“Why Do We Keep Singing this Music?”

This week at Acton University, I was in casual conversation with a professor of theology at a Catholic seminary and the topic of music came up. She did not really know of my activities here or in music at all but when she found out that I had written a book on Catholic music, she asked me a pointed question. “Why do parishes and seminaries continue to sing music that is so obviously inferior to what has come before?”

I asked her to explain what she meant. First she gave provisos that she is not a musician and knows nothing about the topic. Then she went on to describe her gradual discovery that she could pretty much tell if some hymn is suitable for Mass based on its publication date. If it was composed anywhere between 1960 and the current day, it was likely to be silly and thin and not really very serious. It was likely to be a song that just didn’t seem very churchy.  In contrast, she said, she has variously sung hymns from the 19th century that are strong and inspiring and seem suitable for reasons she couldn’t entirely identify.

Perhaps you know this narrative well. I’ve heard it dozens of times, even hundreds of times. But she persisted in asking why. Why is it that this inferior music continues to be printed and sung but the great music of the past is not? I thought for a moment and first began with the explanation that this debate between old and new hymns is probably the wrong debate, that we really need to be talking about the problem of all hymns from all times replacing the actual text and music of the Mass centered on the propers and chant ordinaries. This intrigued her; she had not heard this before.

Still, she persisted: given that we are singing hymns, even if we should be singing propers instead, why do we sing these hymns and not better ones? I do understand what she means. In general I think she is correct – with all provisos for the sappy material in St. Gregory Hymnal and the like. In general, she has a point. There are many answers to the question I could give, and even then I’m not sure I know the one most important reason.

And yet, in the end, all issues of culture and taste and the triumph of mediocrity granted, the factor most often overlooked is the issue of copyright. The older hymns are in public domain. The CMAA has made hundreds available for free. But the newer hymns are all held in a proprietary legal arrangement bound up with royalty payments to publishers, writers, arrangers, and composers. That means that the publishers can extract money from congregations, pay their employees, pay whatever is leftover to composers, charge people for using them, license them out to other publishers, and so on.

The entire economic viability of these publishing firms that dominate our parishes is bound up with this state-based regulatory institution. If you doubt it, take a look at the ostentatious display of GIA’s copyright warchest in the back of Gather Comprehensive, for example. Here you find a major driving force behind the strange mystery of the persistence of bad music. None of this music has stood the test of time and most of it will not. That means that there is money to be made in the short run. Using public domain material, to put it very bluntly, doesn’t pay the bills.

I would like to know more about this, and much of what I’m saying here is based on hunches drawn from other industries and not inside knowledge about the ledgers of the big three. Whether it is the number one factor or just one among many, it is certainly the least talked about element of this debate.

Regardless, however, no one is forcing parishes to buy this material. The pastors who support these institutions with parishioner dollars are doing so of their own free will. They can stop anytime. So to some extent my explanation really explains nothing at all. As Adam Bartlett has written and emphasized, we lived in changing times in which digital media provides ever more free options to the warchests of the old-line publishers. If more parishes start to use them, there will come a time when the problem and mystery of inferior music will be no more.

Gregorian Chant notation and the Semiological work of Dom Cardine – part 1

By the 11th Century the basic corpus of Gregorian Chants as we now have them, with the exception of chants for more recent feasts, was complete. At that time there was no system of musical notation and the chants were committed to memory – an enormous task, given the entire body of Chant exceeds in length the entire works of Wagner!

However, in certain manuscripts we find quasi-musical markings above the Latin (and Greek) texts which indicate the rise and fall of the melody – these symbols resemble, at their most basic level, the grave and acute accents in French. They also give us considerable information regarding the rhythm of the chants. The study of these signs and symbols is known as Semiology. It is from these symbols that the modern system of Western musical notation grew, thanks to the Benedictine Monk Guido d’ Arezzo (c990 – 1050). It is he who invented staff notation, initially by grouping neumes around a single line, which he then increased to four. He also assigned each ‘pitch’ a name – Ut, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La – having noticed that the first note of each phrase of the hymn to St John the Baptist (Ut queant laxis) begins on a note one step higher in pitch than the last.


