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?