English Chant Revival?

Is there a revival of English Chant underway? I think there might be, but I’d like to hear more about what is happening across the English-speaking world.

Two anecdotes. On Ash Wednesday we had a large Mass for the entire campus community (undergraduates, graduates, faculty and staff, monastic community) with a rather restrained and traditional style of music but a bit of diversity. At communion we began with Marty Haugen’s Psalm 130 refrain, “With the Lord there is mercy.” Then, while the singers of that piece went to communion, another group of monks and laymen sang Psalm 130 in English, in unison and unaccompanied, to the traditional Gregorian Chant Mode VI psalm tone (which has a grand total of three pitches). Just one line after another, no antiphon. I played organ for the first piece, then stepped into the nave to get in line to receive Communion during the second. I was struck by the simple beauty of the English psalm text to simple Gregorian chant. I received several positive comments.

On the Sundays of Lent we are using Richard Rice’s English chant antiphons at the entrance, unaccompanied, as we’ve done for many years now. But new this year was the singing of the proper communio from Adam Bartlett’s Simple English Propers as a second communion piece (again, so tag teams of musicians can take turns receiving Communion). Here also, I received several positive comments, and from some unexpected quarters.

I have the impression that the positive feedback is not that English chant fits into an agenda of making the liturgy more Catholic or more traditional or doing what some official document says about the pride of place of blah blah blah. It seems the experience is much more that this English chant draws one into the text and allows one to pray it. And people are hungry for that.

I’m struck by how much more positive the feedback is for English chant than Latin chant. The Latin language has a lot of baggage attached to it, obviously. But apart from that, it is a simple fact that worshipers can pray better when the schola sings a text in comprehensible vernacular.

I’m also struck by how much easier it is for singers to sing a vernacular text expressively, compared to a Latin text.

I’m not giving up on singing Latin chant expressively, mind you! My chant schola is singing at daily Mass tomorrow in the School of Theology and Seminary, and we’re doing the introit Sitientes (you can draw from other days of the season now), the offertorium in English from Bartlett, and the proper communio of Monday Ab occultis meis. I believe that my singers understand the Latin text well and sing it with expression. But getting there with Latin is more work, I observe as conductor, and in proportions of about 4 to 1.

We have so many English chant resources available to us now – Rice, Bartlett, Kelly, Weber, and so forth. Are others also using these resources, and having similar experiences of it working well?

awr

38 comments

  1. Chant in general works well because it tends to be simple, melodious, meditative, and suited to the liturgical action. If done well, it does not draw attention to itself but keeps the attention fixed on the prayer of the Mass that is being offered.

    You write:
    “I have the impression that the positive feedback is not that English chant fits into an agenda of making the liturgy more Catholic or more traditional or doing what some official document says about the pride of place of blah blah blah. It seems the experience is much more that this English chant draws one into the text and allows one to pray it. And people are hungry for that.”

    But isn’t this a set of false dichotomies? The reason the chant grew up with the Catholic liturgy is that it is (a) Catholic, (b) liturgical, and (c) meditative or prayerful, and the reason the Magisterium promotes it is that it is (a) Catholic, (b) liturgical, and (c) meditative or prayerful. Hence, if it’s traditional, in the sense of a longstanding custom handed down from generation to generation, that’s hardly a surprise!

    1. @Peter Kwasniewski:
      You write as if things simply are a certain way. This is a-historical thinking, which of course is always the problem with ideologies tending in a fundamentalist direction. I’m speaking, rather, of the responses of given people in a given time and place, which change from person to person and place to place. This is messy and complicated – but it’s how the real world works if we get inside of history. Or to put it another way – if we admit that we’re inside of history, since we are, whether we admit it or not.

      I didn’t know that English chant was a “long-standing custom handed down from generation to generation!” – not least because I’m referencing composers whose work is a few years or a few decades old at most. Are you thinking of Latin chant (which was by no means sung at every Mass in every community since the time of the Apostles)? That doesn’t quite relate to my post, since I refer to the experience people have hearing a text sung in a language they understand, which wasn’t the case throughout most of church history when Latin chant was sung. It’s a rather recent development, that this is becoming a custom in some English-speaking communities.