He used the first syllable of each phrase to name the pitches. It is from this system that we get the Tonic Sol Fa system – the Ut was replaced by Do, and Si or Ti was added later (Ut, a deer, a female deer doesn’t sound quite right!)
However, whilst there were considerable advantages to Guido’s system of notation – that of precisely indicating relative, if not absolute, pitch for the first time – the simplification of the neumatic symbols that accompanied the new system meant that the rhythmic nuances contained within the original unheighted neumes was lost and the new system became an indicator of pitch alone. A glance at the following scan from the Graduale Triplex will suffice to confirm this – observe the careful detail of the unheighted neumes as opposed to the rather lumpy, square notation with which we are more familiar, and which lacks the ability to express rhythmic subtlety in any way.


Various theories have been proposed regarding the rhythm of the Chant over the past 100 or so years, the old Solesmes Method having dominated almost all performances of the Chant for the past 80 years and is still reigning supreme. However, the ground-breaking work of Dom Eugene Cardine, a monk of Solesmes, in trying to unlock the rhythmic significance of the original neumes, has raised new questions about the way in which we perform the Chant, and has taken us back to Dom Guéranger’s original assertion, that the text must come first.
In his monumental study Gregorian Semiology, Cardine explains the function of unheighted neumes in terms of the information they impart regarding approximate pitch. However, through extensive study of different manuscripts and the different neumatic symbols of various notational traditions, he attempts to unlock the rhythmic significance of the neumes, and his theories, whilst still theories and not facts, are nonetheless extremely convincing, and are supported by evidence contained within the various notations used in France at the time.


The result, perhaps most clearly seen in Dom Saulnier’s new Antiphonale Monasticum, is the removal of editorial rhythmic symbols associated with the old Solesmes Method, including the lengthening dots and most episemas, and the creation of ‘new’ neumes based on old unheighted neumes, intended to convey some subtle rhythmic nuance which the current quadratic notation cannot convey. The theories regarding the episema, the quilisma and the salicus etc have the effect of liberating the Chant from a dogged, overly-metrical style of performance and allowing the words, once more, to take precedence. As Cardinal Garonne reminds us, in the Chant “the words almost give forth the music they already possess”, a point understood only too well by Guéranger, Cardine and his successor, Saulnier.

Over the coming weeks I will present a series of short articles on the main notational symbols used in the Chant, and attempt to outline in simple fashion Dom Cardine’s theories of rhythmic performance based on his study of the earliest manuscripts of unheighted neumatic notation. However, for those of you who wish to undertake a more detailed study, I recommend Cardine’s Book Gregorian Semiology and, of course, the Graduale Triplex, an indispensable volume for the true Gregorian enthusiast! I should point out, as I close this introductory piece, that the theories outlined above are just that – theories. It is easy to be dogmatic about such things and, whilst I am a disciple of Cardine and his theories, others are not. I merely offer these thoughts as one of many possible interpretations of the Chant we know and love.
Nick Gale, June 2010

Qui Vult Venire

This communio for this Sunday is very special indeed. Its economy is notable. It is a beautiful tune in a very short space, covering a very wide range, and with some interesting modulations and tensions. Most of all what we find here is an unmistakable forward motion that befits the text: If a man wish to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow.

As a first mode chant, its tonal center is RE but other than the first phrase, the chant doesn’t dwell in this resting place. It always seems to be headed somewhere else. Notice its midpoint on MI, which creates a musical question of what is to follow. We move up a fourth to the LA to sing about the cross, again with moving force.

We arrive at the last phrase, which is the most intriguing. In three words, we reach from the highest point in this chant to it lowest, nearly an entire octave. But notice the last musical phrase. Instead of going RE ME RE, as we might expect in a communion chant, it dips down to DO. It is a vocally interesting passage because we don’t often encounter this sound at the end of a chant.

We might say that this musical turn it is unexpected. A surprise. We have traveled a direction that we might not have anticipated. The singer even notices a near loss of breath. It is a subtle but powerful effect. If we follow Christ we must be prepared to go places that are unusual, places that do not fit in with our plans, places that are unfamiliar. But they always end in our true home.

