I’m teaching Gregorian chant online this summer. Enrollment is good – over 20 students! Each week I offer an online discussion forum for any questions that come up. A student posed the question below about Vatican II and chant in parishes. My response is longish but it might interest some of you. I’m especially interested in filling in holes and correcting some of my impressions which are based on things I have heard anecdotally. I welcome your additions and suggestions. – awr
Can you elaborate on what positive (or negative) role the Second Vatican Council had in the use or renewal of chant in Catholic parishes?
Great question. It is mixed. I’ll talk more about this in Module 9.
It’s important not to overstate how much Gregorian Chant was being done in parishes before Vatican II. Many, many parishes wanted High Mass (ie sung Mass) but couldn’t do the propers so they sang all the proper texts to a psalm tone. (Tozer published all the propers to psalm tones.) Many a Catholic must have thought Gregorian chant is great and it has two melodies in all … the psalm tones in modes 5 and 8!
Many parishes in the U.S. were singing the Ordinary, but many never did. According to Thomas Day (Why Catholics Can’t Sing), big parishes on the East Coast would have 5 Masses on Sunday. Four of these would be recited Low Mass, done in 40-45 minutes with no music. Only the last one was High Mass with chant (or polyphony), and the late morning High Mass had low attendance because it took longer.
There were many monasteries before Vatican II that were real centers of Gregorian chant, every liturgy, every day. At St. John’s Abbey all the priests went out to parishes on Sunday, so the young monks in seminary were the Sunday community. They generally sang the Introit and Communio, but depending on practice time they did the gradual and/or offertory to a psalm tone. The monks sang the Ordinary of course, but the congregation apparently didn’t really join in. In the late 50s (before Vatican II) St. John’s moved from sung High Mass to recited “dialogue Mass” so the people could participate by reciting the Latin Mass parts. It earned us an editorial in a church music journal, “Murder in the Abbey.” I admit to a good bit of sadness that something very beautiful was lost – monasteries all across the Catholic church which were islands singing the whole liturgy in Latin chant. I just give that to God and pray for detachment.
There were parish congregations in Germany or the low countries that knew up to 5 or 6 Mass Ordinaries, if you can imagine. There were many parish choirs singing the propers. And because the Sunday propers were done every day in the following week before Vatican II, I’ve heard of Dutch parishes where enough choir members went to early daily Mass all week that they had daily High Mass with sung propers. Amazing.
A monk in Germany (Fr. Gregor Schwake, OSB) who was the apostle of congregational Latin chant said that by the 1940s and especially the 1950s it was all in decline, compared to the 1930s. People were busier, he reported, more jaded, more cynical, not as able anymore to come to the parish every night for a week-long “chant mission” (they really did that), and distracted by a fast-moving modern world of radio and, for many, television. In 1943 Rome ruled that in Germany and Austria they could replace some Latin propers with vernacular hymns and still consider it High Mass – bishops said that their massive efforts at promoting congregational Latin chant since 1903 was having some success, but it was too difficult for many and not working that well.
Then after Vatican II it all blew up – pressures that were pent up for so long exploded with a bang. Lots of nonsense, lots of misunderstanding – but, and this is important, not because everything was wrong about the 1960s, but because what they inherited from the 1950s (and the previous thousand years) was so inadequate that nobody knew what to do. I’m sure God is merciful, and probably just looks down and smiles. There wasn’t a lot of the responsible middle doing (like Luther was able to do in the 16th century) some Latin chant, preservation of the best from the past, careful and gradual use of the best of vernacular music, promotion of quality new repertoire, etc. I’m just old enough to remember grade school CCD Masses where we played records of our favorite songs (“All You Need Is Love”) when we planned Mass. And within about 5 minutes of Vatican II vernacular took over everything, all the time – for understandable reasons. This marginalized Latin chant.
My impression is that use of Latin chant in parishes has been increasing steadily for at least 20 years now. When I chant a Latin Agnus Dei to undergrads (studying the Order of Mass), over half will say they are familiar with that.
Semiology has led to increased interest and excitement since the 1980s – more in Europe than the U.S. Semiologists point out that in the Middle Ages, it was only in exceptional centers (monasteries, cathedrals) where propers were ever sung. Medieval parishes were doing who knows what – some of it probably pretty grim and rudimentary. The goal (officially) from 1903 to 1963 of getting congregations and parish choirs to sing the liturgy in Latin chant was, in many ways, a historical anomaly. So if there are now various islands here and there promoting chant (and doing semiological interpretation, I hope), it’s not so different from the Middle Ages – although it’s much smaller in proportion of course.
My take-away – and this is just my opinion, and I’m pretty robustly pro-Vatican II – is that there’s no better time to do Latin chant in Catholic worship than now. It is appreciated, it is part of participative, vernacular worship, it enhances and enriches worship. I grant that most parishes don’t do a syllable of Latin chant, and that in many or most parishes there would be strong opposition if you did some. I’m not going to worry too much about that. As we get further in time from the explosions of the 1960s, some of those old battles are happily fading into the past and it’s becoming less contentious. At least I want to believe that. There are more than a few places where one can promote Latin chant – wisely, lovingly, gently – and I’m grateful for that.