Pride of Place: Gregorian Chant

Sacrosanctum Conicilium, the Vatican II constitution on the Sacred Liturgy has this to say about Gregorian chant:

“The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services.”i

In this article I am setting out 7 of the 1000+(kidding) reasons for Gregorian chant. Well, these are just some things I am thinking of at the moment and are not necessarily linked to the theological, historical and musical reasons Sacrosanctum Concilium makes the above statement.

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Since many might not be exposed to Gregorian Chant I thought it would be a good idea to provide links to audio files so that one might “hear and believe“.

  1. Sounds Great!ii
    I have had some experience with various genres of music, but the beauty and simplicity of Gregorian chant is just out of this world.

    Here is a hymn sung by monks from Pluscarden Abbey, Scotland!
    Jesu dulcis amor meus

    It didn’t occur to me that chant sung by women alone could sound this good, till I heard these Benedictine Nuns from St. Cecilia’s Abbey, UK singing.
    A Solis Ortus

  2. Quality Music
    Not only does the chant sound sublime. Remember the qualities of Sacred Music that were introduced in this article?

    Observe how Gregorian chant embodies the qualities of sanctity, goodness of form and universality.

    Even from a purely musical point of view, one will find melodic perfection in these chants.

  3. Works with English as well!
    There is definitely going to be some give and take when you adapt Gregorian chant style melodies to English texts, owing to the differences in English and Latin, but I think one will agree with me that the results are impressive.

    Composer Richard J. Clark sets the penitential Act C to a chant melody based on the famous Missa de Angelis. Its a gem. One just has to hear it.

    Penitential Act C (Mass of the Angels)

  4. Timelessness
    What is the life span of the song you are listening to? Few years? A decade? More?

    Consider this, many of the chants one would sing date back to the 10th, 12th century and so on. This music never grows old!

    Many will be familiar with this tune sung to English texts.

    In this audio Schola Sancte Scholasticae and St. Cecilia’s Abbey, UK sing St. Thomas Aquinas’ Tantum Ergo.
    Atleast one source dates the melody back to the 6th Century!

  5. Church Teaching
    If one just checks the 20th Century Church documents that have something to say on Church Music one will find continual encouragement for the use of Gregorian Chant in the liturgy.

    Pope John Paul II on the centenary of St. Pius X’s Tra le Sollecitudini had this to say:

    “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 savour 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’. 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.”iii

  6. Easy to sing!
    Over the last couple of years we have been taking Gregorian Chant based psalms and settings for the Kyrie and Lamb of God for our Youth and Singles Conferences. My experience has been that chant is easy to pick up. I hope others would agree!

    From the perspective of the choir, I feel it is a lot easier singing chant than singing hymns that are written for 3 and 4 voices.

    Lastly, one doesn’t really need to depend on an instrument for chant. I can think of so many other hymns that require an instrument to cue one in every other moment. Chant does not have this dependency.

  7. Non metrical
    Gregorian chant does not have a fixed rhythm structure. Let us take some examples.
    Think of Silent Night. Do you notice the rhythm repeating ever 3 notes?
    Think of Angels we have heard on high. Notice the strong beat every 4 notes?

    Now here’s my point. By not having a fixed meter repeating again and again chant does not need to alter, adapt or inhibit the musical potential of the words in any way in the course of trying to fit the words to the rhythm.

    Fitting words to metrical music becomes easy when we have stanzas with a defined syllable scheme. But what chant can do is take the Scriptures and other Sacred texts and sing them without ever tampering or “fitting in” the words. I find this a huge advantage.

    Listen to the Psalm for the feast of the Immaculate Conception. This is taken from Corpus Christi Watershed’s Chabanel Psalm Project. Observe how the lack of a meter provides room for the texts to dictate the structure of the musical setting.

    Psalm 98

Footnotes

  1. *Constitution on the sacred liturgy Sacrosanctum concilium solemnly promulgated by his holiness pope paul vi on december 4, 1963
  2. *Audio files from Gregorian Chant Hymns
  3. *Chirograph of the supreme pontiff john paul ii for the centenary of the motu proprio “tra le sollecitudini’, on sacred music, 12

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