Vernacular Missal Chants in Practice

My friend Fr Peter Jones (yes, he who wrote the “Jones Gloria”) contacted me to say that there are several demonstration recordings of the new Missal Chants available on the internet, such as:

This sounds very polished and pleasing on the ear, he says, but in reality, we are more likely to achieve this [scroll to 45 mins 15 seconds in the following link]:

Peter says: “Here, the assembly is mainly sight-singing the English chant. There was no rehearsal. They’re doing well. Yet after the Mass, a priest — himself a lover of the Church’s chant — said ‘It just doesn’t work in English’.

What do you think?”


  1. I can see why a priest said it doesn’t work in English. The Creed in English chant is probably the most difficult, especially for those who know Credo III in Latin. The plan at ICEL originally was that this wouldn’t be set in English because people should know it in Latin. Then the opinion on the episcopal side changed and we were asked to do it.

    I”m amazed at how well the assembly seems to be doing – pretty darn good sight-reading! I suppose I’d say, as usual, that I wish it moved along a bit more and wasn’t so equalisitic. But to hold a large group together, I’ll take anything that works.

    I don’t say this to defend the English setting, and I’d be happy to have a rich conversation of sugestions and criticisms to advance the discussion: But I think the true test would be if one sang the English setting about every Sunday for 5 years. The discomfort is greatest especially in cases such as this, when the English is sung (and evaluated) the first time by those who know the Latin. Inevitably, little word stresses and melodic groups remind one of the ‘real’ setting, and it’s an irritating distraction because the English patterns haven’t sunk in yet.


  2. Like Anthony, I actually thought it sounded pretty good. But maybe chanting in a language you use for talking to the folks at the grocery store and yelling at your kids will always feel odd compared with chanting in a language that has no every-day associations.

    1. @Fritz Bauerschmidt – comment #2:

      I go the other way, Fritz.

      Your comment put me in mind of Gregory of Nyssa’s description of the grocery stores of his day — the time of the development of the Creed and the battles with the Aryans.

      The whole city is full of it, the squares, the market places, the cross-roads, the alleyways; old-clothes men, money changers, food sellers: they are all busy arguing. If you ask someone to give you change, he philosophizes about the Begotten and the Unbegotten; if you inquire about the price of a loaf, you are told by way of reply that the Father is greater and the Son inferior; if you ask “Is my bath ready?” the attendant answers that the Son was made out of nothing (On the Deity of the Son [P.G. xlvi, 557b]).

      To me, the oddity is reversed. From where I sit, speaking or chanting of the incarnate Son in a language removed from the daily life of the community diminishes the incarnational aspect of the Creed. As Latin is not central to my daily life, the confession of faith feels distant. Instead of “for us and our salvation,” it has the emotional impact of “for them and their salvation.”

  3. I ditto comment no. 3 by JK.
    Too, there is the version in the back of the hymnal 1940 which Episcoplians have been singing quite well and musically for generations.
    I really feel nothing but contempt for those who insist that chant can only be sung in Latin and would rob everyone of the delight of singing it in English. They are doing good music and good liturgical praxis a grievous disservice and set-back.
    And, they conveniently overlook that a respectable number of these chants started out in Greek, or have been sung and adapted to a variety of Latin texts, which puts the lie to their language-text inviolability. If it was, indeed, the bishops who insisted on an English chant version they are to be commended and thanked.
    Only Catholics routinely publish Latin music with English translations that cannot be sung. This is, in plain English, stupid; and its rationale, if any, is self-defeating.

  4. Let me put this more simply:
    ‘It’ (whatever ‘it’ you have in mind) most certainly WILL work in English IF YOU WANT IT TO… AND apply the proper musicianship and artistry.

    My observation of many years is that it’s not that something CAN’T be done, or that ‘the people” CAN’T learn it, but that the people who say these things are utterly incompetent to TEACH them, nor do they wish to be proven wrong by someone who CAN teach what they CAN’T

  5. I think the problem Peter is raising is not whether or not there should be an English chant version, but whether this particular version works.

    Leaving aside the textual issues, the ICEL Missal chants have been designed on a Liturgiam Authenticam-like basis to stick as closely as possible to the neumes of the Latin chant. Leaving aside simple dialogues, that is a major problem, since English and Latin are languages that work in very different ways. Over the past 40 years and more it is has been shown that by following the general contours of the chant, but not sticking slavishly to it note for note, this can work. But if you are going to stick rigidly to the chant, then the text has to be modified, and that of course is not going to happen.

    1. @Paul Inwood – comment #6:
      Not quite, Paul, at least not in intention. The goal of the English chant was to preserve the Latin only insofar as it fit the English, and to make adaptions as needed where it didn’t. Whether it succeeded is an open question, but that was the methodology. So the A cadences of the preface, for example, have many patterns fitting the English text, rather than following the Latin with BA B literally in all cases apart from accentuation. This latter has been done by many Anglicans and by some more ‘conservative’ chant folks in the US, but not the English missal. I don’t see the English chant of the Missal as “sticking slavishly” to the Latin chant.

