Gregorian Chant: The Revival Announced

The congregation for divine worship wants to put itself in the lead of the rebirth of great sacred music. Here is its program, made public for the first time by one of its officials. But the secretariat of state has its own musicians, and is putting on the brakes

by Sandro Magister

How accurate is this?


  1. But he also says that the new office, in order to be created, is still awaiting “confirmation on the part of the secretariat of state” headed by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.
    It could be a very long time as cardinal Bertone seems to be taken up with more pressing matters, such as who stole the pope’s papers correspondence and released it to Wikileaks and the press. I’ve learned to place little stock in Sandro Magister’s reporting. His exuberance, dedication to unfolding intrigue, and penchant for confusing his own biased tastes, and predilections with the facts as they come to light later make him a very unreliable source.

    Assuming Magister is right, his story of battling prima donnas in the Vatican squabbling over how to make Gregorian Chant the standard for a Church which has largely rejected it and Latin too, convinces me the effort, no matter who happens to have the pope’s ear, is still doomed to oblivion. Isn’t this just another project to clean barnacles from the hull of a sinking ship.

  2. The Vatican may move slowly, but eventually it does. There is no question that in placing music and the arts as proper to the jurisdiction of the CDW we will be getting more than just guidelines in the future, but actual legislation on sacred music.
    Considering that even the crystal clear instructions of Vatican II on music (eg. SC 116) have been ignored for the past 50 years in USA and other countries, one would think that the informal schism of these German, Austrian, and American Catholics would similarly ignore such legislation. However, the times are changing fast. Sincere Catholics everywhere are rediscovering their heritage which has been deliberately hidden from them for so many years. Sandro Magister is right: we are at the dawn of a renewed traditional Catholicism, steeped in its magisterium and displayed in its music and liturgy. The old school is, well to put it simply, vanishing old school, and along with it a perverted notion of “active participation”.

    Of Rampi’s 5 points concerning Gregorian Chant, two are particularly noteworthy, and will fuel the drive to re-instate Gregorian chant into even the smallest parishes:

    “Gregorian is not ornamentation, but is itself liturgy.”
    That is itself reason enough to throw out all those hymns that have been taking the place of Gregorian chant propers for so long at Mass.

    “It is the musical form of the “lectio divina” of the Church.”
    Through Gregorian chant we listen to God speaking to us. All the hymns we have been using is the very opposite: we listen to what we think God should be speaking to us.

    May we all pray that Benedict have a long healthy life!

    1. Through Gregorian chant we listen to God speaking to us. All the hymns we have been using is the very opposite: we listen to what we think God should be speaking to us.

      This seems to be in direct contradiction to Rampi’s first point: “Gregorian is the chant “proper” to the Latin liturgy. In it, the Church speaks its thought on the Word of God in song.” (emphasis added)

      Both Gregorian chant and the more commonly sung hymns are the faithful expressions of artists in the Church. In both, the composers express their faith in words that the assembly embraces as their own each time they sing it.

      Indeed, if the people of God are indeed the Body of Christ, then is it too much of a stretch to say that when I am singing in the midst of the assembly of the baptized, they are Christ speaking/singing to me?

      “Have no fear, little flock . . . ”
      “Children of the heavenly Father, safely in his bosom gather . . .”
      “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty . . .”
      “Where charity and love prevail, there God is ever found . . .”

      Or is it only the elders around the throne who are allowed to sing “Crown him with many crowns . . . “?

    2. Of Rampi’s 5 points concerning Gregorian Chant, two are particularly noteworthy, and will fuel the drive to re-instate Gregorian chant into even the smallest parishes:
      That will be a most ambitious undertaking. Since there is no record of that ever having been the rule in the history of the western Church. It sure beats the bilge water to which most of Catholics were exposed before the Council.

  3. Let’s remember the second half of CSL 116:

    But other kinds of sacred music, especially polyphony, are by no means excluded from liturgical celebrations, so long as they accord with the spirit of the liturgical action, as laid down in Art. 30.

    It would seem that CSL 37

    37. Even in the liturgy, the Church has no wish to impose a rigid uniformity in matters which do not implicate the faith or the good of the whole community; rather does she respect and foster the genius and talents of the various races and peoples. Anything in these peoples’ way of life which is not indissolubly bound up with superstition and error she studies with sympathy and, if possible, preserves intact. Sometimes in fact she admits such things into the liturgy itself, so long as they harmonize with its true and authentic spirit.

    applies here as well.

