Let’s Bring Back Gregorian Chant

Since Gregorian chant has not been banned, and since most people actually enjoy dabbling in another language once in a while, we might well inject the germs of beauty into our Masses.

Assuming that the words Pope Francis has used in his recent motu proprio urge us to be custodians of tradition rather than wardens or turnkeys, I would like to suggest a second way in which we might be so, within the confines of the Novus Ordo.

I have already recommended that parishes consider, as a prayer after Mass, the Last Gospel, the single most influential paragraph in the history of the world and the words that fuse into one immortal diamond all the flesh and blood of the Christian faith. Here, then, is another recommendation.

When most Catholics hear the phrase “Gregorian chant,” they either have no recollection of it, or they think of the only chants they ever hear: the Kyrie, the Sanctus, and the Agnus Dei for the single Cantus Missa that appears in the hymnal and missal Worship. These are stark, exceedingly simple, quite unlike any other common chants for those prayers, and utterly inappropriate for Mass on any feast day or during the great octaves. That is because they come from the old Mass for the Dead.

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You have read that correctly.

Mrs. Wilfer, in Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, casts a pall upon her family’s ordinary daily life by doing all things as if to the “Dead March” in Handel’s Saul. When she welcomes her husband home from work, it is to the “Dead March” in Saul. When she serves dinner, it is to the “Dead March” in Saul. When she comments upon how the children have been, it is to the “Dead March” in Saul.

Now, the “Dead March” in Saul is a tremendous piece of music, quite fit for the occasion, as it begins and ends with an ominous roll of kettledrums and stark silence. If you are going on a procession to a graveyard, you can hardly do it better than to the “Dead March” in Saul. But there are times in life when the “Dead March” in Saul will hardly do.

It is not too much to ask that when we chant the Kyrie, the Sanctus, and the Agnus Dei outside of the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent, we do so to chants that come from somewhere else than the Mass for the Dead.

I am not merely complaining here. I am making a plea. Since Gregorian chant has not been banned, and since most people actually enjoy dabbling in another language once in a while—think of the delight with which English-speaking children will sing “Frère Jacques”—we might well inject the germs of beauty into our Masses during festal seasons by singing at least the Kyrie, the Sanctus, and the Agnus Dei, and who knows, maybe eventually the Gloria, in the common chants that are lovely and delightful and joyous.

We might start with the delicate and easily learned melodies of the Missa de Angelis, and then go on, stalwart and glad, to the more muscular and efflorescent Missa Kyrie Rex splendens, whose Sanctus, unlike most of the Gregorian prayers, has a range of ten notes—for comparison, that is the range of that fine full-blooded hymn, “Jesus Christ is Risen Today.”

There will be objections. Beauty in our time must always fight for its rightful place, as we are a listless and slovenly people. People will say that Gregorian chant is too difficult. But it is not difficult at all, especially if you have the notes printed before you, as is easily done—a child could manage the printing, with the tools we have. There are several things that make a song difficult. Not one of them applies to Gregorian chant. Let us consider them.

The first is the broad or strange interval. Think of the bizarre octave leap, from one eighth note to another, in “On Eagles’ Wings,” or the seven-note dip followed by a six-note rise, in the same. Most singers in the pews merely drone a vague up or down, if they try to sing it at all. But the intervals in Gregorian chant are almost always a single note or two, as if you were walking and not hopping at various lengths back and forth, and the longer intervals are natural—a fifth or a fourth, so that even if you did not move at all, your note would be in pleasant harmony with the singers who have moved. By my count, of the 145 intervals in the Sanctus for the Missa Kyrie Rex splendens, 124 are only one or two spaces—and that, again, is unusually fancy, so to speak. For the Sanctus in the Missa de Angelis, it is 102 out of 109.

Another thing that makes singing difficult, especially for a congregation, are odd ties or shifts in tempo. If you open a recent hymnal, you can usually tell at a glance which melody-things were composed in the last sixty years. They are the ones lathered with a half note tied to a dotted quarter note—for a count of 3.5, followed by an eighth note; or with two whole notes tied to a quarter note, for a count of 9, or a half note tied to an eighth note, followed by an eighth note and a quarter note, for counts of 5, 1, and 2. 

Real folk music is nothing like that because real folk music is for ordinary people. In this regard, Gregorian chant embodies that “noble simplicity” that the conciliar and post-conciliar documents on the liturgy call for, since its leisurely tempo is simplicity itself. Sometimes you hold a note a little longer, mainly at the end of a phrase; think of a half note instead of a quarter note. Everywhere else, you don’t. That is all.

Then there are sharps and flats and naturals that are not in the do-re-mi scale of the key the song is written in. Some of these are easy for unskilled singers to pick up—the typical and by far the most frequent case can be represented by the second last note of the second line in “On Jordan’s Bank,” to the melody “Winchester New.” It’s an F sharp in the key of C, a B natural in the key of F, and so forth. Well, you don’t get even those in chant. But all kinds of more unusual exceptions are helter-skelter in our contemporary hymns, as if you could get people to sing together to God something as difficult, but nowhere near as clever, as “Mack the Knife.”

Ordinary people like special days, special seasons. The old calendar was filled with distinctions between one kind of feast and another, one season and another. There is no reason why we cannot have a little of that richness back again. Tiptoe into the ocean, little children. No need to sing the same clumsy hippity-hoppity English Gloria all the time, or, when you do chant in Eastertide, to turn to the graveyard. Learn things again. It is not heretical or disobedient to do so.

[Photo Credit: Unsplash]

  • Anthony Esolen

    Anthony Esolen, a contributing editor at Crisis, is a professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts. He is the author, most recently, of Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius Press, 2020).

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