      I attempt to describe the methodology, the freedoms taken with Latin melodies, the treatment of the English text, in the introduction in “Chants of the Roman Missal” from Liturgical Press.


  6. Re. ‘It doesn’t work in English’

    I and a small congregation of only modest singers have been using the new chants, or some of them, on a daily basis for over a year now. My considered view is that the shorter ones work better: that is the English Kyrie, Sanctus, Mystery of Faith (1st option) and Agnus Dei.

    The Gloria, if sung at dirge pace all through, will – guess what? – sound like a dirge. It can be improved by speed and responsorial chanting. I think we agree that it is repetitive.

    ‘Psallite’ have good settings of both Gloria and Credo which in my experience are more cheerful than the Missal settings.

    Paul Inwood’s observations above about the difference between Latin and English accentuation are serious points.

    I am not a professional musician, but the setting of the 1549 Prayer Book Communion Service by John Merbecke is a good example of a constructive relationship between text and chant, even if it is sung to resemble plainsong, which may not have been the original intention. I’d recommend it. The Kyrie can be adapted, the Sanctus is the same text as our current one and the Agnus Dei will work with little adaptation. I’d like to see someone try adapting the Gloria and Credo.

    Alan Griffiths.

  7. Thank you all for your comments and thank you to Paul Inwood for posting this topic.

    I took quite a risk in including the ICEL Missal chant of Credo III in this celebration, knowing it would be a first-time experience of the music for most of the assembly. Nevertheless, the people responded well, as you can hear (even if it doesn’t move along as well as it might – that’s sight-singing for you!)

    My feeling after the celebration was that the way in which the chant has been fitted to the ICEL text has robbed both music and text of some of its impact. Try singing, for example, the Latin and then the English at “I believe in the Holy Spirit…” and “I believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” To me, what is a robust and musically significantly affirmation of faith for the singer, in the Latin version, has been weakened here in the English. I think that’s a pity.

    My colleague who made the comment about the chant not working in English continued: “the accents in the music and the accents in the text don’t necessarily match up anymore.” Perhaps there are musical approaches in performance practice that could help there.

    I agree with Fr Anthony in that knowledge of the Latin chant is likely to engender discomfort at a first attempt at the ICEL chant. Perhaps he’s correct – it will take us five years to get used to it.

    Has anyone tried the Credo I chant in the Missal? What’s your reaction to that?

    1. @Peter Jones – comment #9:
      Dear Peter Jones,

      Thanks for your comments.

      Actually, there’s a good reason why “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” had to be set the way it was. Originally the English was going to preserve the hallowed Latin melody. But then the text was changed to “I believe in…” rather than “And in…”. That made all the difference. Now we had several extra syllables at the beginning to set, and every solution (we looked at about eight of them) weakened the famous Latin melody over “unam, sanctam, catholicam.” Reluctantly, we concluded that the melody for the English text would have to draw from another part of the Creed.

      Maybe there was another, better solution that eluded us- I’d be very interested in seeing proposals and suggestions. Maybe the next missal can improve upon the current one.

      I always enjoy these discussions. Complaints that the Latin melody was followed too closely, and that it wasn’t followed closely enough, generally seem to appear in equal measure. It’s probably the nature of the thing.


      1. @Anthony Ruff, OSB – comment #11:
        Yes, those extra syllables must have caused considerable unease. I don’t think I can improve on the chant – and if I tried to, I think I might well come up with one of the seven rejected versions!

  8. Sorry to bump an old thread, but I think Credo I is actually much more successful. I’m surprised it hasn’t gotten more use. Maybe that’s because it doesn’t sound “happy”. Who knows. I get tired of Credo III about as much as Mass VIII!

  9. As I opined in my full-length critique of ‘Chants of the Roman Missal’ , available on this website earlier this year, Credo II would have been a better candidate for adaptation to English than Credo I, for two reasons:
    1) Its almost entirely syllabic rendering makes it easier to adapt to English without the problem of setting familiar multi-note neums awkwardly to unaccented or reduced English vowels.
    2) Those who prefer Credo I to Credo III would be more likely to appreciate the nuances of Credo II and thus take to it.

    Alternatively, one can compose something directly for the new English texts in the chant idiom, as I have (A Chant Mass published by Decani Music).

  10. I have offered this at the Chant Cafe as well: I think the chants work better with minimal/ no accompaniment. In my parish, we use the ICEL chants during Lent and Advent. The congregation did much better when I reduced/eliminated the organ accompaniment. The accompaniment can make ANY chant stodgy.

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