The Real Catholic Songbook


The appeal of Catholic liturgy is that it is structured, and in this, it differs dramatically from the run-of-the-mill evangelical service in which everything is left to human discretion. What a relief, even a liberation, to have an order of service that has been put together by organic development over the ages rather than by the whim of whomever happens to seize control.
And yet, there is a major aspect of Catholic liturgy that most people today leave to whim: the music. And sure enough, there are more conflicts about music in Catholic liturgy than nearly every other area of parish life. Why would the Church leave so much to human discretion knowing that this doesn’t work for other aspects of the liturgy?
Let me disclose a shocking fact: The music of the Mass is not left to whim. There is a book that publishes all the music that is most suitable to the Mass. It is given note by note for every sung portion and includes the material that is repeated week to week (the ordinary) and also the material that changes (the propers). It was not produced by any American Catholic publisher, but by a French monastery.
The book is called the Graduale Romanum or, in English, the Roman Gradual. An edition specially prepared for English speakers is called the Gregorian Missal, available from most major Catholic bookstores. It contains the music for every Sunday of the year. If you want to give the director of music in your parish, or the pastor, a real shock, and possibly very welcome news, you might buy one for him or her.
It so happens that this year is the 100th anniversary of the “modern” edition of the Graduale, one that restored the music to its original beauty after centuries of mutilation. It was and remains the official book of music for Mass. When Church documents speak of Gregorian chant and its primacy of place, this is the main book we are talking about.
The Graduale was the great achievement of the monks of Solesmes, and an amazing gift to the faith and the world. When Vatican II called the music of the Mass a “treasure of inestimable value” that is more precious than that of any of art, one that deserves primacy of place at liturgy, it was speaking specifically of the Graduale.
The book is named for its most famous chant, which sets the Psalm after the first reading to chant. But what it includes are all the chants for the ordinary of the Mass: the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. It also includes the propers: the Introit, Graduale, Alleluia or Tract, Offertory, and Communion. The sequences and occasional hymns are also here.
What’s remarkable is that most Catholics have never heard of it. Much worse, most Catholic musicians have never heard of it. Herein lies a sad and tragic tale of missed opportunities, misinformation, and even disobedience. Mostly, the problem is ignorance: The majority of musicians just don’t know about it. They’re unaware that selecting music for Mass is not just a matter of finding appropriate hymns. They don’t know that the hard work of determining what is right has already been done for them, more than a thousand years ago.
What treasures we are missing! The Graduale contains the greatest music ever assembled in one spot, ready for use at this Sunday’s Mass. This music uniquely bears the marks of the Church. It is holy. It is universal. It is a unifying force. It grew up alongside the Mass with roots dating to the early Church. And as Pius X said of all sacred music, it is the archetype of what beautiful music should be. Its form is endlessly fascinating, to the point that any one chant of thousands can be examined in detail to yield profound insights into our faith and liturgy.
How did the modern Graduale come about? It has been in use far back in Church history. The early Christians sang the Psalms, and what came to be named the “Gregorian tradition” emerged as the most universal and beloved tradition. By the eighth century, the music came together in the Roman Rite. As far back as musicologists look, they find recognizable patterns of music matching the Church calendar. New pieces were written and incorporated.
The modern task of making a universal edition really began with the founding of the Solesmes monastery in France in the 1830s by Dom Gueranger. The bulk of the musical work was carried out by Dom Pothier, whose first treatises on the chant appeared in the 1880s. Research and typography was further strengthened by Dom Mocquereau. The goal was to clean the chant of the alterations that had befallen it in the years following the Council of Trent, when less able hands were made responsible for preserving and protecting it from corruption. This required a fantastic amount of archival work and creativity.
The Vatican became very interested both in the work of Solesmes and in producing an authoritative Vatican Gradual. Solesmes was charged with the task, and the glorious book appeared in 1908. What followed was a remarkable revival, as well as the great compilation of chant that was known to all Catholic musicians before Vatican II: the Liber Usualis. This book, though not official, contained all the chants of the Graduale plus wonderful tutorials on singing the Mass, as well as many hymns for the Divine Office.
By the time of the Second Vatican Council, the future of chant looked very bright indeed, with choir schools opening, new books appearing, and children’s choirs booming in Catholic schools. It was at this point that the Council enshrined the following words into liturgical law: “Other things being equal, Gregorian Chant should be given pride of place in liturgical services.” Chant had grown up alongside the Mass as the music of the Catholic Church, but this was the first time a Church council had decisively spoken on the issue.
What followed was expected by very few. In a few short years, the entire infrastructure that had been developed in support of chant came crumbling down. Publishers collapsed. Choir directors were fired. Seminaries began to experiment with popular music at Mass. This became the fashion, and liturgy succumbed to cultural pressures of the time (many of which are quite embarrassing in retrospect). This tendency might have run its course but for the introduction of the vernacular in Mass, which gave the impression that Latin was out — and thus also was Gregorian chant.
The new Mass was introduced in 1970. Of course, no one said anything about the Graduale no longer applying to it. Indeed, that would have been impossible: The Graduale was as much a part of the new Mass as the old. But because of the introduction of the vernacular, the change in the calendar, the new placement of the propers, and new texts introduced for spoken propers, as well as the general atmosphere of change, there was widespread confusion on this point. Simply put, hardly anyone was prepared to say what was true and what was not concerning music. It was fully four years before the Graduale Romanum appeared in a form that had been adapted to the new Mass. By that time, hardly anyone cared. The new music performed by new groups was the rage, and precious few kept the tradition going.
That was then, and this is now. We’ve been through several waves of big-selling chant CDs. The new U.S. Bishops letter on music highlights the preeminent role of chant at Mass. So does the General Instruction. It is also being re-discovered by a new generation of priests. Chant scholas are being founded all over the country and subscriptions to Sacred Music are at a 30-year high. The Church Music Association of America, the roots of which date to 1874, has experienced a revival.
Where can you learn to sing chant and learn about its role in the liturgy? The main venue for this is the Sacred Music Colloquium, this year to be held at Loyola University, June 16-22. It brings together hundreds of musicians who are working in this tradition, so they can learn from experts and from each other. This all-volunteer organization is achieving wonderful things through its dedication to tradition and Church teaching as it applies to music. Who may attend? Anyone who wants to participate in the revival. Those not interested in singing can provide scholarships and help with operating funds for the colloquium. You can learn more — and register — at
On this 100th anniversary of the Graduale Romanum, there is much to celebrate and much to regret. Thirty years ago, no one would have thought that chant would be currently undergoing such a revival. But in this area of Church music, we need to learn to expect and count on miracles; we may be living in the midst of another one.



Jeffrey Tucker is managing editor of Sacred Music and publications editor of the Church Music Association of America. He writes a bi-weekly column on sacred music and liturgy for Crisis Magazine and also runs the Chant Cafe Blog. [email protected]

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