Gregorian Chant: The Acting Voice of Christ in Song

The reason for my journey toward and ardent love of Gregorian chant can be singularly boiled down to this: In Gregorian chant the Word of the Liturgy, the mystical Voice of Christ, is given primacy.

So much of our experience of the liturgy today is focused on musical styles that abstract and take precedence over the liturgical texts, if they are not altogether changed or substituted for something else in the first place. It’s not uncommon for composers who write in more contemporary “pop” musical styles to hack apart phrases, rewrite scriptural passages, omit major sections, obscure word accentuation, even make their own additions to a scriptural or liturgical text, and all of this is done, or so it seems, to meet the demands of the musical style in which they’re writing. Just take a look at musical settings of the psalms in many of today’s hymnals for proof of this. Where is the emphasis? What is given pride of place? In this music is it the Voice of Christ that acts and speaks to us in the liturgy? Or is it distorted by the idiosyncrasies of musical styles?

As Liturgiam Authenticam has said, the text of the liturgy is “…endowed with those qualities by which the sacred mysteries of salvation and the indefectible faith of the Church are efficaciously transmitted by means of human language to prayer, and worthy worship is offered to God the Most High.” (LA, art. 3)

It should be clear that the texts of the liturgy are no ordinary texts!

In a recent debate that I was in with a noted liturgist and “contemporary composer”, he insisted to no end that we should absolutely apply “intellectual property rights” to translated liturgical texts. He insisted that the texts of the liturgy (the carriers of the “sacred mysteries of salvation”, the “indefectible faith of the Church”, by which “worthy worship is offered to God the Most High”) were the “property” of those who translated them, and asserted that to the “owners” of these texts were due copyright royalties, because the texts were their “property”. This is an entirely different subject, and I’m sure it will be discussed amply here, but it should speak to us, I think, a basic truth about the efficacious nature of the texts of the liturgy, and, perhaps it also shows the misunderstanding or even disrespect that we often give them in our modern liturgical practices.

The text of the liturgy gives voice to the Mystical Body of Christ, and is not owned by anyone, but is the inheritance of us all.

The Church’s tradition and wisdom has offered us an exemplary musical model for the singing of the texts of the liturgy, a musical form and repertoire that has given a perfect expression of the Voice of Christ acting in the liturgy in Gregorian chant. Chant offers to the Church a complete musical setting of all of the texts of the liturgy–from the parts that are prescribed for the priest, for the people, to the parts for the choir alone.

The Second Vatican Council states that “The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services.” (SC 116)

The more that I have reflected on the way in which Gregorian chant gives a perfect expression to the Voice of Christ in the liturgy, I have come up with an expanded permutation of this idea:

Gregorian chant is given “pride of place” in the liturgy because the Liturgical Word is given pride of place in Gregorian chant.

In my training in Gregorian chant, from the very beginning, the focus for interpretation was placed first and foremost on the Liturgical Word. The following are a few quotes from the first chapter of “An Introduction to the Interpretation of Gregorian Chant, Volume I: Foundations”, by Luigi Agustoni and Johannes Göschl, translated by Fr. Columba Kelly. I find them to be a fantastic foundation for the singing of Gregorian chant, and a wonderful reflection on the liturgical texts, and on the incarnational theology of the Voice of Christ acting in the liturgy:

The phrase “In the beginning was the word” has an unlimited value when applied to the Gregorian repertory. In fact, the text is the key to understanding both the rhythm and the melody of a Gregorian composition.


The source, from which the Gregorian melodies originate and are nourished, is the word. In fact, it is the word of the liturgy, a word that possesses a sacramental character according to the statements of the Second Vatican Council, for Christ is present in it, and in it Christ is received. This word of the liturgy, which in the final analysis is always God speaking to us, that is to say, the encounter of the human being with God, finds its highest expression when it can blossom forth in music. This happens in Gregorian chant to an eminent degree.