A Choral Revolution in the North of England

Ben Saunders, the Director of Music at Leeds Cathedral in the North of England said, after he was appointed a number of years ago, that if if inner-city children were not going to come to him, then he was going to send a choral director to them. He was fortunate enough to have a supportive Cathedral Dean and Bishop behind him, so he did just that! Initial funding was arranged and a number of singers were sent into the local schools to encourage singing and form new choirs.

Now the Cathedral has a full-time music department, one of only three in Catholic cathedrals in England, and a whole host of professional choral directors who travel about the Diocese teaching children to sing and forming new choirs in the schools around Leeds and Huddersfield. There is now no longer just one cathedral choir but a whole legion of singers forming a vast number of choirs who sing the daily services in the Cathedral and who frequently broadcast on the BBC and the independent UK broadcasters.

Ben and his assistant, the supremely gifted and talented Chris McElroy, have launched this new venture and created a 21st Century, inner-city choral foundation. It has transformed music and liturgy at the Cathedral, and in the City of Leeds, beyond all recognition. Children living in working-class areas, deprived for so many years of music and, in particular, singing in schools, are once more raising their voices to God. With over 26 native languages spoken in the Cathedral parish alone, the common language is now Latin! Even the local state primary schools are amalgamating to create the UK‘s first non-fee-paying Cathedral Choir School, an initiative blessed by the former Secretary of State for Education. The children are taught Gregorian Chant, polyphony, classical masses and new, quality works composed by 20th Century and contemporary composers, proving beyond a shadow of doubt that children appreciate and rise to a challenge.

The final jewel in the crown of this musical renaissance is perhaps the newly rebuilt organ – Orgelbau Klais of Bonn has recently reinstalled the completely rebuilt Cathedral Organ, which has been silent for over 30 years. The blessing and formal inauguration of the new organ took place on the 16 May 2010. Further details of the Leeds project can be found at www.dioceseofleedsmusic.org.uk.

The work undertaken by Ben, Chris and their dedicated, talented team of singers and choral directors is a lesson to us all and other cathedral musical directors would do well to follow their example!

Nuns, an island, a new organ and spectacular chanting

It has been my great privilege to pay a number of recent visits to the Abbey of St Cecilia in Ryde on the Isle of Wight, just off the south coast of England. My first visit was to give a talk to the community as part of my then role as Director of Music to the UK based Panel of Monastic Musicians. The second visit, prompted by the first, was a Chant Day I organised through the Academy of St Cecilia, when Professor John Caldwell of Oxford University gave an excellent history of Chant and we enjoyed several master classes from the Monastic Choirmistress, as well as taking part in the Divine Office.

The Abbey has an interesting history in that the nuns were originally members of the community of the Abbaye Sainte- Cécile de Solesmes. The French anti religious laws of the early 20th century forced the whole community into exile in England, to the forerunner of the present St Cecilia’s Abbey. After several years of exile the French community was at last able to return to Solesmes in 1921, but a number of the sisters remained and formed the community we now know today.
The sisters sing the entire Office and Mass to Gregorian Chant every day of the year. A visiting monk from Quarr Abbey, a few miles away on the same island, makes a daily trip to celebrate the Mass (Novus Ordo in Latin) and the Monastic Choir, under the direction of Sr Bernadette, a true disciple of Dom Cardine, trains the sisters on a regular basis in the Chants of the Office and the Mass, using Cardine’s Semiological approach. This, coupled with the use of Dom Saulnier’s new Antiphonale Monasticum, now fully in use in the Abbey, makes for the most vibrant, fluid and prayerful performance of the Chant I have heard in the UK.

The Abbey also boats a new Kenneth Tickell organ in the West End of the Monastic Choir – details of which, for all organ enthusiasts, can be seen at www.tickell­organs.co.uk/specInfo/opus54.htm. The Community can be visited at any time and has an excellent website – www.stceciliasabbey.org.uk – and I urge those of you who live in or are visiting the south of England to make a short trip across the Solent by hovercraft, ferry or catamaran, to hear the mesmeric singing of this wonderful, young, thriving, growing community of nuns.
Nick Gale, June 2010

An ordinary parish with an ordinary priest!