      But there I go again, referencing the real experience of real people, and doing theological analysis within history.

      awr

  2. A few weeks ago we started doing Communion Chants by Charles Thatcher, World Library Publications at our choir Mass. The choir has done really well with them as they alternate verses with the cantor. The has been good singing more scripture during Communion. We do a communion hymn first, and then the chant.

  3. Your experience sounds similar to what we do at St. John’s Seminary in Boston. The repertoire is similar as well. It is quite lovely.

  4. Thank you, Friar, for this shout out. (Don’t forget the Fords’ contributions BTW;-)
    I have to wonder if you invited Prof. K’s mild rebuke with the curt “blah blah blah,” but I rather think there’s plenty good room for each of your sensibilities. Furthermore, your point about ease of singing that presumes a wholly credible and effective rendering and reception could be even more amplified discussion. It’s been my experience over the last decade that the interpretational nuances of Gregorian/Latin chant do not directly correspond or inform the declamation of English language settings. And lastly, not all English settings are created equal, therefore its advisable to be familiar with all of the options out there. Thanks for the illumination.

  5. I wonder how many have tried John Ainslie’s English Proper Chants (Liturgical Press) which seem somewhat better and more user-friendly than Bartlett’s chants and are proving popular in a number of places.

    1. @Paul Inwood:
      I wouldn’t say “better,” I would say “different.” I truly like Ainslie a lot (I owe Worship magazine my review of it), but I also like Bartlett, and each for different reasons. Bartlett is not tied to chant melodies, but his new melodies growing out of the English text are more redolent of Latin chant melodies, and more true to Gregorian modality than Ainslie. Ainslie is a bit ‘newer’ and ‘fresher,’ with chant melodies that are modal, to be sure, but more folk-like and less in the spirit of the Latin melodies.

      There are very good reasons for either approach, I believe. This is why I like both, and hesitate to rank them better or worse. I could see where Ainslie is more user-friendly, though, and perhaps with greater initial appeal while still wearing well.

      awr

  6. I do not know of the difficulty of the transposition of English onto the chants of the propers, although I do support the chanting of the propers in English. I will say that a translation of the sequences will be a very difficult project, if it has not be attempted already.

    The vernacularization of Latin ritual music has a very long and successful history. The Reformation traditions have quite successfully paraphrased Latin propers and hymns.

    And yet, the vernacular paraphrases of the sequences, as found in missalettes and paperback hymnals, are very poor. Few give more than a sketch of the theological and existential profundity which shines forth from the Latin. I confess that I might return to the local traditionalist church at Pentecost if only to hear the Veni Sancte Spiritus chanted in Latin. The thrice repetition of Da at the end of the sequence summarize the Christian’s journey through mortality. Da guides us as we stumble with our crosses. And yet the sunbeam which illuminates our frailty is brushed over by the limitations of many vernacular renditions.

    Perhaps the best option is to remove the sequences from the parish vernacular Mass, and instead instruct the preacher to focus implicitly on the themes of the sequence. In this way, the integrity of the Latin can be preserved for religious houses and collegiate chapels, among other places where more than a few understand Latin. The removal of the sequences from most parish Masses is consistent with ressourcement ideology, as sequences are medieval in origin.

    I am at an utter loss for a solution. I am desperate to preserve the sequences for parish liturgy, but without sacrificing profundity.

      1. @Paul Inwood:
        I like Scagnelli’s sequence translations, and was just thinking this this morning as my choristers were rehearsing his “Victimae Paschali laudes.” They sing well. There are some texts, like “Crux fidelis” for which I will opt for the Latin setting, especially when there is opportunity for extensive repetition of the text, and when English translations are cumbersome or stilted. In spite of my penchant for preferring older forms on more solemn occasions (Baumstark), the pastoral reality in my parish on Easter and Pentecost calls for an English translation of the sequences. My singers, especially the children, have become quite attached of the Scagnelli versions.

