The archives contain images of thousands of young Catholic school children in the 1920s learning chant. It is a beautiful thing to see. But what happened to these people and why weren’t they around to protect the liturgy against what happened after the Second Vatican Council? This question touches on the great mystery I’ve been thinking about for some 20 years and I’ve yet to come up with a satisfactory answer. Perhaps that’s because there isn’t one answer.
One thing that is clear: it is absolutely not the case that Gregorian chant was in full flourish before Vatican II and then suddenly disappeared after. Many contemporary accounts of music in the 1950s document that the modal liturgical experience was Low Mass with English and Latin hymnody. High Mass typically used Psalm tones propers accompanied by organ, while the ordinary of the Mass used popular settings that are long forgotten.
Many puzzle about why folk music took over in the 1960s. A more interesting question is how and why authentic Gregorian chant didn’t have much of a presence in the liturgy before the 1960s. How could this have happened? After all, the long-awaited Motu Proprio of Pius X came out in 1903. The new Graduals from Solesmes and the Vatican — the culmination of a half century of research — came out in 1908. The push throughout the first half of the 20th century was intense, from what I can tell. There were schools, classes, instruction manuals, and even clear mandates in place.
And yet by the 1950s, all evidence suggests that the chant was barely living. I’ve always been spooked by a book called Chants for Church published by the Gregorian Institute of America in 1954. There was nothing in particular wrong with the book as such. It was just that it was so minimalist. It had only popular chant hymns. I’ve always wondered if this book represented a last ditch effort.
Then of course the whole structure of Catholic music unraveled immediately following the Council. It’s a strange thing to read what the Council said about the first place of chant in the Mass and then to read the accounts of how secular folk music swept the liturgy in America from 1965 all the way through to the promulgation of the new ritual in 1969 and 1970. By the time the music of the St. Louis Jesuits came along, many saw it as a sacralizing influence and a welcome relief.
Among the theories I’ve toyed with for why all this happened or what was going on are the following. I’ve considered the possibility that chant was actually still making progress in the 1950s but was still not ubiquitous; had that progress continued, we would have seen it really take hold. I’ve also wondered if World War II devastated American parish choirs by sending the men out to war and the women to work, and everyone else was just too focussed on the war on the home front to bother with difficult things like chant. That disruption was never repaired. Or perhaps real chant was just too hard and Catholics are lazy and like English.
Maybe all of those are factors. Regardless, the center couldn’t hold after the Council. The language was changed, the calendar was scheduled to be changed, and Gregorian chant seemed inapplicable. Or maybe it was the culture itself that proved too hard to resist. Or maybe it was purely a demographically driven change. The teens outnumbered the adults in the parishes of the 1960s — and entirely unprecedented situation — and they therefore had their way.
All of these are factors, and there are probably more too, such as the loss of a real sense of what liturgy is and does and why it matters. How many people in mid century truly understood that the music of the Mass is just as embedded as part of its history as the text? How many people really understand the destination of the liturgy is not to remain in time with the community but to transcend time and touch eternity?
I obsessed about these topics not because I want to keep stirring the pot from the past but because I’m seeking lessons for the future. What can we do today that the generation of musicians in Pope Pius X’s day did not do? What can we learn from the mistakes of the past? How can we prepare the way for a singing Church in which Gregorian chant truly does serve as the ideal?
There are many answers to these questions. We’ve worked on putting out English chant, holding elaborate national conferences, running forums and blogs, publishing serious books on the topic, speaking on the radio and making videos, and much more. Every bit helps the cause of chant evangelism.
Of all the methods we used, there is one that rises above everything else in my mind, one approach that I feel very confident has made the most substantive contribution to giving chant a real future in Catholic liturgy. That step is that we’ve all worked very hard to put as many chant editions online as possible, and made these editions as part of the commons of humanity. Anyone can download them. Anyone can sing them. Anyone can print them. Anyone can do all these things without asking permission, without paying fees, and without facing any legal reprisal at all.
This approach represents a recreation of the status that chant held in a pre-technology age from the early centuries. The music was owned by everyone. It had no one author. It was composed to evoke the stories in the text. Anyone who believed in it could share it. It was mainly transmitted through oral culture but the printed editions, once they came along, were also common property. In other words, chant was part of what is today called “free culture” — artistic expression that is not held as the intellectual property of anyone.
Did you know that Pope Pius X wanted this status to pertain to the chants he asked to be published in 1908? I just discovered this for myself, as part of a paper that I’m delivered in Rome at the Sacra Liturgia conference in July. In the course of my research I found the following statements from the Pope:
On March 9, 1904, Msgr. Giovanni Bressan, the private secretary to Pope Pius X, sent a letter to the Solesmes monastery in France that had long been at work on reconstructing the melodies of Gregorian chant. It was sent in the care of Dom Paul Delatte and read as follows:
His Holiness has arrived at the decision to publish at the Vatican Press the edition of liturgical books containing the chant of the Roman Church. This edition, produced under the auspices of the Holy See, will not have restricted copyright but any publisher will be permitted to reprint it as may please him best.
The Solesmes Abbey complied, and ratified a donation of its rights to the chant books on April 6 of that same year. Msgr. Bressan wrote of
the marvelous promptness with which Your Reverence accepted the invitation of His Holiness to collaborate in the preparation of a a Vatican Edition containing the melodies of the Church and intended for the free use of all the churches throughout the world.
When the announcement came of the coming Vatican Gradual, the following wording was approved by Pius X:
His Holiness does not wish to establish a privilege of monopoly for any publisher… As the pages are issued by the Vatican Press, they will be placed at the disposed of the publishers who will have the right to reproduce them but without change.
And yet what happened? When the Graduals finally appeared in 1908, both the Solesmes and Vatican editions were held in copyright that was covered under the Berne Convention of 1886. This switch came about largely because of a dispute over rhythm. The sides in the debate went to their corners and came out fighting. Copyright was one of their weapons.
That meant that their status as part of “free culture” came to an end. After 1913, Solesmes became the only authorized publisher. Everyone has had to ask and then pay, or face legal reprisals.
This proprietary culture of the chant began to spread. Publishers and authors held tightly to their manuscripts. There was even an event in 1929 when a chant school was forced to destroy all its books because a powerful person claimed that they infringed on copyright. Most singers and composers all through the second half of the 19th century were certain that they would face terrible consequences if they so much as put an episema on a punctum, much less made a mimeograph of a chant (but they did it anyway).
So guess what kind of music took hold after the Second Vatican Council? The choice was for free culture music then called folk. As Ken Canedo said of this music:
The folk song, like the Bible, grew from an oral tradition, pre-dating radio and recording technology. A singer observed a slice of life, turned the observation into a song and, with guitar or banjo, presented it to anyone who would hear, perhaps on a front porch, at the town square, or down in the mine. If people liked it they would sing along and bring the new song home to share with a new audience…. Sometimes the lyrics would change, sometimes the tune was modified, and no thought was ever given to composer credits or copyright protection. A song was a song, something free and sweet for the entire world to sing. And a good song was very sweet indeed.
How much does this have to do with the switch. I cannot say for sure but I do know several things: 1) The Pope never intended for chant to be copyright protected, 2) Copyright protected music cannot ever have the same social impact as free culture, 3) What won the day after Vatican II came from the free culture, 4) the successor music to folk is today as locked down as chant was in the 20th century, and 5) chant is now restored to its openness and availability as never before thanks to the Internet.
These are the themes my paper explores. To me, this thesis points to a very bright future for chant.