“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.

The Best Introduction to Chant as Music

There are many types of Gregorian chant books out there. There are theological books, pedagogical books, historical books, detailed scholarly studies, and more. But what if you want a book on chant as music, the same type of book that might be written about the opera or about the symphony, something that covers history, purpose, and practice? Here is a wonderful choice: Gregorian Chant by David Hiley, appearing in the Cambridge Introductions to Music series. I can’t remember enjoying a book on chant more. It is sober without unnecessary academic apparatus, practical and clear without being overly focused on practitioners only, and historical without demanding vast prior knowledge. The prose is lovely and even charming, but one can be confident about its arguments and conclusions simply because Hiley is probably the world’s leading expert. The price is also right. This book filled in many gaps in my own knowledge, and clarified many questions. For college classrooms, it is ideal! But everyone interested in the subject will benefit.

A Universal Song

From one person who could not attend this year:

I am one of the – I’m sure – many people who wanted to be at the CMAA colloquium this year, but couldn’t get away from my work and home this time. I have been a regular at the colloquium for the past few years, and have been abundantly blessed. I’ve made wonderful friends who share my passion for sacred music and Catholic orthodoxy, learned so much about my faith and it’s rich musical heritage, and have been emboldened and empowered to take what I’ve learned and improve the liturgical life in my own parish.

On Monday, June 21, I felt a little sad – sad that I would not be greeted by the bright shining smiles who always make me feel welcome at the colloquium. I sat down to dinner that evening, imagining what charming wit from “the bow-tied one” I would not get to enjoy. I lamented in knowing that all that beauty of prayer and music was happening in Pittsburgh, and I was stuck in Piqua, Ohio. I was surely there in spirit.

Then on the evening of June 24, we were celebrating the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. As we chanted Tu Puer at Communion, I was filled up and overwhelmed with the revelation that many miles away, fellow Catholics were singing/praying the exact same words with the exact same melody for the exact same occasion. My CMAA friends were worshiping in the Extraordinary form, we were in the Ordinary form. The Communion Proper reminded me that around the globe, Catholics were united in mind, heart, and spirit. Sacred music is a wonderful outward expression of this unity.

The CMAA is more far-reaching than the 250 of it’s participants each year. It is helping to lift up worship and worshipers in many small towns, just like mine, and it is truly strengthening the Body of Christ at a real grass roots level.

Thank you so much for your tireless passionate work, your excellent online presence, and your absolute devotion to all things authentically Catholic. We are all blessed to have such a faithful group of people working for the CMAA, and for all the stewards and students of the Sacred Liturgy around the world. You work is saving souls!

Music Liberated by Colloquium XX

Several important pieces have been liberated from the prisons of obscurity and copyright for use at the Colloquium, and, by tradition, now put into the commons of the faith for your free use.

Here is the entire packet. These have not been previously available.

  • John Taverner’s Ave Maria
  • Ne reminiscaris Domine by Orlando di Lasso
  • Inclina Domine by Johannes Verhulst
  • A Catholic performance edition of Schubert’s Mass in G (prepared by Msgr. Schuler and redone by Jonathan Eason) with orchestra parts and organ reduction (not in the packet but available later this week).

Pictures of a Past

We’ve heard constantly for decades about how unredeemed the preconciliar past is, and yet sometimes I receive correspondence that remind me of what was and what might have been. An example:

Regading the congregation singing the Orsinary, when I was the organist and school music teacher at St. Rose chrch in Meriden, CT, the whole congregaiton sang the chant Ordinary, my 40-boy-choir processed, vested, with the celebrant, and the junior high school girls choir sang the Propers.

You have given me fond memopries of what Dr. Clifford Bennett, president of the Gregorian Institute of American was trying to do around this country in 1948 when I joined him as his New England Representative.

By the way, the Gregorian Institute of America is now generally described as the GIA, a for-profit publisher that gladly sells chant books but publishes next to nothing that touches on Gregorian themes and is now charged with collecting money for the right to sing the Psalms in English.

Women Clothed with the Son


Sunday evening, post-Colloquium- Wendy and I are happily exhausted. Finished Pittsburgh proper the way we began, with a dinner at the Pittsburgh Steak House on Carson,Southside.We cannot conceive of what it takes for Arlene OZ to “decompress” from one of “these.” I might propose that AOZ is one of the greatest people breathing air on this planet at this moment; she reconciles the Martha/Mary dichotomy with a smile and a couple of hairpins. Make no mistake though, she knows that every glass of the assembled is clean, then filled, then washed. And all the while she’s never left His side, absorbing every graceful word from His heart. And as Frogman eloquently opined, she don’t take a backseat to anybody when it comes to lovingly, nurturingly letting her baby doves fly with the wings of plainsong. She would shy away were that said in public from a dais microphone. Well, Arlene, I’m seconding Noel here and now, you’re front and center, enfolded in Christ’s arms.

