence, devotion, sensitivity to the biblical text, and fittingness for ritual action that makes them a natural point of departure for the resacralization of worship.


Ignatius Press has done an immense service to sacred music by producing this handsome and compact Gradual for the Ordinary Form of the Mass. If this resource is widely adopted and utilized to the full, it will be a watershed moment in the history of the resacralizing of the Novus Ordo, a key date along the timeline of the hermeneutic of continuity.

We have 10 copies of the Proper in our choir loft, getting plenty of use already. For the English sung Mass, there’s no turning back now. At least when it comes to the vernacular Ordinary Form, one must go forwards, never backwards...!

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