“I Just Can’t Warm to Gregorian Chant”

I find Gregorian chant to be incredibly beautiful. It touches something very deep within me, and it is bound up very tightly with the faith itself in my heart and mind. It is the archetype of perfect music, and I listen to it all the time, even at home and driving.

On the other hand, I’m convinced that there are people for whom this is not true. The music for some just doesn’t connect. It doesn’t mean anything to them. They don’t quite say this, but they just don’t like it and do not want to hear it at Mass. Rather than admit that outright – knowing of the Vatican directives concerning chant – they generate other fancy reasons for not granting chant first place or excluding it, looking for loopholes concerning acculturation, language, and more.

Now, to be sure, the choice of music at Mass should not a debate about taste. Regardless of what we like or do not like, Gregorian chant is the music of the Roman Rite. it is embedded as part of the ritual. I would like to believe that even if I were not drawn to the aesthetics of Gregorian chant, I could still come to terms with its normative value as ritual music.

But how can I be sure that is true? How can I do a personal inventory of my own commitment to the ritual ahead of my personal preferences given that my preferences coincide in this case?

I recently found the opportunity. A friend delivered unto me a large collection of recordings of Polish Orthodox liturgical music, chant of the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. This is a style and a language about which I know next to nothing. I know that it is Christianity and I recognized some aspects of it but it doesn’t connect with my history, my aesthetic understanding, my sense of the faith, or anything else. As I listened with pervasive sense of unfamiliarity, it occurred to me that perhaps that is what some people experience with Gregorian chant.

This prompts some serious thought. What if by singing chant in a world in which the sound and language are so unfamiliar, we are introducing a barrier for people who want to connect with the Mass? What if the sounds and language create a foreign environment that causes faithful Catholics to have a sense that the liturgy is more remote and removed from their hearts than it would otherwise be?

Accepting the challenge to think this through carefully, I listened to the Polish music for several hours. I imagined myself in the liturgical setting, since this is not music I would be listening to in the car or at cocktail hour. Only in this imagined environment did it begin to make sense to me.

I began to listen to the sounds not as music, the way we might hear a symphony or a concerto, but rather as an act of worship. As I thought this way, matters began to change. Here I began to feel a sense of warmth today it, even affection. I thought of its history, its intimate link with ritual action, to the mysteries that the music was structured to reveal and extend.

Then I imagined myself confronting the musicians at the Polish Orthodox Church. What if I suggested that these chants they are singing are really quite dated and dull. What we need are happy hymns in the people’s language, the music of today’s young people. What we need are guitars and tambourines. We need to bring the liturgy to the people and meet them “where they are” with music you can dance to. Really, this chant choir smacks of elitism and separatism; we need music that people can sing instantly upon hearing.

Let me say, honestly and truly, I would not do such a thing. I assume, further, that if I did, I would be dismissed as some kind of fool and tossed out on my ear. After all, I seem to not understand the fundamental point about music at the Divine Liturgy: it is inseparable from the ritual. to suggest upheaval in music is no different from suggesting upheaval in the ancient use. I might as well be advocating an end to the Polish Orthodox religion itself.

Let’s say that as a parishioner in this Orthodox parish I never can quite warm to the chant. There never comes a time when I buy the CDs, put the music on in my car to listen to while I drive, read books about the subject, or make it any part of my life outside of Sunday worship. It can still develop an crucial religious meaning to me. Rather than change the music, perhaps I should let the music change me. I need to defer to its tradition and recognize that wisdom of that tradition over my own private prejudices and preferences, which are subject to change. We must also recognize that “it is not all about me.” Whatever we advocate in liturgy affects everyone in the community and it also affects the future of the faith.

Why are there some Catholics who refuse to recognized these things? There are many reasons one might give. But the major reason is the absence of an understanding of the link between Gregorian chant and the liturgy. Many people imagine that Gregorian chant is just a different style of hymn, and singing chant is a way of acknowledging our heritage and nothing more. They do not understand that in chant we find the music of the rite itself. To eliminate it or cut it out is really a violent act against the structure of the liturgy. We are denying ourselves access to crucial experiences and understandings.

