The Place of Chant and Other Music in the Liturgy

    Since we’ve been reintroducing more chant in our Masses here at St. Gertrude’s in the last few years, particularly at the 9:30,  there’s been a certain confusion about the place of Gregorian chant and the more traditional music in our liturgy. And especially lately, in newspaper and journal articles and particularly on the internet, I've seen an almost cavalier use of magisterial documents, quoted out of context, or just vaguely summarized, to support positions that are quite erroneous and causing a certain anxiety among parishioners. When the Devil wants to attack good people he divides them over petty things. So last year the pastor asked me to write an extended article exploring what the magisterial church documents actually teach on the subject of the appropriate use of music within the Holy Mass. I used as my sources Sacrosanctum Concillium (SC), Musicam Sacram (MS), Liturgicae Instaurationes (LI), General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) and the recent Bishop’s document on music Sing to The Lord (STL).

     I've been a music director for 23 years , and I've worked in three very different settings: a traditional church(St. Patrick's Basilica in Montreal), a much more contemporary church(in St. Joseph, Missouri), and for the last eight years St. Gertrude's in Cincinnati which is nicely in the middle.  When I was Music Director at St. Patrick's in Montreal we had a Latin Mass once a month. This was in keeping with the suggestion in MS (48) that, where possible, the local Bishop should consider having one or two churches in the diocese continue to celebrate a sung mass in Latin. We were one of those churches.  Being a driven idealist myself, I was ready to elevate the music of the church back to where it belonged. Over the years the choir learned multiple complete Gregorian Masses along with 3 different Credos, innumerable Latin hymns with Introits for almost every Sunday of the year. We also used a huge amount of polyphony.  As a composer, I particularly loved the counterpoint of this 15th and 16th century music.  

     I began with a great sense of idealism, returning the church to its former glory with a steady diet of Gregorian chant and polyphony but after about 5 or 6 years of it I found that even I was starting to dread the monthly Latin Mass. As hard as we tried, it never became free-flowing and easy (especially when it came to things like the Credo), the way it was in the monasteries surrounding Montreal where they lived and breathed that music every day. I experienced a growing feeling of unreality connected to my work. The high church music, even though I, as a musician enjoyed it, was slightly disconnected from the culture as a whole.

     After we moved to the United States I observed the music and how the people really praised God with THEIR music. They weren't just inert spectators listening to music from the masters of the past. The church seemed to be truly alive here but I would have to get off my high horse if I was going to be of any use at all. It was a bit of a culture shock going from Josquin DesPrez and Victoria to the kind of music you find in the OCP hymnal.  I don't mean that as a criticism at all; I think they do great work. This was a brand new experience for me.       

     A few years ago I noticed a gradual shift in some of the literature concerning liturgical music. It was moving from being interested in and preserving the church’s treasures and using chant when possible, to declaring that chant is the only music the Church mandates. Even good writers seem to have adopted this underlying tone that the more we incorporate chant, the closer we are to what the church desires. I was even shocked to read something recently by someone with a reputation as a chant expert, that the music God prefers to be praised with is chant, as if God could possibly be enriched by anything that comes from us or that the liturgy and the music we use is somehow for God's benefit. With serious distortions such as this available to parishioners, I thought it would be a good idea to take a look at some of the church's documents themselves and see what they actually say.

     A good place to start is the Vatican II document Sacrosanctum Concillium which states: "Even in the liturgy the church has no wish to impose a rigid conformity in matters that do not affect the faith or the good of the whole community; rather the Church respects and fosters the genius and talents of the various races and peoples..."(37)
(Someone may say that music does affect the faith and good of the whole but what this article is referring to are cultures retaining customs that are contrary to the faith. e.g. polygamy.) It is clear that the Church has no wish to impose a particular cultural mode of expressing devotion, for example, Gregorian chant, but wishes that the people express their devotion through the genius and talents found within the various races and peoples. If the music used at the Holy Mass is free from doctrinal error and expresses truth, beauty and goodness, then it is acceptable.

     We have a sister parish in Kenya.  Recently a parishioner brought back a video of one of their Masses. It was so high energy you couldn't help but smile and be uplifted just by the sight of it. The rhythm and singing were fantastic, pure, uninhibited joy. When I thought of the way we participate in Mass, even at the best of times, it made me blush in comparison, thinking how inhibited and reserved we are in our praise. This cultural genius is exactly what the church desires and wants to foster.

     The same chant "expert" I mentioned brought up another related idea that I've been hearing more recently. This is the idea that chant is somehow more pure than other music.  In his opinion the music of other cultures, and our own, is somehow laced with impurities and that the goal is to purge the liturgy of all influences of the culture and all these “impure” elements. We speak of pure gold, pure maple syrup, pure water, and in all these cases purity means “unmixed”.  But what could “purity” in music possibly mean?  I know of no music, Gregorian chant and polyphony included, that is without a mixture of the cultural influences from which it sprang just like a person cannot exist entirely outside of the culture and time that he was born into. The concept, applied to music, is entirely meaningless. Not only that, but rejecting music on the basis of its influences from the culture would be like rejecting Thomas Aquinas because his work is “mixed” with the writings of pagan philosophers or our own Nicene Creed which uses the language and concepts of Neo-Platonism. You have to exist within a culture to raise it up. Our Lord Jesus Christ entered a particular time within a particular culture, elevating what was good and rejecting what was evil.  This is the true meaning of inculturation.