There has been a great deal of talk lately of the dismal state of music in the average parish, not just in the UK and the USA, but all over the Catholic world. Chant and polyphony, rather than being the staple diet, as VII stipulates, are the exception rather than the rule, as is the use of Latin. Choirs are rare, ‘folk’ music groups are the norm. The organ is the exception, the guitar is the norm.
When I make suggestions to clergy and parish musicians as to how they might go about improving music, such as using simple chants from the CMAA’s fantastic Parish Book of Chant, introducing a Gregorian Ordinary etc, even if it is De Angelis, the general response is “Oh that’s all gone now”, “That’s old hat now”, That’s too difficult for the people”, “The children won’t like it”, “We can’t worship in a language people don’t understand”, “We can’t do all that – we’re just an ordinary parish”.
Apparently, ordinary people are too stupid to learn a chant ordinary – they need a Gloria with a refrain, maybe the odd burst of clapping to keep the children amused, something tuneful that they can enjoy when they go to Mass, something they can hum. Am I alone in thinking that this is patronising to the People of God, that this is an insult to the intelligence of children, and indeed their parents? Am I also alone in thinking that the music we use in the Liturgy should be an offering to God, not chosen to suit the tastes of the people? Do children really enjoy clapping at Mass? Is that really to be regarded as the only way to keep them happy during the liturgy and enjoying Mass more? This is an insult to our youth – give them more credit! And as for understanding the texts we sing, does anybody actually know what Kum bay ya actually means?! Whenever I have seen and heard this musical, poetic and theological travesty of a hymn in use in a parish, I’ve never seen a parallel translation of the text!

I’d like to tell you about an ordinary parish in an ordinary town with an ordinary priest and an ordinary congregation. The Church in question is Our Layde and St Michael, Abergavenny. Abergavenny is a small market town in rural Wales, near the border with England. It has a population of around 14,500 and its Catholic Church is Grade II Listed (a British system of ensuring buildings of note are preserved and not tampered with). The town, which has a Catholic minority, is served by a monk of Belmont, Dom Thomas Regan, a Welshman, and the Church has a digital organ, a self-trained organist and an amateur choir drawn from the local population. Sounds remarkably ordinary doesn’t it?
However, this ordinary priest is actually a visionary man. Wherever Dom Thomas has served as a priest, he has left behind a legacy; of increased Mass attendance, of brand new churches built, of new church centres and halls funded and constructed, of schemes for local youth and for the elderly, of a deeper understanding of the faith, of excellent catechesis, of happier faithful and of excellent liturgy.

A typical Mass at Abergavenny involves a small-scale choral liturgy (the choir will sing a motet or a simple SATB Kyrie), Gregorian Chant, good, stable, quality hymnody in English, Latin (and Welsh!), fine vestments, a beautifully looked-after church, attention to every possible detail. Dom Thomas celebrates a Low Mass in the Usus Antiquior every Friday evening, and a regular Missa Cantata or even a Solemn High Mass on a frequent basis. Every so often the main Sunday Mass (Novus Ordo English/Latin) is replaced by a Solemn High Mass in the Usus Antiquior, with all propers provided by the amateur choir and all parts of the Ordinary sung by the faithful with a gusto that only the Welsh can deliver! The people don’t just accept this, they adore it! The Church is full, the faithful are happy and supportive, safe in the knowledge that they have a priest and musicians who serve them in the best possible way. The Sacred Liturgy is performed and prayed in the most solemn, dignified and prayerful way, and the choir is the envy of every ordinary parish in the UK, thanks to Dom Thomas, his faithful, dedicated and enthusiastic organist, Gwyn, and the loyal members of the Choir.

When I visit this beautiful town to see Thomas (who received me into the Church at Belmont Abbey when I was 18), I am always struck by how good everything is. I am also slightly saddened, and ask the question “If they can achieve all this here, then why not everywhere?” This is indeed an ordinary parish in an ordinary town, but what has been achieved is (sadly in many ways) extraordinary. I hope and pray that what happens in Abergavenny will become the norm in every ordinary parish the whole world over.
Nick Gale, June 2010