  7. The Lenten liturgies have been fantastic–it appears a revival of the schola has taken place perhaps? Perhaps the Abbey might explore streaming its liturgies through a non-Flash dependent mechanism like Livestream. It’s impossible to view these liturgies on iPad, iPhone; I would assume you would get many more viewers.

  8. Father Anthony,

    I’m curious as to your perspective on conscious composition in a chant idiom (hopefully this isn’t off-topic!). There certainly is a lot of English chant out there, and I have used some of it, from english sequence translations to Simple English Propers, to By Flowing Waters. So to speak to the original post, there is definitely a “movement” going on. There is almost an overload, in that there are now so many different English resources to sort through. However, I do wonder what we mean by saying “English chant”.

    Do we know enough about how chant was composed/developed to “compose” new settings in that idiom? Or do we have English chant in a very broad sense (un-metered unison singing).

    My concern as a musician is whether we are composing worthy new chant settings, in keeping with a certain musical language and tradition. Even if you look at neo-Palestrina-style compositions, at least there is a catalog of rules and tradition in Fux and other places. And even there, the criticism is often leveled that worthy art shouldn’t just slavishly copy past rules.

    There has been a huge volume of English chant created recently, but I’m not entirely sure what it is, musically. And I remain ambivalent toward it from the perspective of sacred art. I do agree, though, that it is often quite practical and well-received.

    1. @Jared Ostermann:
      Dear Jared,
      Thanks for raising this very important question. I’m of two minds, actually. The heart of your question is what a genuine “chant idiom” is. There is a spectrum. Paul Ford quotes Gregorian melodies as much as possible and puts English text under them. Adam Bartlett uses typically Gregorian melodies and motives, and redistributes them freely as the English text suggests – one might want to claim, as the Gregorian composers might have done if they spoke English! John Ainslie uses a more “English” (I mean the language, not the country” idiom, and his melodies seem to grow out of his sense of the English language, or perhaps his sense of what melody is for us today.

      One can make a case for all of these approaches. Would the Gregorian composers follow Bartlet’s approach, which is more “Gregorian” in a sense? Or is it more faithful to their treatment of Latin to “go and do likewise,” starting with the English language as they did with the Latin?

      One final thought. There is one’s ideology (in the non-negative sense) about all this, and then there is compositional genius. Genius will make any approach work much better, and without it no approach will work, however correct the ideology.

      Sorry if I didn’t answer your question – instead I tried to explain why I don’t have an entirely clear answer in my mind, and why I don’t think there necessarily is one.

      Pax,
      awr

  9. I too am happy to see some more chants coming back into our liturgies. Maybe it’s early in my day, but most of the remarks above have to do with the choirs and not the assemblies. So my question is to everybody, how well are the congregations participating in the chant?

    Please note that I do not mean “actively listening”, but actually participating in the sung prayer.

    1. @Rick Reed:
      Hi Rick. Your question’s answer might be difficult to assess. Thankfully, due to Bartlett and P. Ford, congregation accessibility is a component apparently in the SEP (and Lumen Christi) and BFW I/II collections. The one occasion we use Bartlett congregationally is on All Souls, where we meet at the cemetery and the folks (SRO) take them up quite easily. However, they and many of the others (including the Ainslie, which I’ve not used thus far) are more likely still rendered by choir/schola or cantor primarily. This is somewhat in concert with the prescriptions of the first options of the GIRM as regards Latin Propers. But as our friend Todd oft mentions, Propers of various sorts have been set in English and other vernaculars from Deiss to the SLJ’s and STMore’s all the way to our other friend Ken Macek as well of hosts of other “popular” writers. And we musn’t forget the hymnic versions by Tietze, Pluth and others as well.

  10. I suppose hope springs eternal for monks, academics, and music directors who believe that “chanting” of various kinds will be re-introduced in such a way as to lift liturgical celebrations on high. Unfortunately, there was no period of time since the liturgical reform in which parish assemblies experienced the glories of chanting. As a parish priest, my interest and concern is for a liturgy in which the musical offerings are so well chosen that they actually draw the entire assembly into the praise and glory of God. I find that end can be well served by the vast offerings afforded by the hymnals of GIA and OCP and many others. I rather thought the very word chant is a synonym of sing. We sing the Mass with great devotion and enthusiasm. I like a number of different forms of chant.

