Why Do People Want to Learn Chant?

It was my great fortune to be asked recently to substitute teach a master class on Gregorian chant. The event was the Church Music Association of America’s Winter Chant Intensive. The original instructor for the men, David Hughes, became very ill—vale of tears!—and another great conductor, Richard Rice, was called upon to teach the men among the attendees.

But there was a day until the real teacher could arrive, which allowed me the chance to come and teach and get to know some of the attendees. There were forty in total but the program was filled to capacity weeks before the official closing of registrations—an experience that has been typical of the last few years. Chant instruction is in high demand.

Think of this. These are people who have decided to take a full week out of their lives just to go to class to study chant. The coursework is not expensive but the time is. They came from all over the country too. It is a very difficult program. It is rightly named: very intense. But you leave with the ability to perform a new art specifically for liturgy.

We have been encouraged of late to examine the motivations of those who are seeking to become part of the solution in their parishes. A recent argument made by Audrey Seah, a 2012 graduate of Saint John’s University School, for the blog Pray Tell, offered some speculations.

The sheer instability of the postmodern world, speculates Seah, rattles people to the point that they take recourse to “arbitrary authoritarian sources such as tradition.” “The result is a false and shallow objectivity,” Seah writes, “that manifests itself through partisan support for particular interpretations of liturgical aesthetics and obsessions over the letter rather than spirit of the law.”

Now, this is interesting. Nothing like this was present among the people I met at this great event. They were both men and women. They were both young and old. They had different national origins. Even a variety of faith traditions were present here. None of them seemed especially rattled by postmodernity and none seemed to be irrationally seeking out “arbitrary authoritarian sources.”

On the contrary, the main emotion I saw was love—love for the faith, for music, and for beauty. In other words, it is exactly what you might expect. Only love could drive people to take on this task. The letter is important, yes, but the spirit is what motivates and inspires.

As I told people at the opening, agreeing to this task is pretty courageous. The goal of the week was to learn to read new notation, point psalms, learn a new musical language, sight read music from thick and complicated books, blend with others, master new vocal sounds and approaches, as well as discover for the first time the place of music within the musical structure of the Roman Rite of Mass.

Learning is hard. It is never for the faint of heart. Music is especially hard. It is far easier to rest on one’s laurels and congratulate oneself for the hymns you sing week to week. Moreover, there is not usually any money in learning to sing chant. There are no chant jobs available like there would be for a singer. You get no real bonus points from anyone. The pastor is not usually pushing very hard for the change.

The notion that anyone would do this because of fear strikes me as…implausible. I saw fear on no one’s faces. I saw exactly the opposite. They were excited. They were fearless. They were dedicating themselves to making a change toward the good.

As musicians, they want to contribute their talents toward the improvement of the liturgy. They want to take part in making liturgy more beautiful and true to itself. They want to be part of the real thing. They are tired of substitutes for the real thing. They know that the only reason they are not singing chant now is because they need to acquire the skills. So they set out to acquire them as a way of making a greater contribution to the great liturgical project.

Plus, these people can read Vatican II. They know what the documents say. They are aware that there is some music that is tied to the ritual and other music that is just tacked on. They would like to do their part to fulfill the hope of the Council by singing the actually music that is integral to the liturgy.

Simple, right? I think so. It is also inevitable. The Roman Rite craves chant. It cries out for its use. It is the most natural and normal music. When it is not heard, when it is not part of the rite, there is something serious missing. You only need to hear a chanted Mass one time to sense it. It just belongs.

I admire the people who set out to learn and make chant part of their contribution to the life of the faith. They are bold, progressive, courageous, and they often take this task on at great personal expense. They do it because they know that the faith is calling on singers to do their part.

It is no more or less simple than that.

As usual, I had some sense that the most valuable thing I taught them was the musical structure of the rite itself. This is what begins the process of understanding the task that confronts musicians. We brought plenty of copies of William Mahrt’s book The Musical Shape of the Liturgy. This is the book that puts it all together.

Studying this musical structure, you discover that the celebrant has a special role. The people have a special role. And the specialized musicians have a special role too. It goes beyond just leading the people. The traditional responsibility of trained singers is to sing the propers of the Mass, the passages from scripture that are part of the liturgy at the entrance, the chants between the readings, the offertory, and the communion. Each chant has a different function and sound. And each makes a special contribution to make the liturgy more noble and true to itself.

It is a huge responsibility but people take it on because it is such gratifying work. We play a small part in carrying the chant tradition from the past to the future. It is not about “performatism.” It is about using whatever talents we have to enhance the prayer life of the Church through her liturgy.

Editor’s note: The image above entitled “Christ Surrounded by Musician Angels” was painted by Hans Memling in the 1480s.

Jeffrey Tucker


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. Jeffrey@chantcafe.com

  • It was an awesome week!

