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Musical Musings: Miscellaneous

Chants Occurrence

by Gary D. Penkala

It seems appropriate, almost forty years after the dramatic Second Vatican Council, to look seriously at where church music has been and where it is going. In particular, we take time to discuss the "official" music of the Catholic Church, Gregorian chant.

Gregorian chant, far from being a dead form, has been quite vital in its history. It changed and adapted from its gradual period of inception through the Middle Ages, served as a compositional basis in the Baroque and Classical eras, was subjected to certain abuses in the 19th century and was renewed at Solesmes in our own age. Throughout its history, the Church has earnestly promoted chant, and does so even today, not only by acknowledging chant as "proper to the Roman liturgy," but by giving it "pride of place" in liturgical services. Modern composers still find in chant a valuable treasure for their own music.

Jean Langlais, a contemporary French organist and composer, said that Gregorian chant, "because of its purity and its perfection, remains the artistic expression of the Catholic Church. I like to think of it as the eternal youth of art that serves to revitalize by its modality the inspiration of all Catholic composers." The words of M. Langlais are not without supporting evidence. The French school of composers relies heavily on chant as a musical thematic source. These men include Charles Tournemire, Marcel Duruflé, Jehan Alain and Jean Langlais. In our own country, this phenomenon is apparent in the works of Alexander Peloquin and Richard Proulx, as well as those of Alex Hill, J. William Greene and Calvert Shenk in the CNP Catalog. When hearing Dr. Peloquin speak about his own music, one is struck immediately by the love affair he has with the chant genre. Each beautiful phrase, sung as example, leads him on to other phrases - other "gems" - as he uses the chants to explain modality, expressionism, music history and our faith.

The National Association of Pastoral Musicians recognizes the valuable storehouse which is chant. It sponsored a competition a few years ago for new pieces based on Gregorian chant. Five hundred dollar prizes in two categories were awarded at their national convention in Saint Louis.

While the change from Latin to the vernacular in language of the liturgy inadvertently curtailed much of the use of chant, we are at present noticing an increased interest in this form. Symposia and workshops abound, summer programs and college courses all strive to enhance present-day worship with the same inspired melodies that have enriched the prayer life of the Western Church for centuries.

Theodore Marier, founder of the Boston Archdiocesan Choir School and editor of Hymns, Psalms and Spiritual Canticles proposed a return to the use of chant in the modern liturgy. In Pastoral Music he wrote,

A pope as recent as our own John Paul II has said that "to the extent that the new sacred music is to serve the liturgical celebrations of the various churches, it can and must draw from earlier forms -- especially from Gregorian chant -- a higher inspiration, a uniquely sacred quality, a genuine sense of what is religious."

Exactly what constitutes "a uniquely sacred quality" and "a genuine sense of what is religious" in our pluralistic, technological world may now need to be discussed anew. But such discussions can only be helped by a careful, honest appraisal of chant, the role it has had in the music and worship of our Church, and the ways it continues to inspire us. The survival of this body of religious music, which has served the worship needs of people across boundaries of time and geography, attests to its strength and relevance today.

CNP's Chant Index in our Online Catalog has a list of all our selections based on chant.

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