And now the then: In the last three years, if there needed to be a clear sign that the tide is turning, it was attested to in this last week. “Then” is to be thought of as “what is to come,” not “what has gone.” “Then came……”

Jessica Happold is 25. In this era 25 doesn’t equal a quarter-century as we all know that the infected media Fr. Pasley spoke of at the final Sunday Mass have mitigated the concept of 25 as a “quarter-century.” Jessica, in any case, comprises all we need to know about the future of the liturgical leadership of our beloved Church. She hails from a one stop-sign (they had a blinking red-light, but then determined it was exorbitant) little burg in Nebraska containing less than 400 souls, some who attend the one Catholic parish, the others a Methodist church. She was born a golden child, according to her mother, who prayed for and received her musician when Jessica emerged singing in the delivery room. (Okay, I made that up.)Cut to Colloquium XX. It’s almost “incontheiveable” that the ripoff, tres cool slogan, ‘Stay Churchy, my friends,‘ is actually attested to by this young woman from a town that Google Earth has trouble locating.

She is finishing her MMusEd at UNebraska, Lincoln while teaching at the parochial school personally overseen by Bsp. Bruskewitz. Jessica was “deemed” to assume the duties of “Choir Director” of Bsp. Fabian’s cathedral as soon as she returns to Lincoln. And, that may not have even yet happened of this writing; her flight was delayed by the Murphy’s Law of modern Air Travel this morning. She could’ve stayed for the final Mass if all the dominos of the chaos theory of travel had fallen her way. But I digress.

Jessica wasn’t quite sure what she was in for when her principal sent her to Colloquium. She knew it couldn’t be bad, but she also knew that she was going in the midst of summer session classes for her MMusEd. She took at least two online exams in the midst of the impossible scheduling of Colloquium, and came out smiling. I think that is the point: she, like AOZ, will always come out smiling.
We, Jessica, Wendy and I, mutually adopted each other Monday morning as parents/child when we checked into Vickroy. She’d arrived Sunday and had gotten the lay of Dusquesne Land. We saw her in the little commons room after getting checked in, and she offered to guide us around campus. The rest? ‘Twas and ’tis a “God-thing.”

Basically, Wendy was her wing-gal when it was obvious she had to sing with Wilco. I just got to be funny-Dad all week. But I assure you, in the wee small hours of the morning, Jessica can hold forth about “being Catholic” with the likes of her sisters and brothers of the post-Resurrection church of people, followers of The Way. She faces challenges, both professional and personal, that she will navigate only, by her own confession, with the Light of Christ.

I can’t really go on further describing the miracle that Jessica is. I can promise that she will be a brighter star among the galaxy of disciples I mentioned as regards Jeff O.

But she, like AOZ and all the wondrous women of CMAA that were here this week or couldn’t be, save in spirit, represents not only the discipleship of the Magdala, and Mary and Martha, but also the bond between Naomi and Ruth, “faithful to you is my name.”

Votive Mass for the Blessed Virgin Mary

Saturday of the Sacred Music Colloquium is the day on which the Mass occurs earlier in the schedule, at 10:30m. This year the Mass of Saturday celebrated the votive Mass for the Blessed Virgin Mary, in the extraordinary form. The music was of a very special character. It used polyphonic Mass propers written by William Byrd, creating one of the brightest and most revealing aesthetic and spiritual experiences of the entire week.

The usual structure of High Mass with a polyphonic choir is to use Gregorian chant on the Mass propers (Introit, Gradual Psalm, Alleluia, Offertory, Communion) and set the ordinary parts of the Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus) to a beautiful polyphonic composition whether old or new. This is the standard mix throughout history; indeed, this is the structure that, more than any other single genre of composition and performance, gave rise to Western music as we know it.

But what if the two roles are reversed? What if the propers of the Mass are sung to polyphonic settings while the ordinary of the Mass is sung in Gregorian chant? There is nothing in the rubrics to prevent it. Many Renaissance composers wrote large settings of Mass propers. To use them at Mass becomes a bit impractical for most choirs, who are not often able to learn five large works of music to sing only once in the course of a year.

But this year at the colloquium, and for the first time in history of the colloquium, this is precisely what was done at this Mass on Saturday. The choice for polyphonic propers set against chanted ordinary has a dramatic effect on the texture of the Mass itself. It’s almost like taking a picture and inverting the colors: the shapes and meaning remain the same but one sees them in a completely new way.