  • JP

    Thank you for this Jeffrey.

    I read Seah’s article and just scratched my head. I want to learn chant, and as you pointed out, fear has nothing to do with this. The liturgy I grew up with made no mention of Latin, or chant, but somehow the need for it worked its way into my consciousness with no coercion whatsoever…until I read those documents. Then the pressure mounted.

    I am not afraid of the Church but I want to do (and teach others to do) what is best for her and what she asks of us. That is it. No modern liturgical/psycho babble needed to understand that.

  • Several years ago, a group of Russian Orthodox monks visited my parish and sang during the Sunday Mass. Anyone who has heard such beauty and power, and thinks that anyone is attracted to it out of fear, is someone I deeply pity.

  • Stella

    I’ve been teaching myself chant for about three years – YouTube, free downloads of Liber Usualis and various books and articles have been my materials, as well as websites that focus on chant. I just read and explore, read some more, explore, buy and download books and music, listen to chant and decide, ‘I’d love to be able to sing that!’ find the music and set to it. Various people I’ve ‘met’ online have been most helpful in pointing me to books and CDs or even sending me notation for some piece that I can’t find online.

    Where does this love of chant come from? When I was about 8 years old, I heard my uncle and other monks at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky chanting vespers (only I thought it was ‘whispers’, having never heard the word ‘vespers’ before) and I was enchanted (is ‘chant’ the root word of ‘enchantment’?). I never thought about chant again until it became popular when a ‘Chant’ tape surprised everyone by its popularity. I didn’t buy the tape, just remembered what I heard in the monastery and thought how wonderful it would be to understand what the words meant, and to be able to sing like that.

    I think that childhood experience of the beauty and mystery of chant planted a seed that lay dormant for a very long time. I have nightmare flashbacks to the horrors of ‘folk masses’ from my childhood; one only has to begin humming ‘Kumbayah’ or ‘Lord of the Dance’ for me to cover my ears and grovel for mercy. But chant… it just raises the heart and soul to God, it transports with beauty – it would be unnatural not to want, somehow, to enter into that beauty. Isn’t that at least part of our natural desire for God – the desire to enter into a beauty that transcends and transports us?

    I have no teacher (I live in Central Europe as a foreigner and barely speak the local language). So it is challenging, and I’m sure that there are aspects of it I will not master without a teacher. But I don’t let that stop me from learning as much as I can. The more I learn and practice, the more my ‘musical brain’ develops – it becomes easier all the time. My ‘chant goal’ right now is to finish learning everything in Jubilate Deo: I already know about half of it.

    I’m not a music director; I’ve only had high school choir and a few semesters of beginner piano when I was in college, as well as a few semesters of beginner’s Latin. It’s highly unlikely I’ll ever lead a group chanting an entire Mass, though I have chanted the Easter and Pentecost sequences in Latin at an English Mass here a few times; and just chanted Asperges for the Baptism of the Lord, because our organist was absent. I’m blessed to have priests (at our English Mass) who were trained in Latin and who usually love the chant, and an organist, too, who is happy to add a Latin hymn to adoration or do Parce Domine during Lent and Rorate (popular here anyway) during Advent.

    But even if we never end up having Latin throughout the Mass, I’ll carry on learning chant. I do this for the pure love of it. It’s beautiful music, that’s one thing. But the best part is the moment when it all comes together – when I’ve got the music in my head, I’ve got all the words pat, and what has been a musical/linguistic challenge suddenly becomes a prayer. That’s really what I do it for… for the moment when I can stop ‘trying to remember the words’ or concentrating on the notation and – as happened today for example with the Angelus I’ve been working on – the chant just flows forth as prayer. It is just pleasure and joy and prayer.

  • Excellent article, Jeffrey. Thank you.

  • Leigh-Anne Rogers

    Why didn’t you have some chanting to listen to ?

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  • SK

    “Learning is hard. It is never for the feint of heart.”

    Oops: It should be ‘faint’. ‘Feint’ is a noun or intransitive verb, not an adjective, and refers to a sham attack or a pretense. (Yes, I’m an English teacher.)

    • John200

      It’s just a homonym or, perhaps, a mere typo. It fooled no one.

  • JC

    I always enjoy Jeffrey Tucker’s writings. It’s gratifying to know that I’m not alone in my appreciation of chant. The question is, why do so many people, some of them professional liturgists and musicians, hate chant?

  • hombre111

    As a seminarian in a seminary run by a Benedictine monastery, I sang Gregorian Chant for ten years. I also attended weekly Masses in the monastery, which exposed me to Chant sung by faith-filled experts. I still listen to Chant well sung. My problem with the usual conservatives who push for chant in the local parish is that they do it so badly. If they would take a week off and go somewhere to learn how to sing it well, I would love it. Until they do, I cringe whenever I hear them murder a very challenging art form.