  4. Clearly, other forms are not excluded, as they have not been in the past, but Gregorian must be included. Hopefully the first legislation from the CDW on sacred music will be to clarify that these “other” forms refer to the music, and not to the text. The texts of the music for Mass must be the traditional Roman propers in the context of the new lectionary, most of which are pericopes from Sacred Scripture.

  5. Victor, I’m not sure what you mean by, “The texts of the music for Mass must be the traditional Roman propers in the context of the new lectionary.” That is not the current law. GIRM 48 (3) and (4) state that the Entrance Chant, for example, may be: “(3) a chant from another collection of Psalms and antiphons, approved by the Conference of Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop, including Psalms arranged in responsorial or metrical forms; (4) another liturgical chant that is suited to the sacred action, the day, or the time of year, similarly approved by the Conference of Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop.” It is nonsensical to conclude that either of these options would mean a “litugical chant” with the same text as that given in the Roman Missal, the Graduale Romanum, or Graduale Simplex.

    1. What exactly would make another chant “suited to the sacred action” if not the text? Options 1, 2 and 3 are all (presumably) based on the same texts. Why would a 4th option not follow the same pattern?

      1. The reason the text(s) of option 4 is/are not the same as the texts of options 1, 2, 3 is: there would have been no reason to state a fourth option if such were not the case. It would have been sufficient to conclude with option 3 since, in your understanding, option 4 is saying the same thing. It isn’t. Hence, option 4.

      2. Option 4 would, I think, include original compositions based on the prescribed texts. Otherwise the modifier “suited to the sacred action” becomes rather arbitrary.

  6. 3 and 4 are exceptions, for situations where 1 and 2 are not possible. But this is the 21st century, not 1970, and today resources through the Internet are lights years ahead of what they were then, making it possible for even the smallest parish to be able to sing the propers of the Mass. There is no longer any need for 3 and 4, and the CDW should legislate this.

  7. The setting up of the office for music and the arts within SCDW has been on the cards for some time. It reflects both the current predeliction to focus all control in the Vatican, as similarly seen in the recent actions re Caritas International, and a “strange belief” in the universality of one limited and limiting form of “Western” music.
    I grew up listening to Gregorian chant, sang it, as best I could, as a minor seminarian, and while still seeing a role for it in our liturgical life, have been made aware of quite a few problems, musical and linguistic, in implementing it across the board. Certain languages have limited sound ranges, and the rhythm of chant doesn’t always blend easily with the native musical traditons of some cultures.
    Who are the people pushing for this? What knowledge or experience do they have of cross-cultural living? Have they ever visited churches outside of Europe and North America, or experienced what Vatican II has brought to the liturgical life of countries such as Brazil, Mexico, Ghana, Kenya, India, Japan, or Indonesia, to list just a few of the countries where my community works. This is one more move by a Vatican that has forgotten what potential there is in the word catholic.
    The links are to three example of contemporary Japanese liturgical music. The first is the “Hail Mary”, the second is a hymn asking that we open ourselves to the Word of God, and the third one, inspired by the life and work of Mother Teresa, would in English be titled “Today Lord, use my heart”. Apologies for the variable sound quality.

    1. This is one more move by a Vatican that has forgotten what potential there is in the word catholic.
      Some great points made here. I’ve heard off and on for years stories of the supremacy of Gregorian chant. How it will be the wave of the future at the expense of ALL other forms. I’ll believe it when I see it.

      The idea of Gregorian chant being imposed throughout the world is typical of the delusional thinking sweeping through certain Vatican circles at the moment. It’s going to come crashing down along with The Queen of Hearts and her army of cards bedecked in their pontifical finery.

    2. While the compositions you provided are clearly Japanese in the sense they appear to have been composed by Japanese composers, and I assume they are sung in Japanese, they seem much more Western to me from a musical perspective.

  8. Victor – makes me think of the quip “The difference between singing the Mass and singing at Mass.”

  9. I cannot see anything in Quaerit semper that refers to Gregorian Chant.

    I noted with some amusement that the article began

    At the Mass that Benedict XVI will celebrate in Milan next June 3 in front of an immense crowd of faithful, on the occasion of the world meeting of families, the performance of the Gregorian chants will be entrusted to the choir directed by Maestro Fulvio Rampi.

    In Milan ? Then surely they ought to be singing Ambrosian Chant!

    1. I had the same thought. Let’s hope that they’re using “Gregorian” in a generic sense, as is “plainsong.” (One can hope.)

  10. Paul, I cannot remember where I read it, but I believe there was a report to that very effect, and that the schola is scheduled to perform Ambrosian Rite chants. Perhaps Jeff Tucker can refresh my aging memory. Cheers.