    1. @Fr. Jack Feehily:
      Fr. Feehily,

      You raise important pastoral concerns; however, I do believe that there is a role for formation as well. This is best done from a young age – the younger they are, the less opposition they have to something that is new and challenging to their sensibilities. I have seen children glory in the beauty and wonder of chant. When done well, it is incredibly invigorating and moving. Then when they get older, the choice of music does become more pastoral, in that more of the community is into it naturally. The challenge comes in the transition, when the young are more open to it than their elders, but generally, I have found that you can get away with a lot when kids are doing it!

  11. But, Fr. Feehily, the OCP and GIA hymnals you mention contain significant helpings of “chant”, including items that many, many congregations are quite familiar with. Much of that is in English – e.g. the ICEL “chant Mass” or English translations of the Pange Lingua. It’s just another sign of the very upsurge in English chant mentioned above.

    Probably more dialogue about exactly what we mean by “chant” would be helpful in many quarters. If we just mean unison singing that is characterized by being un-metered rather than metered (and usually modal rather than tonal), regardless of language, that would be good to make clear!

  12. Texts are key to the embrace of any good new music–or old(er) music new to a particular faith community. With my different parishes over the years, a bit of Latin is fine. But the vernacular is key, if not king. In my new parish, Parce Domine at Lent entrances and English verses based on the proper texts rendered by a cantor. Not everybody likes, but most everybody is singing. As a part of a larger repertoire, it’s fine. But the end is not a chanted liturgy that hails to monastic practice or some imagined historical ideal. Or an exact given text from a committee.

    The liturgy as a whole is a means to an end: the mission of the Gospel. I tend to side with Fr Jack on this one: whatever inspires people to deeper discipleship and a full participation in the liturgy. When chant helps this, great. But it’s far from the only tool in the box.

    1. @Todd Flowerday:
      Anybody please correct me if I am wrong, but is not a thoroughly sung liturgy indeed the ideal of the Liturgical Movement, and upheld by Vatican II as what we should be striving for? Mind you, by this I mean primarily the chanted responses. Perhaps less so with chanted propers, but nonetheless it is talked about as the ideal. There are many reasons pastoral and practical why one may not end up doing that, and I know it was rarely done outside monastic practice, but still, is not a chanted liturgy indeed the end goal? We may never reach that ideal, but it seems to be we ought to strive toward it at least, with some success along that continuum, rather than outright dismissing it.

      1. @Doug O’Neill:
        I don’t see the texts of the propers as part of the reformed Roman Rite: they were never revised for the new Missal. Singing the Mass is about more than “songs of the week” and a focus on music centuries old. Psalms and biblical canticles, metered or otherwise, plus other parts of the Mass: yes. We’re doing quite well with a very widened experience of Scripture without the limitations of assigned antiphons.

      2. @Todd Flowerday:

        They were indeed revised for the new Missal. With the 3 year lectionary, you now often see a different proper for years A/B/C. There are also the calendar differences between EF and OF. And the OF propers, of course, follow the OF calendar.

        How is it that this is not part of the reformed Roman Ritual?

      3. @Ryan Dingess:

        They were indeed revised for the new Missal. With the 3 year lectionary, you now often see a different proper for years A/B/C.

        Without wanting to be too disputatious, this statement is not entirely correct, assuming you refer to the 1974 Graduale Romanum.

        (a) The Introits were generally left alone.

        (b) Only the Communion antiphons were changed. And even then, the alternatives provided were taken from the existing medieval repertory and did not always fit well textually. The previous practice of adapting existing melodic models to fit new texts was repudiated.

  13. I come from a very rural diocese. We have had good experiences in using the English chant propers in our Cathedral parish. The propers are used for the entrance, offertory, and communion. They are supplemented by hymns as needed. There are a couple of scholae who do a nice job of executing the chant. The Mass setting most often used is the chant Mass setting provided in the Missal.