The innermost living principle of Gregorian chant is to be found in the Word of God and in the human response to it, both of which are imbedded in the context of the liturgy as an unendingly new sacramental happening that nourishes the life of the Christian community and its members.


The text [of Gregorian chant] is not something that just happens to be attached to a particular melody but rather the text is a sounded word that has flowered into a musical work. The line does not run from the melody to the text that has been set, but on the contrary the exact opposite. The direction is from the word to its realization in musical sound.


To deliberately abstract the text from its melody is to deprive Gregorian chant of its very reason for existence and the source of its very life. Word and melody have entered into an indissoluble union. The word lives here in perfect symbiosis with its carrier, the melody.


Therefore, [in the interpretation of Gregorian chant] the fundamental elements to be taken into account are the following:

1. the word as the primary source of the interpretation;

2. the melody as conditioned by the text and by the modal laws;

3. the neume design as the symbolic representation of the musical form received by the text.

(Excerpts taken from the preface and first chapter of “An Introduction to the Interpretation of Gregorian Chant”, Agustoni and Göschl, 1987, tr. Kelly, 2006.)

7 Replies to “Gregorian Chant: The Acting Voice of Christ in Song”

  1. Very interesting piece. I especially like the ending passages about incarnational theology. How do you reconcile the disjunction between the Church's equivocal phrases "specially suited" and "pride of place" with your unequivocal designations "perfect" and "complete"?

  2. "Sing the words as you would speak them." Franz Xavier Haberl never got tired of saying this, over and over.

  3. I love the mention of the indissoluable union between word and melody that happens in chant–it is a key example of the principle from Liturgiam Authentican 3 regarding those "qualities" which express not only a "style" but the mystical body of Christ Himself. How little theological attention we typically give to the form of the liturgical word in favor of the content! But how promising that LA recognizes this "marriage" between the "what" AND the "how" of the liturgical word. I'm going to reflect more on this nuptial analogy for chant, for sure. Thanks Mr. Bartlett for the excellent inaugural post.

  4. "How do you reconcile the disjunction between the Church's equivocal phrases "specially suited" and "pride of place" with your unequivocal designations "perfect" and "complete"?"


    You left an important word out of each of these–I specifically said that it was a perfect expression, not the perfect, or the only express. It's a supreme model that has expressed in an… perhaps we could say "most excellent" way. Maybe perfect is too strong a word.

    And I also said that Chant offers to the Church a complete musical setting of all of the texts of the liturgy, and this it does in the liturgical books–the Graduale Romanum, being the primary source where every sung liturgical text (at least for the choir and congregation) is provided.

    This was actually not intended to be a dogmatic "chant is the only liturgical music" post, but the contrary–although we should give it "pride of place" (first place–'principem' locum), when we are not singing it, it seems that we ought to look to it for inspiration, seeking to treat the liturgical Word as excellently as we can, in the way that the chant gives primacy to the text. This is a very inspirational idea to me as a composer, personally!

  5. Re: "pride of place":

    Other ways to think of "principem locum":

    "primary place"
    "chief position"
    "the seat at the head of the table"

    I like this last one, because in its banquet-imagery it is at least vaguely scriptural (Luke 14; Psalm 110). As Adam makes clear, there is a seat of honor–and many other seats at the table as well!

  6. Great post Adam, I especially appreciate the clarification on the "pride of place" element regarding "the" perfect medium. I love chant, I think very highly of it. However, I've read numerous Church documents and what always surprises me is that they always leave room for something else. I think very few other styles have come close to what chant has done for the church, however I'll be honest, I believe there is a new generation of worship-ers being raised up in the Church that are putting forth a new style of worship unlike that which has been seen yet in the Church. Some call it "contemporary" others call it "charistmatic", those who are in it call it an "encounter" with God, and "sacred". I call it Catholic and I think it needs to be explored more and guided according to the heart and mind of the Church. Thank you for all your work in preserving the heart of the liturgy that is Christ.

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