  11. Recently Jeffrey had on “Chant Cafe” what might have sounded like the chant of the primitive Roman Church. It was a sample along with Ambrosian, Mozarabic, and Gregorian chant. Do we really know what the “primitive” Church of Rome was singing apart from the certainty it was Greek and the manner of early Greek chant? Whatever that was.

    Have we any notation for this “primitive” Graeco-Roman chant? It is quite lovely and has a haunting simplicity to it. Why wouldn’t it work as a model for some languages in ways the Gallican/ Roman Gregorian music wouldn’t work.

    I hope the Church in it’s quest to rediscover Gregorian chant, which I love, won’t ignore this heritage either. When Benedict is cold in his tomb, some future pope may be discovering that the Church’s music heritage is much more diverse and other forms of chant are preferable in other cultural contexts to using Gregorian chant.

    1. My best guess is that the primitive Church of Rome was singing the Psalms, either in Greek or Hebrew or (gasp) both.

      See, for instance, Romans 3:10-18, 8:36, 10:18, 11:9-10, 15:3, 15:9, 15:11, . . .

  12. Japan has a tradition of choral music going back to the latter half of the 19th century, when Christian missionaries, i.e. Paris Mission Fathers and various American Mission Boards, were allowed back in. At the same time there was a strong bias to all things Western.
    Neither Buddhism, in its various forms, or Shinto have the custom of the faithful gathering as groups, communities for regular worship or ritual activitity such as we are accustomed to. Consequently any forms of “chanting” only emerged among the Buddhists, where the monks chant the sutras. The language used isn’t Japanese, but a classical form of Chinese not readily comprehensible to even to contemporary Chinese, that is, in turn, chanted in a way adapted to the sound range of the Japanese language, which is very different from Chinese – we have no tonal variations, for example. Similarly traditional Japanese music, using in traditional instruments, never developped in the direction of accompaniment for choral work. There are some pieces written for the “shakuhachi” – the Japanese bamboo flute – and used very infrequently in the post-communion silence; just not enough traditional flute players.
    However Japanese is relatively adaptable to chanting, so we can sing almost the whole psalmody a cappela, along with many other traditional latin hymns in translation. Indeed, one of the great achievements of liturgical renewal and reform post Vatican II was the composition of a whole range of music that, while reffering to the Western chant music tradition, is uniquely adapted to Japan. And to be honest with you, listening to Japanese congregations chant in either Japanese or Latin over the years, the congregation comes together more harmoniously when using Japanese. It’s all a question of the difference between the sound range of Japanese and a Western/European language like Latin.

  13. Brendan Kelleher svd –
    This is all very interesting. While I am quite fond of ‘classical’ (genuine) Japanese music, I have found it rather difficult to come by or experience. I have also found that (mirroring our own unfortunate western predicament) it is not normally experienced by the average Japanese. Indeed, a few months ago when I called the Imperial Japanese consulate in Houston asking where to obtain CDs of kabuki music, I was shocked to find that they had no idea what that was. It has been my experience that nearly all ‘ordinary’ Japanese music is not Japanese at all, but a rather completely tasteless example of greatly debased and poorly orientalised western music. It compares to actual Japanese music as the AM radio does to Beethoven.

    All of which leads up to my question: is the music to which you refer REALLY Japanese, and, if it is, where can I get a recording of it. In fact, perhaps YOU can tell me how to obtain a CD of kabuki and other REAL Japanese music. I should be grateful if you could.

    P.S. – I just listened to the first of the links you supplied above. I would call what I heard neither Japanese nor modern. Sort of pretty, but really perhaps warmed-over Schubert?

  14. If this supposed renaissance – resourcement – is really plainchant, that is, the parts proper to the liturgy based in scripture which the people can sing – it might be worth supporting. However, given current papal liturgy I suspect it is all hyperbolic melismatic feigned ecstasy which the people could do with out and can’t really take part in anyway. It seems to me chant died for a reason. Who is capable to resuscitate it is dubious. Ravassi et. al. + 1. Better to hold ground than loose it to inferior concoction.

    1. “…hyperbolic melismatic feigned ecstasy which the people could do with out and can’t really take part in anyway.”

      In those relatively few words, you raise, at the least, four points. First, let me set aside three:

      1. “hyperbolic” (One man’s hyperbole can be another man’s authentic intensity, etc., etc.)
      2. “which the people could do without” (You’re right; they can still get to heaven without plainsong.)
      3. “and can’t really take part in anyway” (How people participate has been thoroughly argued here at Pray Tell.)

