Myths about St. Francis and Chant

Already I’m seeing myths spring up about chant and St. Francis.

On the Catholic forums, someone asks:

So I know that St Francis banned Gregorian chant, but I can’t find any explanation of why he did so. Sts. Francis and Dominic were contemporaries and I’ve always heard stories (legends) of them trading belts/cords upon meeting so it can’t be just a separation of the times in which they lived. So why did St Francis ban it when St Dominic (or his children) embraced it so readily? Was there a theological reason, some reason he believed it somehow harmed the community, or did St. Francis simply dislike it?

This was the first time I’ve heard that claim. If someone has evidence to support it, please do so. Otherwise, I’m going with Lavern John Wagner’s observations in “Franciscan Chant as a Late Medieval Expression in the Liturgy”  
 When St. Francis turned his back on earthly vanities and established the Franciscan order in the first part of the 13th century, his biographers tell us he did not cease his interest in music. The Little Flowers of St. Francis recount that he went about singing, and we have the text, though not the music of several of his songs. In sending his friars out to preach he admonished them to sing God’s praises as if they were “joculatores Domini,” i.e. “minstrels of the Lord. The friars were closely associated with the composition and spread of laude spirituali simple religious songs in the vernacular that became enormously popular.
While this popular aspect of the Franciscan musical contribution has been duly noted, the liturgical chants which the Franciscans developed, especially those commemorating saints of their order, have not been as thoroughly considered. It is interesting to explore some characteristics of Franciscan chant, and relate its musical style to the mainstream of medieval liturgical chant, the better known Gregorian chant…

As a starting point for this consideration of Franciscan chant it is interesting to observe that the musical notation of Gregorian chant today, using square notes as it does, is the result of Franciscan usage. While square notes were first developed in northern Europe by the Notre Dame School on the Ile de France in Paris, they were introduced into Italy through the Franciscans. A little later, with the adoption of the Franciscan liturgy into the mainstream of the Roman Catholic church, the square-note notation for chant became the norm. ..

A further comparison of manuscripts written in the older Beneventan style and the newer square-note style illustrates the improvement in readability. The manuscript from Rome, Cod. Vatic. lat. 8737 (before 1266), fol. 251v, contains the office of St. Francis in Beneventan notation, and it may be compared to the manuscript with the same office from Freiburg, Switzerland, Minoritenkloster cod. 2 (also 13th century), fol. 213v. The clarity of the square notes over the earlier notation is striking.

For that matter, has a PDF of a full Franciscan processionale and a complete Franciscan Graduale online with beautiful chant. So much for the claimed distance between Francis and chant.

I’ll have more to say about the relationship between chant, simplicity, and humility later today, but we should also address what I’m sure is going to be an immediately detectable trend: the ubiquity of the “Prayer of St. Francis” song that you will find in your hymnal.

The music is by Sebastian Temple, written in 1962. The text is not St. Francis. It was written during World War I as a prayer for peace, inspired by the popular image of St. Francis. But it is not his prayer. The sentiment is fine and worthy but it is absolutely and indisputably inauthentic.

Long before the Internet came along to settle all such questions, I personally read the works of St. Francis, looking for this prayer. What I found was a a surprise to me. His writings were actually quite severe and stern and not for the lax of mind and spirit. Nothing in them suggested the Woodstock spirit people somehow associate with him today, much less anything like modern environmental politics. Above all else, this prayer is not in there.

I suppose it does no good to point this out. The “Prayer of St. Francis” will undoubtedly make a gigantic return and become inescapable in the coming years.

One Reply to “Myths about St. Francis and Chant”

  1. I think the final post in the original forum's thread indicates why both the "myth" and your own view are correct. It is just that I suspect the "myth" is referring to the Beneventan chant while the Franciscans had adopted, and led, the use of the square neume notation. I enjoy singing Gregorian Chant – but it has always been of the neume variety. I have never got my head around any of the two older notations I've noticed on internet sources. I can well imagine St Francis wanting to promote neume based music as being accessible by all in his order – not just the learned monks, as in other orders where there was a sort of ranking. Franciscans were all brothers or sisters.

    I only discovered this article as part of searching for a chant that is distinctly Franciscan. I'm wanting to produce a CD of chant to help fundraise for the parish of St Francis of Assisi here in Christchurch. The little quirk is that I want to record all the chants in churches designed by a FRANCES Petrie – mainly Basilicas and all with wonderful reverberant acoustics!
    I'm looking forward to being able to sing in the right acoustics since all the right ones in Christchurch were flattened in the 2010/2011 earthquakes.

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