To be sure, the Roman Rite has provided a great deal of liberality for extending and developing the chant tradition in different ways. There is medieval and renaissance polyphony and even the Viennese orchestral tradition. Settings of the propers continue to be composed today and they are welcome additions to the liturgy, as the Second Vatican Council suggests. What’s more, there is room for the addition of songs that go beyond the liturgical text itself. In this sense, the Orthodox liturgy is much more strict by comparison. But this liberality must be used responsibly.

I’m not saying that those who don’t like Gregorian chant should merely offer it up. I am saying that these people need to think in a different way and permit the chant to work its way into our understanding of the faith, just as Catholics have done from time immemorial.

Finally, we tend to underestimate how compelling chant and sacred music can be even for people who have never experienced it before. At the Sacred Music Colloquium in Pittsburgh I was sitting behind two parishioners who did not know that we would be offering music at the parish Mass on Sunday. They walked in expecting the usual thing and found something else entirely: fully Gregorian propers, a sung ordinary by Schubert, sung readings, a long procession and much more.

They began the experience in a state of fantastic annoyance, just as we might expect. But they stayed. After 15 minutes, I watched their shoulders begin to relax and they settled in. As time went on, their participation began to become more intense. The woman took out her rosary. The man folded his hands in prayer and bowed his head. They stay all through to the end. And the countenance on their faces was very bright as they genuflected on their way out. They began with annoyance and left, from what I could tell, feeling a sense of transformation.

7 Replies to ““I Just Can’t Warm to Gregorian Chant””

  1. I think at least 2/5 of people who dislike chant dislike it because they've only sung or heard it in a poorly designed church. Buildings with lots of carpeting, poor or low ceilings, dampening agents on the walls, large open windows, etc… are the death of chant. I used to sing at Masses in one parish where they had all of the above and I would take a good traditional hymn sung with a strong organ over a capella chant anyday because the sound died the second it left your mouth and it sounded empty and pathetic. In a gloriously built church, with good singers, it's very difficult to find someone who legitimately "doesn't like" chant.

  2. I noticed a woman crying during the Schubert Gloria. I assume she was a parishoner since I hadn't seen her at the Colloquium. The Schubert was pretty moving after all…

  3. Thank you for this well-reasoned reflection. With as much as I was taught to respect the cultures and traditions of others growing up it is such a simple yet profound reversal to think that I should respect my own in the same way.

    The more I work with parallel issues in church building the more surprised I am that the assumption is always that the problem lies with "them" or tradition or church documents or anything else but ME. We would do well in all things to first ask if we need to be changed rather than jumping to conclusions about what we need to change in the church.

  4. "Rather than change the music, perhaps I should let the music change me."


    I have long wondered why it is considered perfectly appropriate (by Westerners especially) for the Eastern rites to preserve and sing their chant, while Western chant is so "dull" and out-of-date that it must be changed to something more "relevant." It's sad that so many Latin rite Catholics are alienated from their own heritage (not that it's their fault!)

  5. During the Sunday Mass I lurked around the back of the church for a time and saw no one leaving…even during/after Communion.

    Of course, the difficulty of finding parking and the interesting practice of blocking the "fast lane" of the street on both sides by parking there may have gad something to do with it. When you get a parking place there, you value it, savor it and use it as long as you can.

    Here in a small Tennessee town First Baptist's members routinely park on the wrong side of the street, marked clearly "NO PARKING" the length of the street.

    Local Episcopalians occupying territory on said street periodically call the cops who ticket profusely.

    Life in a small town.

  6. For several years, I attended a weekly sung mass at a parish with a top notch organist and schola. Being in midtown Manhattan, the parish attracted numerous tourists fulfilling their Sunday obligation (they were easy to spot). Like the two parishioners mentioned at the end of the post, I suspect the tourists were expecting the usual Sunday fare. No later than the Kyrie, however, a few of the tourists would invariably turn around and look up to the choir loft as if to try and make sense of what they were hearing. What a strange thing it is to be taken aback by the best of your own musical patrimony.

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