    I have noticed that when it comes to the ordinary of the Mass, the people actually do sing now. They used to never sing.

  14. We’re doing quite well with a very widened experience of Scripture without the limitations of assigned antiphons.

    How well are doing exactly? (These excepts are not proof-texts)

    *…not in some heaven, light years away,….
    *Yet it becomes a body that lives When we are gathered here, And know our God is near. (I hesitate on this one, I’m fond of Oosterhuis.)
    *May the bread we break today, may the cup we share lift the burdens of our hearts, lift them everywhere…
    *I, myself, am the bread of life….
    *The Spirit is a-movin’…all over this land.
    *…When he promised us ourselves Who mark time against tomorrow. Who are justice for the poor….
    *To turn, turn will be our delight, Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.

    etc.

    Two remarks- purposely left out are some old horses others have beaten (but not into submission, save for Alstott’s paean to Vatican II.) And quotes out of context do not exonerate suspect theologies, IMO. I also realize I’m not an Sac.Theo.D, nor do I play one on TV, but we need to be stewards of the words we employ, yes?

      1. @Todd Flowerday:
        “I don’t recognize the Scripture in any of them…” (I knew you’d come back with that rationale!) 😉
        Which aids and abets my augmentation of your earlier proclamation: “Texts are key to the embrace of any good new music…”
        Your serve.

  15. “We’re doing quite well with a very widened experience of Scripture.”

    Not a limitless repertoire of Scripture. Just better than the traditional Latin Mass, better than the early folk era, and better than organ hymnody.

    Take NPM’s list of “25 songs that make a difference,” none of which you cited, by the way. 15 composed after Vatican II, and nine of those are based on Scripture. Ten before and during: only 2 if you count Ave Maria and Lord of the Dance.

    And yes, assuming good music, post-conciliar Catholics seem to respond very well to Scripture-based texts, especially given the top four from that list. Sorry, but I think the Propers-only crowd has been thoroughly lapped on music of the last 45 years. Possibly to the point where those texts are relevant only where they are set to music better than what is currently out there today.

    We already have a strong repertoire of music that is structured like the propers, uses the same texts and more from the Prophets, New Testament letters, and Wisdom literature. I don’t think we need the Propers.

    1. @Todd Flowerday:

      “We already have a strong repertoire of music that is structured like the propers, uses the same texts and more from the Prophets, New Testament letters, and Wisdom literature. I don’t think we need the Propers.”

      …or the lectionary. There’s a whole world of new books out there that say great things about our faith. Let’s hear some of those in our liturgies and dispense with all of this archaic rubricism. “This is what you will read on this day of this year.” Come on! Who needs that in this day and age? I don’t think we need the lectionary.

      1. @Ryan Dingess:
        I would have to strongly disagree with you on this one, Ryan. People find the Scriptures so attractive: this is precisely why we don’t need to limit our song texts, official or not, to the Psalms and a few select Gospel snippets. The archaism is the set of texts we get, especially for Ordinary Time, are not always harmonized. Reform the liturgy for MR4, and expand the offerings of Scripture. Leave citing the new books for homilies, properly attributed, of course.

      2. @Todd Flowerday:
        My comment was facetious. If in the liturgy one can arbitrarily decide, “We just don’t need X,” on the merits of personal opinion, why limit X to propers?

        Whatever your personal opinion on their content, the simple fact is that they are there, and are what they are. We have the options to be obedient to Holy Mother Church or to say, “Actually, I have a better idea!”

      3. @Ryan Dingess:
        It’s hardly a matter of obedience. They are one option among many. Not always the best. Getting back to the matter of the post, my sense is that good music well-presented will appeal spiritually to assemblies at Mass. In my situation, working with a choir that has very little experience singing plainsong, I have to be careful and modest in presenting what I do so as not to create future obstacles.

        And yes, granted, it’s a personal opinion. But it’s more: good music directors are always involved in *discernment*. In other words, preparing to move beyond opinions. Sometimes that means seeking a better idea. Sometimes that means looking for a psalm that better harmonizes with the Lectionary.