      But, the fourth is an interesting topic to me:

      4. “feigned ecstacy”
      a. Is the representation of an emotional or spiritual state useful in Christian art, even if the singer (or viewer of a scultpure) isn’t actually in that state? Can’t those musical moments act in a similar way to carrying candles on Holy Saturday i.e., serve a liturgical purpose even if ‘feigned’?
      b. In music, what is the difference between text painting (like a rising fourth or fifth on the word rejoice in a motet or congregational hymn or a syncopated rhythm in a Palestrina Magnificat when the proud are being scattered) and the musical representation of an emotional state? Are they distinct; do they overlap? Can they be useful in a liturgical setting, when they can summon inspiring moments in those who are receptive? I think so. Everything from plainsong to sacro-pop has those kinds of moments.

      1. On “feigned ecstasy”…

        Regardless of what the music does, the words of our prayers and hymns often attribute feelings or actions to us (who pray or sing those words) which we may not currently be feeling or feel like doing. Should people only sing the Gloria when they particularly feel like thanking God for His great glory?

  15. J. Thomas –
    You are mistaken. Chant didn’t die and isn’t dead, reason or no reason. Nor does it need resuscitation. It is alive and well. There is nothing archaic or foreign about it. It is a living part of our living culture and is ignored and denigrated only by those who have a poor concept of what constitutes modernity, or who seem congenitally wired to take a hatchet to any vestige of our heritage which they meanly and mistakenly consider beyond positive value to their culturally emaciated fellow modernists.

    I should hasten to add that I am not amongst those who think that we should have nothing but chant. Actually, I am very grateful that there is ‘other’ music. While I teach chant, chant is not actually my favourite music. This should add some perspective, then, to my comments. Those who so vociferously would rid the world of this music to which they have what is really an irrational objection are neither modern nor educated in their stance. Chant is beautiful. It is a venerable part of our heritage. It is the song that evolved early in the Church’s life, and should be treasured along with all that we have aquired in our history. It isn’t ‘old fashioned’. VII enjoined the knowledge of it to all Catholics, and to deny it an important and universal place in Catholic worship is to be ‘not Vatican II’. The council gave authority for and commendation to chant in the life of the Church, yet many are those bishops and priests who PRESUME to forbid it.

    You are mistaken. Chant is only dead to those who are dead to our musical heritage and the express will of Vatican II.

    (And, it is just as beautiful in English as it is in Latin.)

  16. M Jackson Osborn makes some interesting comments, however in some ways he misses the main thrust of my comment. His reference to “Classical ‘genuine’ Japanese music”, and later references to “Kabuki music” would need further explication. Kagura (神楽 literally “music for the gods”) is mostly associated with the Imperial Court or families who were ranked as “court nobles” (公家), performances of Kabuki and Noh, and Shinto shrine rituals and festivals. While Kabuki had widespread enough popular appeal, the music was never part of the life of the ordinary townsfolk or the farming communities. Their music was far simpler, and certainly not accompanied by the same instruments as use for Kagura. Though attempts were made in the 1970’s to use the music of Noh in a liturgical context, and to adapt one form of Buddhist chant, neither received anything like a widespread positive response.
    Choral music for Christian liturgical use, since it is a relatively recent innovation – 19th cent. – by force of the fact that it came in along with a wave of “Westernization”, naturally bears a family resemblence to music of that era, both popular and classical. However, as I mentioned, Japanese does lend itself to chant, and some progress has been made in that area. Kagura, given its past and present use, will probably never become a resource or a point of reference for developing liturgical music.
    As for acquiring CD’s of music performed using the classical instruments, he should perhaps look for CD’s of music using the different instruments – 尺八、琴、 三味線 (Shakuhachi, Koto, Shamisen). DVD’s of Kabuki and Noh performances are available here in Japan, but they would be incompatible with DVD players used in the USA.
    This comment is some way distant to the main thread of the main post, but I hope it helps at least M Jackson Osborne, and any others interested in the music scene here in Japan.

    1. re: Brendan Kelleher svd on May 26, 2012 – 1:37 am

      This is a very interesting discussion Father. I’m glad to learn about part of the Church that many Americans and people outside of Japan or even East Asia wouldn’t know about. I’m convinced that Gregorian chant and other plainsong traditions that have grown out of Christianity’s earliest traditions should be respected but not required by anyone. The use of chant in worship should be by the consensus of a community and not imposed by a pastor or clergy in general. Personally I am a great fan of perhaps the one universally understood contemplation, silence.

      Anyway, to my point: does Japan have an ecumenical Japanese-language hymnal? I only ask because I think that the Japanese Christian churches have an ecumenical Bible translation. Japan has relatively few Christians of all traditions, so I would think that collaboration in translation and liturgical resources would be a priority.

