Why Do People Want to Learn Chant?

Students helping stuff packets before sessions.

It was my great fortune to be called upon this week to substitute teach a master class on chant. It was for the CMAA’s Winter Chant Intensive.

The original instructor for the men David Hughes came down very ill — vale of tears! — and another great conductor Richard Rice was called upon to teach the men among the attendees.

But there was a day until he could arrive, which allowed me the chance to come and teach and get to know some of the attendees. (Arlene Oost-Zinner taught the women, and the sessions are ongoing as I write).

Think of this. These are people who have decided to take a full week out of their lives just to go to class to study chant. The coursework is not expensive but the time is. They came from all over the country too.

We have been encouraged of late to examine the motivations of those who are seeking to become part of the solution in their parishes. A recent argument critique by Kathy Pluth speculated that the reason for the chant revival is to due deep fears of modernity. The sheer instability of the world rattles people to the point that they take recourse to “arbitrary authoritarian sources such as tradition.”

Now, this is interesting. Nothing like this was present among the people I met at this great event. They were both men and women. They were both young and old. They had different national origins. Even a variety of faith traditions were present here.

As I told people at the opening, agreeing to this task is pretty courageous, it seems to me. The goal of the week was to learn to read new notation, point psalms, learn a new musical language, sight read music from thick and complicated books, blend with others, master new vocal sounds and approaches, as well as discover for the first time the place of music within the musical structure of the Roman Rite of Mass.

Learning is hard. It is never for the feint of heart. Music is especially hard. It is far easier to rest on one’s laurels and congratulate oneself for the hymns you sing week to week. Moreover, there is not usually any money in learning to sing chant. There are no chant jobs to be had as just as singer. You get no real bonus points from anyone. The pastor is not usually pushing very hard for the change.

The notion that anyone would do this because of fear strikes me as…implausible. I saw fear on no one’s faces. I saw exactly the opposite. They were excited. They were fearless. They were dedicating themselves to making a change toward the good.

So the question is: why? Why are they doing this? I believe it can be summed up rather easily. As musicians, they want to contribute their talents toward the improvement of the liturgy. They want to take part in making liturgy more beautiful and true to itself. They want to be part of the real thing. They are tired of substitutes for the real thing. They know that the only reason they are not singing chant now is because they need to acquire the skills. So they set out to acquire them as a way of making a greater contribution to the great liturgical project.

Plus, these people can read Vatican II. They know what the documents say. They are aware that there is some music that is tied to the ritual and other music that is just tacked on. They were like to do their part to fulfill the hope of the Council by singing the actually music that is integral to the liturgy.

Simple, right? I think so. It is also inevitable. The Roman Rite craves chant. It cries out for its use. It is the most natural and normal music. When it is not heard, when it is not part of the rite, there is something serious missing. You only need to hear a chanted Mass one time to sense it. It just belongs.

I admire the people who set out to learn and make chant part of their contribution to the life of the faith. They are bold, progressive, courageous, and they often take this task on at great personal expense. They do it because the know that the faith is calling on singers to do their part.

It is no more or less simple than that.

As usual, I had some sense that the most valuable thing I taught them was the musical structure of the rite itself. This is what begins the process of understanding the task that confronts musicians. We brought plenty of copies of William Mahrt’s book The Musical Shape of the Liturgy. This is the book that puts it all together.

If you do not own a copy, I strongly suggest that you pick one up. It explains that by singing chant, you are singing the actual liturgy in the way that defines the  (fearless) ideal.