        Minus the facetiousness, thanks for the discussion on the point, Ryan.

      4. @Todd Flowerday:
        “They are one option among many. Not always the best.”

        Yes, there are options, and they are listed in order. There is a reason for that.

        “Best” would be subjective here. “Preferred” would be a better term, as we read down the list. First option is ideal. Strive for that. Second will also do, if you cannot (yet) do the ideal. And so on down the list.

        “In my situation, working with a choir that has very little experience singing plainsong, I have to be careful and modest in presenting what I do so as not to create future obstacles.”

        Agreed. I inherited a choir just as you described, and we aren’t singing Gregorian Introits any time soon for exactly those reasons.

        It’s amazing though how quickly they’ll pick up on the idea of propers when using simple vernacular settings and a little explanation of why these things are being sung. “We sing the Psalm for the day, according to the books – Shouldn’t we also sing the Communion for the day, according to the books?” Many don’t know that such things even exist, but will readily support the notion, and will sing it all very well if led by a positive example.

      5. @Ryan Dingess:
        “Yes, there are options, and they are listed in order. There is a reason for that.”

        I see this cited often, but many people overlook the first set of four options given in GIRM 48: who does it. Choir alone is listed last. Far better for the people to be involved, as part of a dialogue, as the St Louis Jesuits, for example, envisioned it. Or even for the people to sing the whole setting as a unified assembly, as suggested in GIRM 86.

      6. @Todd Flowerday:

        You’ve switched topics. Now it’s not a question of WHAT is being sung, but WHO should be singing it.

        So back to our actual discussion, the second half of 48 lists the Entrance Antiphon as the first option.

        It is… curious… that it lists first that the people should be singing, with it entirely unrealistic that a congregation would sing the Gregorian Introit.

        Yet with the wealth of vernacular options out there, it is not such a far-fetched idea that the congregation sing the actual text for the Entrance Antiphon. There are nowadays options for:

        -The text to be sung to familiar hymn tunes

        -Simple responses derived from the antiphon (choir sings full antiphon, with simple congregational response)

        -Simple enough settings that a congregation could sing the full antiphon together.

        —–

        It is entirely possible to satisfy both parts of 48:

        That which you choose to observe
        (have the people sing)

        And that which you personally find unnecessary
        (have them sing the actual texts of the Mass)

  16. “Battle lines being drawn, nobody’s right and everybody’s wrong” (Buffalo Springfield)
    ‘Cept you insist upon shifting the lines, Todd, which also is to be expected (if not entertaining.)
    Why should anyone, pro forma, accept your conclusion about what is better about “now” than “then?” Nothing supports that. Even more incredulous is your assumption that an NPM top 25 is a valid measure for textual efficacy regarding theology. Who said? Why would I cite those when pointing out exemplars of dubious theology that persists? No one including myself has directly advocated a Propers-only approach to programming; that’s your shibboleth, which you prove with the word count of two paragraphs. I like great hymn/song texts by a multitude of publisher-sponsored writers among other non-affiliated. Would it be more honest if 1. You don’t compare apples and oranges regarding hymn texts and Propers, which is actually not that germane to the OPost; and 2. Correct your sentence to read “I don’t think _I_ need the Propers.”?

  17. That’s for the Entrance. If you’re going to bring up 86, at the Communion, look to 87 where it lists choir alone as first option, then choir/cantor with the people. 😉

  18. From experience, I offer that the thread drift has gone sideways if not south. Father Anthony’s topic illuminates what ought to be a happy and celebrated organic development in sacred music composition. But that has been transferred to the merry-go-round of legalism, preference and performance practice. None of that ultimately helps a DMM negotiate the common sense, balanced and nuanced issues of repertoire choice and execution as the forms of Proper settings, as well as Latin/vernacular oftentimes don’t fit into a cookie cutter template, even while trying to apply the options of the GIRM. So, can it suffice to say we’re happy with this development joining the big tent, and see it as being in conformity with the intent of the conciliar documents?

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