Standing Up for Chant

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. But other kinds of sacred music, especially polyphony, are by no means excluded from liturgical celebrations, so long as they accord with the spirit of the liturgical action, as laid down in Article 30 (Sacrosanctum Concilium 116).
The above passage may well be the most-quoted section in tussles on the liturgy. I wrote about this topic in a 2003 Ministry & Liturgy article titled, “Chant: Pride of Place or Someplace Else?” and haven’t changed my position in the five ensuing years that plainsong has a place in the worship of every Catholic parish. But how do we get there? That’s a question with as many different responses as there are Catholics.
My inimitable and gracious colleague Jeffrey Tucker has already suggested you head for the garage, if need be, to sustain the chant tradition. I hope you don’t have to go that far; but his excellent article, co-penned with Arlene Oost-Zinner, offers several practical suggestions.
I’ll offer some additional ones, with a caveat. I’m a liturgist; when I write for Ministry & Liturgy magazine, my readers are music directors, fellow-liturgists, volunteer leaders, and worship geeks who have some influence on the parish repertoire.
But what if you aren’t active in parish liturgy?
First, you’ll need a pastoral touch, especially if parishioners are suspicious and turf-conscious. Let them get to know you as a person — someone with the very best intentions of improving and intensifying the parish’s prayer experience. Also, if chant is completely forgotten in your parish, or if it’s never been done at all, I would treat it like a new genre. It will be new for some musicians. Let it be.
Of course, the pastor must lend his unqualified support to the chant effort. If he doesn’t already sing, I would coach his singing voice. If I were a non-musical liturgist, I would hire a voice teacher who could work with him on an occasional basis. Only extremely dedicated clergy will invest time in regular voice lessons, but many will often respond to occasional “consultations.” Showing respect to a non-musical priest will net dividends in cooperation.
In addition to that, I would take music leaders to classical concerts. Excellent music performed by outstanding singers will impress even the most genre-hardened of music lovers. I know whereof I speak: My Hannah Montana-devoted daughter loved Trio Mediaeval when they came to town. Pickers and strummers might be more impressed with the quantity of traditional music accompanied by ensembles, like the ones Claudio Monteverdi used in his works.
Once the idea of chant in the liturgy has been introduced to the congregation, you can turn to the logistics of actually implementing it. The acoustics of a church are the single biggest determining factor in whether that will be successful. If the structure has carpet and a low ceiling, and music cannot be heard without the use of electronic reinforcement, it may well be a losing battle to implement the congregational singing of plainsong. This is especially true if the goal is to sing in Latin, which relies heavily on vowel sounds for intelligibility. English, like all Germanic languages, leans more on consonants. It is possible to sing in acoustically dampened churches if most of the congregation is motivated, or if the room is small — but forget about the fine points of resonance until the carpets are stripped away.
First impressions are absolutely vital. Any chant piece done by the choir or schola or sung by the congregation has to be the very best. It can’t drag in tempo. Purists will wince, but it’s probably better to accompany plainsong on the organ or even the piano to make that happen.
Relegating plainsong to penitential seasons, or giving the impression of doing so, can often backfire. For example, if a parish decides to forego some instrumental music during Lent, and sees chant is an appropriate alternate vehicle, what message does that send? When we give up instruments, we settle for chant? That’s hardly the pride of place the council called for.
Similarly, assigning plainsong to a particular Mass or choir can create a ghetto mentality of dealing with various parish music ministries or political factions. Chant is simple enough that all parish musicians and choir members should be familiar with it. When one past parish learned “Parce Domine,” everyone learned it: cantors, ensembles, organ choirs, and even kids.
To build a repertoire of chant, begin by looking at a sung ordinary: Agnus Dei XVIII is still known everywhere. When my last parish hosted a gospel choir for a special event, they sang it. Make the Mass setting in the vernacular, especially for weekday liturgy, a priority. Plainsong ordinaries could then be sung during long stretches of green Sundays. Almost every Catholic knows the Lord’s Prayer chant; that’s worth singing all the time. A plainsong Alleluia, especially at daily Mass, is also a no-brainer.
Each liturgical season should also incorporate plainsong hymnody. Parishes already sing “O Come O Come Emmanuel” at Advent; they could easily add “Creator of the Stars of Night.” “Parce Domine” and “Attende Domine” are staples for Lent. The chant tones on the verses of the former make it ideal for good singers to improvise on different psalm texts while the people sing the refrain. Most parishes know the “Easter” Alleluia, “Ye Sons and Daughters.” Other good seasonal additions are the sequences for Easter morning and Pentecost. A few psalms can be learned to accompany the Communion procession. While not everyone sings at Communion, their minds and spirits are willing receptors for good music at this time, if there is some to be had.
Chant certainly does not negate the use of the vernacular. Paul Ford’s hymnal By Flowing Waters is a fine attempt to render traditional Latin chant into English. Most parish hymnals and seasonal resources also adapt chant for vernacular hymnody. These resources are ideal for a first introduction to a parish.
If the parish liberals are howling by now,emphasize the progressive political and social considerations here: Chant moves against the market-driven excesses of contemporary liturgical music. It negates the abuses of overbearing leadership from the organ console or the cantor’s microphone. It places all the singers in the church on the same communal footing. And it’s an exercise in participative democracy — as well as participative liturgy.
As was true in centuries past, chant will have to share the stage with other genres. Musicians who chafed at official restrictions produced organum and polyphony and other styles. (The so-called parish folk group is actually more closely aligned with the accompanied music of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance period than are the big sounds of the pipe organ.) From a musician’s point of view, this diversity and broadening perspective cannot help but make us better singers and players. If liturgical musicians begin to uncover the links between the various sacred styles and plainsong, then liturgical music will recover much of its potential as a unifying and healing force among the People of God.


Todd Flowerday has served the Catholic Church as an ecclesial lay minister for 20 years. He and his family serve at the campus parish for Iowa State University. Online you can find him at his blog, Catholic Sensibility.

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