The Past and Future of the Graduale Simplex

One of the more common arguments in the Catholic music world concerns what the Second Vatican Council intended as regards music. In its words, the Council elevated Gregorian chant, a reality that many refuse to accept because many other of the Council’s liturgical statements seem to lead not to a “higher” form of liturgical expression but rather toward a more “pastoral” approach of calling for more participation, accessibility, and clarity in liturgical expression. (“The rites should be distinguished by a noble simplicity; they should be short, clear, and unencumbered by useless repetitions; they should be within the people’s powers of comprehension, and normally should not require much explanation.”)

This has led many commentators to imagine that a fundamental tension exists in Council liturgical documents. It recommended complex Latin music at the same time it suggested simplicity and clarity. This seems like a contradiction if we are intellectually mired in an Anglican-style focus on high and low liturgical styles: high is Latin chant whereas low is vernacular hymnody.

But why should we think this way? The Council makes no reference to issue of class and style, high or low or whatever; this interpretative hermeneutic may have nothing at all to do with of the issues at hand.

Another way to understand these two ambitions of the Council might be to postulate that the Church hoped for more participation, clarity, and accessibility precisely so that the true music of the liturgy would assert itself with greater confidence and with a great integral relationship with the rites themselves.

It isn’t a matter of class or style; it is a matter of authenticity and truth. Gregorian chant is the true music of the ritual, and therefore a liturgy that is truer to itself would naturally grant the chant primacy of place. This might be hard to understand with the English-world focus on class hierarchies and their relationship to style preferences. But that is not the best way to think of these matters. Thinking liturgically, there is no real contradiction here but rather an ideal being expressed, one that transcends prevailing cultural biases

A strong piece of evidence in favor of that interpretation has long been before our eyes but is hardly ever discussed. The evidence is the Gradual Simplex of 1967. This interesting but ill-fated book appeared two years after the close of the Council. Based on proximity to the Council alone, it has a strong claim to providence evidence of the Council’s wishes.

It also came before the earthquake of 1969/70 when a new Missal emerged that took a form and structure that hardly anyone at the Council itself would have imagined. Moreover, the appearance of the Simplex represented the fulfillment of the words of the Council itself from Sacrosanctum Concilium: “117. The typical edition of the books of Gregorian chant is to be completed; and a more critical edition is to be prepared of those books already published since the restoration by St. Pius X. It is desirable also that an edition be prepared containing simpler melodies, for use in small churches.”

This is important: the purpose of the Graduale Simplex was not to replace the Graduale Romanum, which was and remains the music book of the Roman Rite. The purpose of the Simplex was to provide a bridge to the fully Mass: a means by which chant can be more readily embraced by all parishes. The Council fathers fully understood that the Graduale Romanum was not being used in parishes or even Cathedrals. Instead, people mostly experienced English hymns with Low Mass and Psalm tone propers with the sung Mass. Vatican II wanted to leave this model and inspire universal sung Masses.

The answer was not simply to preach more about the wonders of the Gregorian chant, banging the Graduale Romanum on everyone’s heads forever. Instead, the Church was offering a practical means for getting to where we needed to be. The Church hoped to provide a tool for parishes that were not singing chant to make it possible for them to go forward. Toward this end, the Simplex provided what were called “seasonal propers” — four or five antiphons that can be sung throughout the year — along with some easy composite Mass settings of the ordinary chants that anyone can sing. In addition, the Simplex provided reduced versions of other chants for the ritual throughout the year.

It seems that the very existence of the Simplex alone should be decisive in terms of setting these debates about the Council’s intentions. Did the Church desire chant? Absolutely. There can be no doubt. The Church desired chant so much that it invested resources into their practical realization. This book is proof of that. It is also proof that the best-laid plans can still fail.

The year was 1967, a highly confusing time to say the least. By then the liturgical breakdown had already begun. Few people showed much interest in the Simplex project. Moreover, two years later the new Mass was promulgated and the widespread impression was that everything old, even a book that had come out two years earlier, was now defunct. After new wholesale vernacularization, hardly anyone was interested in Latin chant, whether complex or simplex. The book intrigued the specialists but otherwise went absolutely nowhere.

As László Dobszay writes in the Restoration and Organic Development of the Roman Rite, the Graduale Simplex is “the history of a fiasco.” It ended up being used in some Papal Masses — the precise place where the editors least imagined that it would or should be used — but hardly anywhere else. Today, the book hardly exists as a living liturgical resource. Most Catholic musicians know nothing about it.

The concept and strategy were not terrible. The core problem was the execution. If parishes were interested in Latin in the 1970s, they were interested in the Graduale Romanum – and there were only a few in this category. The rest were experimenting in new directions most of which amounted to the complete abandonment of the chant tradition.

This one little, poorly-bounded paperback made no dent at all in parish practice. It was neither schola book nor people’s book. It was too expensive to be generally distributed, and it was unclear what one would do with it if it were generally distribution. The intellectual property of the book itself was unclear so people were reluctant to take the chants and adapt them for their own use. And, moreover, it was not even clear that the book was actually, in fact, simpler than the full Graduale in any case. The prevailing assumption was that syllabic chant was easier to learn than melismatic chant but there is no real proof of that contention; many music directors report that the opposite might actually be true.

Today the book has only a few champions. Paul Ford who wrote Flowing Waters is one of them. His book is an English version of the Simplex and offers chants for the full year – seasonal chants, not weekly propers. This book has been met with more success than the Simplex itself, and I’ve known perhaps a dozen or so musically progressive pastors who have implemented the book and thereby gotten their congregations away from their hymn addiction. It is a good attempt to revive the dream of providing a stepping-stone to the fully sung Mass that Vatican II hoped to inspire.

One thing we’ve learned from this experience is that execution is as important as concept. New resources are pouring out right now that get the execution right. The new Missal is an example, with its chanted melodies built right into the fabric of the liturgy. The Simple English Propers is another example: we carefully chose which propers to set, provided enough Psalms for the fully liturgical action, put the book in the commons, bound the book beautifully, and priced it low. Going into this project, we thought hard about the market and the strategy here. The same is true of the Simple Choral Gradual. The same with be true of our forthcoming book of Simple Chanted Responsorial Psalms. All of these book provide beautiful music now but also lead to and train for something else in the future.

What is yet missing? Critics might say that we have yet to provide a pew book that goes beyond encouraging the people to sing the ordinary and the dialogues. If that is true – and I’m not granting the criticism so much as acknowledging that it exists – what might the people sing under conditions where there is no schola at all, or where the pastor insists that the people sing the procession, and yet the propers need to be sung? The Simplex’s idea of seasonal chants might in fact have a purpose here. Perhaps the idea can indeed be revived in some form. Just imagine if people were singing simple seasonal chants instead of hymns for the processional. Would this be an improvement? Certainly yes. Flowing Waters is in print but it is hard to imagine that book in the pews.

There is still work to be done and perhaps the Simplex points the way after all.

One Reply to “The Past and Future of the Graduale Simplex”

  1. I think another important point to mention is the reference to the Graduale Simplex in the GIRM, second place after the GR.

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