  17. At the present time there is no ecumenical Japanese language hymnal. There is a degree of sharing of hymns, both traditional and modern, but that is limited by the confessional, and consequently liturgical traditions present in the two major protestant Churches present here, both of which emerged following a government sponsored (??) forced amalgamation of all protestant groups, except the Anglican/Episcopalian Church, in 1940, which then split into two, one strongly evangelical, one more mainstream (??) after WWII.
    Theologically there is also still a lot of diversity within both Churches, which in turn means that while there is a strong market for educational publications aimed at Junior and Senior High Schools -all denominations have extensive school networks right acroos the country – much of it is very hard to use. I was involved in High School teaching for almost twenty years and never found a Protestant textbook I was really comfortable using, also regretably some Catholic texts were equally problematic, too pious, or not solidly based on good scripture scholarship etc.
    Neither of the two major Protestant Churches has a strong liturgical tradition, rather each community, using a very basic liturgical calendar, goes its own way. No books of worship with cycles of prayer for the seasons or feasts have been composed either. The Anglican/Episcopalians use the Common Lectionary, but all others leave the choice of lections up to the minister/ministerial team. Consequently the use and type of music also shows tremendous variation.
    Further, the ecumenical movement per se is really rather weak, particularly at the ground level. There are historical reasons for this, but they would take some time to unravel and explain. Sorry I can’t say much more than that.

  18. ” Do we really know what the “primitive” Church of Rome was singing apart from the certainty it was Greek and the manner of early Greek chant? Whatever that was.
    Have we any notation for this “primitive” Graeco-Roman chant?

    Dunstan —

    Wikipedia has an article on musical notation that shows a picture of a stone at the Greek Oracle of Delphi from the 2nd century BC. The stone includes musical notation chiselled above the text of a hymn. Such notation was in use from the 6 century BC.

  19. Ann Oliver –
    The Greeks and Romans did indeed have some form of musical notation, as you have illustrated. However knowledge of it seems to have disappeared as the classical world drew to a close. Some have done (purely speculative) reconstructions of ancient music based more on the construction of known instruments than upon the meager notational evidence. Especially in the western world, music was a purely oral tradition until the evolution of notation in the schools of the Frankish empire in the IX. century. A plausible interpretation of what chant may have sounded like as sung in those early times may be heard on CDs by Marcel Perez and his Ensemble Organum. Isidore of Seville lamented that ‘if someone forgets a chant it is lost, for there is no way of writing it down’. We can hardly appreciate the role and importance of memory in past times when, even after writing, very few people could read. Knowledge that was passed on was received with far greater reverence than today, which explains the esteem in which the oral tradition and ancient knowledge were held. It is a lesson to us in the precious and in-valuable nature of our literary and cultural heritage and how unbelievably fortunate we are to have it. Surely it is divinely providential!

  20. Re: no. 10 — May 31 — 5:43 am

    Jeffrey, I recommend that you open your copy of the GIRM to no. 48. Then assemble the books which are referred to in that paragraph. You will need a copy each of: 1) the newly translated Roman Missal (or you may use the Latin edition if you wish); 2) the Graduale Romanum, in Latin of course; 3) the Graduale Simplex, Latin or English; 4) a collection of psalms and antiphons, approved by the conference of bishops or the diocesan bishop – since the USCCB has not approved any such collections, why don’t you pull out a copy of one of the volumes of Lucien Deiss’ Biblical Hymns and Psalms, approved for publication by the archbishop of Cincinnati, or later, the archbishop of Chicago; 5) some source for “another liturgical chant that is suited to the sacred action, the day, or the time of year, similarly approved by the conference of bishops or the diocesan bishop” – again, since the USCCB has not approved any such source, you will have to choose one approved by a diocesan bishop, so the best bet would be a Catholic hymnal of your choice (with ecclesiastical approval, of course). Note also that this “another liturgical chant” is the only item in GIRM no. 48 without the specification that it be a psalm.

    These are the “texts” you may consider when planning, for instance, the entrance “chant” for Easter Sunday. You will see that with just the first three books (nos. 1-3 above) you have a variety of texts to deal with, not just one. The Deiss volume, depending on which one you choose, may provide you with additional psalms appropriate for the occasion and celebration. And finally your hymnal should have several “liturgical chants” appropriate for Easter Sunday. Perhaps you have never assembled all of these resources imentioned in GIRM no. 48, and so you mistakenly believe that the four options described in that paragraph are all referring to the same text. They are not.

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