The Mass began with a dramatic organ prelude played by Benjamin Cornelius-Bates, an organ student at Duquesne University (and a student of Professor Ann Labounsky, who has hosted us this week). Then the introit began, Salve Sancta Parens by Byrd, as sung by Wilko Brouwers’s choir. This music at this point in the Mass was a revelation in every way.

The music of Byrd stands alongside that of Brahms or Bach for its technical brilliance and beauty. This motet in particular was written for 5 vocal parts, which equally dependent on the other for the overall effect. It is bright and sparkling music written to honor Mary with all the qualities of Marian music throughout the ages. It lifts up the heart in joy.

The Kyria and Gloria following according to the Cum Jubilo setting of Mass IX. This is a setting that is somehow less familiar to me and it was a stunning, particularly the Gloria, which I don’t recall ever hearing before. The entire congregation of singers sung it all beautifully without having rehearsed it even once. But here again, the juxtaposition of these chants with polyphonic propers made for striking contrast and an intriguing interrelationship.

These pieces by Byrd should have a very special place in the hearts of Catholics. Clearly, they constitute some of his best work. But consider the circumstances under which they were written and published. Byrd was the court composer to Queen Elizabeth, whom he delighted with settings of the English Anglican service during times when to be a practicing and faithful Catholic was to commit a crime. Byrd, a devout Catholic, was tolerated only because he had so much talent to offer the court.

His books of Gradualia were therefore written and circulated in secret, to be used in the Masses held in private estates and castles. This was politically subversive music written not for professional purposes but as pure acts of heroic piety. In some way, he was actually risking his life by doing this – part of the double life he lived as England’s most important composer of Anglican music by day and England’s most prolific Catholic composers on night’s and weekends.

The reversal of the traditional roles of propers and ordinary has an interesting consequence for the role of the people and choir. When the proper is chanted by the schola and the ordinary is sung by a specialized choir, the role of the people is to sing only the dialogues with the priest. Unlike today’s “participation” fanatics, I don’t have a problem with this: just as we gain by listening to a great sermon, we can benefit too by being attentive listeners throughout the entire Mass. The music adds nobility to our prayers.

However, when the propers are sung to polyphony, and the ordinary is chanted, there emerges a very important role of the people’s singing during the main parts of the Mass. As a singer in the pews, one feels a special sense of inspiration to sing the Mass ordinary once having heard the Byrd propers at their appointed times. Mass IX, then, was sung by the entire congregation with great enthusiasm.

The results was the brightest and most brilliant of the Masses of the colloquium (this is written before Sunday’s Mass that features Schubert’s Mass in G with orchestra). One stands in awe at the flexibility of the structure of Catholic liturgy, one day solemn and contemplative with a focus on the Cross and the next day joyful and bright with a focus on the life of Mary.

Talking with participants and what they are doing in their parishes, it turns out that the Choral Propers of Richard Rice . They are easily managed by any parish choir that has four parts. Many Catholic music directors have been using them in the ordinary form as a way of re-introducing the Mass propers to their congregations after their tragic loss in the confusion in the year’s following Vatican II. This structure that emerges from this choice has much in common with the structure given to us by the compositions of Byrd.

This is also a wonderful way to begin to foster choral singing in liturgy. And that choice has major implications for parish life. There were some fanatics around in the years following the Council who disparaged choirs and their role. With an exaggerated emphasis on the “people’s song” many choirs were left with nothing to do other than become group-based cantors singing the melody along with the congregation. It is not surprising in light of this that choirs in parishes entered a long period of decline, and musical literacy plummeted at the same time. The typical parish today, then, has no music program to speak of – an astonishing fact in a Church culture that gave us the likes of Byrd.

This is one of the problems that the Colloquium seeks to address. It is designed to give people skills of singing and develop those skill in service of the liturgy. It is also designed to show these people how these skills can be effectively used in service of the faith. Singers and musicians come to have a highly valued place in the social structure of Catholic culture.

The sermon by Fr. Robert Pasley offered special thanks to the musicians for their role in inspiring the priests to undertake the hard work and sacrifices necessary for their ministry. He said that he wished all priests could come to the colloquium so that they could see the level of dedication of the musicians and come to place a higher value on their role. Truly, people like William Byrd made monumental contributions to the faith and the world by applying their talents in he hope of lifting up the liturgy.

One participant told me that he knew that the colloquium would give him training in chant and polyphony. What he had no expected was what would happen to his own temperament and outlook by spending a week deeply immersed in such an environment of beauty. He said that he feels personally transformed by the whole experience. In some ways, it is indeed a mystical experience unlike any on earth.