CCTLS 7: Gregorian Chant and Other Kinds of Music

The past two days we’ve covered John Paul II’s take on the three judgments in his chirograph, issued one century after Pope Pius X released his motu proprio on sacred music, Tra Le Sollecitudini.

Today, from Pope John Paul II’s chirograph, a look at Gregorian chant:

7. Among the musical expressions that correspond best with the qualities demanded by the notion of sacred music, especially liturgical music, Gregorian chant has a special place. The Second Vatican Council recognized that “being specially suited to the Roman Liturgy”[SC 116] it should be given, other things being equal, pride of place in liturgical services sung in Latin[Musicam Sacram 50]. St Pius X pointed out that the Church had “inherited it from the Fathers of the Church”, that she has “jealously guarded [it] for centuries in her liturgical codices” and still “proposes it to the faithful” as her own, considering it “the supreme model of sacred music”[TlS 3]. Thus, Gregorian chant continues also today to be an element of unity in the Roman Liturgy.

Like St Pius X, the Second Vatican Council also recognized that “other kinds of sacred music, especially polyphony, are by no means excluded from liturgical celebrations”[SC 116]. It is therefore necessary to pay special attention to the new musical expressions to ascertain whether they too can express the inexhaustible riches of the Mystery proposed in the Liturgy and thereby encourage the active participation of the faithful in celebrations[SC 30].

Commentary:

Some people wonder about the loss of that “special place” for Gregorian chant. How did it happen? Who’s to blame? How can we fix it?

My speculation is that it happened when music became more a domain for a semi-priestly class, part of the western movement toward music as a specialty item that was more important to do correctly than it was to place it in the mouths of worshipers. Singing and music-making was still a vital part of people’s lives all through the Tridentine era. It was a sad coincidence that just as music-listening was taking off through hi-fi-stereo, vinyl records, and eventually the Walkman, people were being asked to disengage from listening to church music in order to sing it.

Blame is of little interest to me, but part of it surely must lie with the poor quality of chant performance in many parishes.

By the Church’s own admission, Gregorian chant is an identifying mark of the Roman liturgy. That’s important, but not quite as important as the value of “express(ing) the inexhaustible riches of the Mystery proposed in the Liturgy and thereby encourage the active participation of the faithful.” Did John Paul II encourage chant because he was expected to do so? In this section of the chirograph, he concedes that expressing the Mystery–any form of participation–is of value to the liturgy. And which is more important to our faith? One more expression of union with Rome, or the praise of Christ?

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Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
This entry was posted in Chirograph for the Centenary of TLS, post-conciliar liturgy documents. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to CCTLS 7: Gregorian Chant and Other Kinds of Music

  1. I’m loving this series of analysis, Todd.
    Minor quibble to you, but a possible conversation inhibitor elsewhere. You quote the JPII letter with its translation of the situo of GC as “having pride of place.” Of course, that is a translation of a translation of a translation, one might assume, given the sources of language and document. In Latin, as you know, principium locum is not “pride of place” but literally “principal place” or in MR2 speak “first place.” My point, and I do have one(!) is that it cannot go unnoticed that you further obscure the point by a more diminuitive translation, “a special place.” You know durn well you cain’t fudge with an active, licit document to that extent without having doing harm to the other end of your proposition, in terms of credibility. I wouldn’t say it’s a cheap trick, but it ain’t kosher either.
    What’s more problematic to me, your last paragraph:

    By the Church’s own admission, Gregorian chant is an identifying mark of the Roman liturgy. That’s important, but not quite as important as the value of “express(ing) the inexhaustible riches of the Mystery proposed in the Liturgy and thereby encourage the active participation of the faithful.” Did John Paul II encourage chant because he was expected to do so? In this section of the chirograph, he concedes that expressing the Mystery–any form of participation–is of value to the liturgy. And which is more important to our faith? One more expression of union with Rome, or the praise of Christ?

    I need a direct citation for the presumptive diminishment of GC as a mere “identifying mark of the Roman liturgy.” (And remember “Roman liturgy” is not equivilent to “Roman Rite.”) GC is at cellular, DNA and visceral level integral to the Roman Rite. Even AWR in SACRED MUSIC hails it as not just a union of text and melody, but a sacral language that transcends mere meaning and even comprehension from its constituent elements. So, GC as merely a sign, or code becomes a straw man for your coming tautology. The encouragement of FACP is not at odds with GC on any philosophical level. It seems you’re like the guy in a Monty Python sketch who cannot admit that contradiction doesn’t an argument make. And insofar as JPII’s rationale, you infer he might have been responding to some exterior stimulus to exhort the use of GC? C’mon! It’s not as if the man was totally exhausted in ’03, or that a man who never shrank from daunting challenges his whole life which was grounded thoroughly at home, in his childhood and post adolescent thoroughly in the Roman Rite and Polish Devotional milieu suddenly became a late Paul VI milquetoast, and at whose beck and call, liturgically speaking one might ask?
    Finally, the jab about worshipping Rome or God? That’s indefensibly unjust and insulting to perhaps millions of faithful Catholics. Let’s fisk nicely, please.

