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Musical Musings: Hymns and Hymnody

Twelve Latin Chants Every Catholic Should Know

Part 1

by Arlene Oost-Zinner and Jeffrey Tucker

This article first appeared in the April 2003 issue of CRISIS Magazine. It is reprinted here with permission.

Many Catholics pine for the return of Gregorian chant, and for good reason. The chant of the Roman Rite represents the very voice of the Faith, a true prayer in song, one that can and should draw all generations of Catholics together in the Mass and all other liturgies of the Church.

You can find recordings of Gregorian chant in every CD store. You can hear it at the concert hall, between settings of great polyphonic motets of the high Renaissance. You can hear it also in movies, radio, and television. But one place you are not likely to hear it is at your local Catholic Church. Truly, anyone who visits expecting to hear something resembling chant is in for a shock.

We've found from the workshops we've led that most Catholics under the age of 60 are unlikely to recognize even the basic chants of the Faith. This is understandable. Very few chants, if any, appear in the hymnbooks most commonly used in our parishes. Choirs know little of the chant's solemn sensibility. Every seasoned Catholic knows the reason: This timeless music, once integral to the liturgy, has been displaced by commercial stylings and other musical whims.

The long-term solution is an obvious one: Return the chant to its proper place, its "pride of place" (to quote Vatican II) in the liturgy. This is not a futile hope. After all, chant has nearly vanished before (at the turn of the 20th century, Pius X worried about its extinction and worked to restore it), and with effort, it came back. The same can happen again.

But there's an important intervening step that we must be willing to take. Every Catholic who yearns to hear and sing chant in the liturgy should start to sing this music on his or her own. That is a contribution that each of us can make to prevent this music from dying as we await the time when it will be restored to our public liturgies.

The full chant repertoire includes thousands of settings for every conceivable time and purpose, the product of two millennia of musical development. Where to begin? The best place is with Latin hymns. When chant was alive and thriving in the liturgy, these were the most popular and the best-known of all the chants. With a bit of effort and time, they can become part of one's own private experience of the Faith, bringing enormous blessings to our families and ourselves. Perhaps they can be taught to others and given new life in our liturgies.

If we're not willing to learn them and sing them individually, and if we cannot depend on the bishops or parish music directors to support chant, can we really expect that they'll return to our local liturgies? Not likely. What follows, then, are twelve essential Latin hymns, songs that have carried the Catholic faith through many centuries. They're found in any older hymnal, and recordings are also available. [CNP note: See our own Booklets of Chant, which contain ten of the chants cited here.]

1. Ave Maria[found in CNP Booklet of Chant, Volume 3 (Marian/General)]

This is surely the most beloved prayer exclusive to the Catholic faith. The melody line of the "Hail Mary" (perhaps from the 13th century) is remarkable for its range, flexibility, and subtle tonal curiosities (at least to modern ears). This pure, clean chant line was used as the basis for large polyphonic settings for hundreds of years. Today, however, the chant that goes with the prayer is nearly unknown to the post-consiliar generations.

Like the prayer, the song is in two parts. It begins emotionally, with a line that spans a wide range but quickly settles down to a contemplative style. The emotion picks back up again with the second section, "Sancta Maria," hitting the highest tone in the fourth syllable, a full octave from its lowest pitch. The Amen is not an afterthought but integral to the prayer.

Sung slowly and with love, with one voice or many, this piece can move listeners to tears. Sung quickly and with energy, it can be exuberant and liberating. Today it sounds fresh and alive and perfectly fitting for the one for whom it is sung. And what better way to begin to learn the Latin of this prayer than by knowing the tune that goes with it.

2. Adoro te devote [found in CNP Booklet of Chant, Volume 3 (Marian/General)]

"Godhead here in hiding, whom I do adore; masked by these bare shadows, shape and nothing more."
The text to this hymn of thanksgiving and adoration belongs to Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), and its most famous English translation to Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889). The chant itself is of unknown origin from the first millennium. It is brighter and lighter than many chants, with a smooth and lyrical line of four easy phrases, with a swell in the third phrase that provides quiet drama while never losing its discipline.