     As a musician, I've always been deeply attracted to the variety of truly original cultural musical expressions in this country. Americans have Appalachian music, black Gospel music, white Gospel music, American Indian music, Shape note music, Blues, and that just scratches the surface and doesn't mention modern cultural expressions that have evolved from those styles. These are deeply beautiful cultural gifts. No one should be led to believe that praising God through these styles of music does not make God happy or that He would merely tolerate it but would prefer it was chant. Within the guidelines that make music  appropriate for liturgy the Church regards these many different styles as cultural gifts and in fact  “The church does not bar any style of sacred music from the liturgy.”  LI ( 2c)

    An often quoted phrase from SC (116) is about Gregorian chant having pride of place. If you’ve heard this quote before you’ve probably heard it without the important modifying phrase, "other things being equal". As our Bishop's document(STL) on music explains(73) these “other things” are the pastoral concerns of bishops and pastors, that they have to be sensitive to where people are culturally and spiritually in their parishes before considering the use of chant. To continue maintaining an effective liturgy pastors must consider many things: Is the parish culture as a whole open and receptive to this type of liturgy and music? Do we have celebrants comfortable with this type of liturgy? Do we have musicians capable of learning and singing chant with beauty and reverence? Has the assembly been properly catechized?  All of these things being equal, chant should certainly be considered and used.

    In this context we can see “pride of place” in the same way we honor our grandparents when they enter our home.  We listen to their wisdom; we take their advice and example to form the basis of our lives today. We are “bone of their bone and flesh of their flesh” yet we are unique people with a voice of our own.  They have a place at the table and they are not forgotten, but that does not deny the fact that they are in our home. Good grandparents pass on to their descendants the freedom to be themselves,  hopefully carrying the best of what they've given them forward.  The Church is always, by her very mission, making the family bigger and more diverse.  It is the same in liturgy.  We never forget the old, we love it, it is part of us, “bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh” we let it form our present family. Gregorian chant should be passed on and embraced as part of who we are, yet it is not the whole.

     In the 1967 document Musicum Sacrum the original article(SC116) was modified to say “In sung liturgical services celebrated in Latin: (a) Gregorian chant, as proper to the Roman liturgy, should be given pride of place, other things being equal.” (50)  There are proper and fitting times to use chant, and when the Mass is a sung Mass in Latin this is one of those times.  
    Further on, MS (50) talks about preserving the heritage of sacred music, especially Gregorian chant, in seminaries, novitiates, and houses of study. The church recognizes that although this music is held in the highest esteem and is valued as one of our greatest treasures there are certain places where it seems to be more natural.  In religious communities that use Gregorian chant, we see no more effective or beautiful way to sanctify time.

     Another point I would like to address is something I've heard paraphrased and attributed to John Paul II. It goes something like this, “The less a piece resembles Gregorian chant the less suitable it is for the liturgy." The basic idea of this is taken from a relatively obscure document called The Chirograph for the Centenary of the Motu Proprio, Tra le Sollecitudini, on Sacred Music. It was written by John Paul II in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Motu Proprio on music from Pius X.  JPII is quoting Pius X but it's important to see in the full context how JPII explains how he understands this quote.  It is not to be taken literally to mean that music should be imitative of the style of Gregorian chant. The actual phrase is:

“With regard to compositions of liturgical music, I make my own the "general rule" that St. Pius X formulated in these words:  ‘The more closely a composition for church approaches in its movement, inspiration and savor the Gregorian melodic form, the more sacred and liturgical it becomes; and the more out of harmony it is with that supreme model, the less worthy it is of the temple’[33]. It is not, of course, a question of imitating Gregorian chant but rather of ensuring that new compositions are imbued with the same spirit that inspired and little by little came to shape it." (12)

     JPII is making very clear that it is not simply a matter of imitating the sound or specific musical characteristics of Gregorian chant. Simple imitation of music from a culture completely foreign to one’s own would not allow for the movement and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, which can never exclude the individual person or culture he comes from. If the Africans I mentioned were told that it would be better to reject their music and sing only chant, the very spirit that JPII was talking about-the one that would imbue their music with authenticity-would be lost.  Any authentic music needs a model and there can not be a better model than how Gregorian chant so beautifully weds music to the text of the Mass.

    One thing I'd like to mention is the use of percussion in church. The 1903 document Tra Le Sollecitudini forbade the use of piano and percussion in church but after Vatican II the General Instruction of the Roman Missal relaxed these restrictions, specifically to address the particular culture of America. "While the organ is to be accorded pride of place, other wind, stringed, or percussion instruments may be used in liturgical services in the dioceses of the United States of America, according to long-standing local usage, provided they are truly apt for sacred use or can be rendered apt." (393)  And as always, it is up to the local Ordinary and your Pastor to discern what is and what is not apt for your particular parish.

    We read these documents through the lenses of our own beliefs, experience, and personal history.  We must be careful not to take statements out of context or read magisterial documents looking only for the phrases that validate our own tastes and desires.  This kind of approach has led to a lot of well meaning but erroneous thinking. In the end what we are called to do is put our trust in our  Bishops and Pastors, who are the head liturgists of the diocese, the ones with the charisms and mandate, according to the documents themselves. In fact, last year our own American Bishops put out a wonderful document on liturgical music (STL) to help us locally in this regard.

    Within the parish there will be many different cultures and spiritualities. There is virtue in being tolerant and even enriched by other people. I know I certainly have been. I’ve come to believe that this diversity in our music is a gift that reflects the beauty of creation and the truth of the mystical body.  Separating our main liturgical celebrations by age, race or musical taste wounds the Body of Christ.  One of the most precious things about Sunday Mass is that is the place where we all come together, no matter who or where we are in our spiritual lives. Our music should reflect and embrace our unity of differences.  It’s a time to grow in virtue.

Steve McManaman, Music Director