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Musical Musings: Miscellaneous

Chant in Church

by Gary D. Penkala

More and more parish music directors are coming to understand the importance and beauty of singing Latin chant in liturgy. Oftentimes the congregation has questions about this "new" music:

Why do we sing Latin chant?

We sing Latin chant as a congregation partly because as Roman Catholics, that is our musical heritage. Lutherans can trace their musical roots back to the glorious German chorales of J.S. Bach and others. Episcopalians have a fine tradition of singing Anglican chant for their psalms and canticles. Many Baptists look to spirituals as their musical heritage. In the same way, we as Roman Catholics (i.e. Catholics of the Latin rite) have Gregorian chant as the foundation of our music. In the 6th century, Gregorian chant was collected and codified by Pope Saint Gregory the Great, after whom it was later named. We Catholics can be very proud of this music, which is not only the foundation of our church music even to this day, but which also is the font from which all Western music (sacred and secular) sprang. We simply cannot ignore chant as an "anachronism."

Must we sing chant?

We sing chants partly because that is our heritage as Roman (or Latin rite) Catholics. We also have the approval, in fact the insistence, of the Universal Church for this repertoire to be taught to congregations. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of Vatican II states, "The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art" [#112]. "The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy; therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services" [#116]. The rubrics in the new Sacramentary (called the General Instruction) read: "It is desirable that (the faithful) know how to sing at least parts of the Ordinary of the Mass in Latin" [#41]. Even the U.S. bishops (in Liturgical Music Today, 1982) confirm: "A basic collection of simple Gregorian chants should be employed as a source for the assembly's participation" [#53]. It's pretty clear that Latin chant is not optional.

If we must sing chant, do we have to like it?

It's obvious from an objective view of our musical heritage and from Vatican and U.S. documents that we Roman Catholics should know and sing at least a basic repertoire of Gregorian chants in Latin. This is harder in some parishes than in others. Certain congregations around the country have maintained a vital repertoire of chant, easily singing hymns such as Pange lingua gloriosi and Mass parts such as Sanctus and Agnus Dei. Most parishes have lost complete touch with this sacred repertoire that is so distinctly Catholic. Many adults and children have never heard chant, don't know how to read Latin syllables, and find the effort to sing them not worthwhile. They don't like chant because it's so strange to them. This is understandable, since the Catholic musicians in the U.S. threw out chant in a misguided attempt to be overly-relevant in the 1970s and 80s. Fortunately, the Church (and her musicians and liturgists) are rediscovering the beauty and sacred primacy of chant. But what practical help is available for the "man in the pew?"

How can we come to appreciate Gregorian chant?

There's no doubt that Gregorian chant is music of lasting value — it's been around for over 1400 years. Claims of it being irrelevant would have been just as false in the 17th century as they are now. Chant is just about the only purely sacred music we have today – we find it only in church, and only in praise of God – secular chant doesn't exist. But how can we come to learn and appreciate Latin chant?
  1. First of all, make a firm commitment to learn the chant that's offered at your parish. It's likely not as difficult as you might think – after all, didn't elementary school children learn and sing the entire Requiem Mass at parish funerals just a few generations ago?
  2. Use the tools at your disposal. If liturgy sheets or hymnal pages are available and cited, be sure to have the text and music in hand as you sing. Chant has no tricky rhythms; it's just one note after another. Seeing where the notes rise, fall or remain the same is about all that's necessary to read chant music.
  3. Listen. Don't close your ears, but seriously and attentively listen to the cantor, choir and those around you who seem to know the chant. This will certainly help your own singing.
  4. Enjoy the calm beauty and holiness of chant. Let the sacred mood engendered by this music fill your soul as it did Christians for 14 centuries. Be a part of that hallowed continuum.
  5. Lastly, sing as much as you are comfortable. No one wants to force anyone to sing, but your singing should be a sign of your interior participation and love of the community. Work gradually at singing together.
These chants that the rest of the world knows we will eventually learn in America!

See CNP Chant Resources

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