  2. Todd says:

    Thanks, my friend, for a good discussion on this section. I’m only quoting JP2 on “special place.” Those were only his words. But however it is translated/mangled we can mostly agree it does not have first/pride/special place in practice. I openly wonder why.

    I don’t see chant as being at all at odds with participation. Participation is, I believe, a higher virtue for a number of reasons, but is far from exclusionary of chant, not even for kids.

    Pardon my awkward writing construction at the end. My intent needs to be teased out a bit more than I did. Gregorian chant as the “official” song of Rome should not trample putting the words of the praise of Christ into the people’s mouths. Again, it need not. But the advanced plainsong cited typically Gregorian is not needful. Other chant forms, even simple ones, can advance the texts of the liturgy without undue ornamentation at important moments when the people should not be left in the dust.

    I intended this less as a gauntlet throwdown and more as an acknowledgement of the occasional tension between “professional” (or priestly) music overshadowing the people’s music.

    The first place should go to putting praise in people’s mouths. If plainsong does that, even Gregorian chant, well and good. If not, then we shouldn’t feel guilty or conflicted about setting it aside.

  3. Jimmy Mac says:

    GC is like Latin: a part, but far from the major part – or the whole.

  4. Liam says:

    Well, I again offer my hermeneutical key: the faithful in the pews should not be strangers to Gregorian chant as provided for in the ritual books; if they find it strange to encounter a Gregorian proper instead of a hymn, that’s an estrangement from their birthright heritage. Some (particularly folks who experienced bad chant practices in the 1950s, for example) may still *prefer* to stay estranged, but by rights the faithful at large should be given familiarity, and newcomers (both youth and adults received into the Church) get a voice, too.

    What familiarity entails will vary by community. I have suggested before that options in the GIRM not only be taken permissively but programmatically – that is, for the people to be given regular encounters with all of the options so that, over a period of many years, the local community itself can properly discern which of them makes the most sense. (And, here, I understand “local community” not only to be at the level of parish or diocese, but also the regular attendees at a given scheduled Mass – there are three layers of local community in that sense.) Without that exposure, the community has not been given the necessary tools to come to an informed discernment. I don’t think pastors and music ministers should be the only ones discerning this.

    This hermeneutical key will deeply frustrate people with an ideological bent (of all sorts). To my mind, that’s not a bug, but a major feature.

    • Liam says:

      PS; I should add that I expect that where such an approach is adopted, that it would be transparently explained to the faithful, and that the faithful should be invited *not* to provide short-term reactions as feedback but only the results of considered, longer-term reflection.

  5. Charles says:

    A day without a Todd throwdown is like a day without….;-)
    If you’d said this initially,

    But however it is translated/mangled we can mostly agree it does not have first/pride/special place in practice. I openly wonder why.
    I don’t see chant as being at all at odds with participation. Participation is, I believe, a higher virtue for a number of reasons, but is far from exclusionary of chant, not even for kids.

    One notion that consisently came up at colloquium in SLC was that trying to reconstruct the “deconstruct” of the failure of chant that led up to the 1903 MP (PiusX) “Tra le sollecitudini” should be, for practical purposes, a hapless task and fairly irrelevant to the intent to follow through with the sundry goals of TLS, which include FACP in its earliest modern expression. To speculate that chant failed in and of its own merit or accord is pointless. The various spats about semiologies, differing interpretations among chant scholars not just at Solemnes, but in relationship to the authorities in the Vatican, other schools from ordered monasteries (ie. Cistercians, Carthusians…)
    And equally frustrating would be any debate or discussion over the quality control and professionalism of choirs and chant in the early, mid, post-conciliar and contemporary 20-21st century. Pondering “golden ages” isn’t worth the time we’re alotted.
    So, where we agree is in the second paragraph. Chant may or may not in actuality assume real “first place” in every Mass in every church, ever. But, the wink, wink, nod, nod acceptance of “Jubilate Deo” or the ICEL English Mass XI that none too subtlely whispers “Don’t worry, it’s business as usual, pull out “Mass of Creation.”- needs to be mitigated in charity firmly throughout Catholic Christendom.
    One of the things I’m sure you, KLS, JM, Fran and all who visit here, as well as FRAJM and the PTB regulars would agree upon is that chant cannot bear the prejudice that it is joyless, incomprehensible, foreign/alien, and worst of all-counterproductive to FACP.
    So, as AWR, J.M. Thompson, Paul Ford and others have kept the chant candle burning at NPM, so are others discovering the wealth of beauty. We need to pool our resources as well as our attitudes.

    • Todd says:

      I’m not a chant scholar. Nor am I a music historian. Chant has a bad rep because so much of it has been done so poorly by people who, otherwise, did much better with metered music, the bread-and-butter of the West in just about every musical genre.

      i respect chant as a musical form that it makes demands in order to do it well. I learned that in 1999 when I was a member of a chant schola under a very competent musician.

      As for the candles, I also remember the efforts of others from my formative years: Ray Repp, Marty Haugen, and midwestern abbeys at Gethsemani and St Meinrad’s.

  6. How old is that?! My violin professor used to have something just like it. He thought it was from the 17th century.

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