Aquinas is said to have written this text at the request of Pope Urban IV for the Feast of Corpus Christi in 1264. This chant is often used as a prayer of thanksgiving after Mass, though it is suitable for any time of focus on the Blessed Sacrament. The Hopkins translation is beautiful; consider the last line of the third verse: "Truth himself speaks truly or there's nothing true." But it cannot compare to the lyric quality of Aquinas' Latin: Nil hoc verbo veritatis verius.

3. Regina caeli[found in CNP Booklet of Chant, Volume 2 (Lent/Easter)]

"Joy to thee, O Queen of Heaven."
Although the author of the Regina caeli is not known, it is believed to have been written sometime between the ninth and twelfth centuries. It is short, delicate, celebratory, and regal — drawing attention to and capturing what was Mary's joy in the resurrection of her Son. The Regina caeli is traditionally sung during Eastertide, from Holy Saturday right up through the Saturday after Pentecost, and is to be sung "in choro," or standing.

A lovely legend suggests that Saint Gregory the Great heard its first three lines chanted by angels on a certain Easter morning in Rome while walking barefoot in a procession. He was so inspired, the story goes, that he was moved to add the fourth line, Ora pro nobis Deum, alleluia. The Regina caeli remains one of the most beloved of the chant repertoire, and it takes its seat alongside the Salve Regina as one of the most celebrated Marian hymns.

4. Ave verum corpus[planned for CNP Booklet of Chant, Volume 5 (Miscellaneous)]

"Hail true Body, born of the Virgin Mary."
The most famous setting of this text by 14th-century Pope Innocent VI is by Mozart, especially famous in our time because it was chosen by the New York Philharmonic for a concert following September 11, 2001. Whether listeners understood the underlying message is another matter.

The Mozart setting is justly celebrated, but the chant version is equally dramatic. It has three distinct sections, the first of which is repeated and made up of only five tones. The second section, again with a repeated melody line, develops the theme a third higher, while the last section contains the most overtly emotional line in this repertoire: O Jesu dulcis! O Jesu pie! O Jesu fili Mariae. The lines are so emotional, in fact, the temptation might be to overdo them instead of letting them speak for themselves.

5. Pange lingua gloriosi[found in CNP Booklet of Chant, Volume 2 (Lent/Easter)]

"Praise we Christ's immortal body."
The text is by Aquinas, and it is based on an earlier text by Venantius Honorius Fortunatus, a sixth-century Christian poet. Aquinas' text was written for Vespers or perhaps for the feast of Corpus Christi, but its use quickly entered all the liturgies of the Faith. The customary use is during the repository on Holy Thursday. It has six stanzas, the last two of which form the Tantum ergo, a hymn prescribed for Benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament. The Tantum ergo is still sung as often as this liturgy is offered in parishes.

The origin of the chant line, haunting and distinctive, is unknown but surely dates from the earliest centuries. It begins on the third pitch of the major scale and takes a while before finding its tonic home with the last word of the first line. The effect of this opening to to lengthen the overall tonal structure of each verse to a full six phrases, creating an expansive environment for this moving tribute to pure faith in the Blessed Sacrament. Praestet fides supplementum, says the fifth verse, sola fides suficit. "What our senses fail to fathom, let us grasp through faith's consent."

6. Parce Domine [found in CNP Booklet of Chant, Volume 2 (Lent/Easter)]

"Spare thy people, Lord ... Be not angry."
The text is from the book of Joel (2:17). The astonishingly simple chant line used during time of penance, built from only five notes, masks a brilliant and penetrating power. Repeated again and again (no made up verse, please), it gets the message across. It should be sung slowly and with feeling, with a liberal use of silence between phrases and before repetitions. When done properly, one can only stare at the simple notes in disbelief that such emotion can be packed into such a small space. If one is seeking to put on display the spiritual import of the chant tradition, this small, affecting piece, which can be quickly mastered, is the archetype.

Copyright © 2003 CRISIS Magazine
Used with permission.

Arlene Oost-Zinner and Jeffrey Tucker are, respectively, president and director of the Saint Cecilia Schola Cantorum in Auburn, Alabama, which has recorded two CDs, Pange Lingua: Chants for Parish Life and Attende Domine: Chants for Parish Life.

See CNP's Booklets of Chant

 Back to Hymns and Hymnody Index

Part 2: The other six

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