The Beauty of Gregorian Chant in the Liturgy

01-28-2018This Week in Vidi DominumFr. Will Schmid

This article is in continuation of a series giving a brief overview of the reform of the liturgy and sacred music...

One of the interesting details found in every Church document pertaining to Sacred Music is the emphasis on the significance and importance of Gregorian Chant. It is universally recognized as the music that belongs in a Roman Catholic Church. This is especially true with the Second Vatican Council’s document on the Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) and its implementation document for Sacred Music (Musicam Sacram). The following are some specific references to Gregorian Chant made by these documents:

“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.” Sacrosanctum Concilium, 116

“Gregorian chant, as proper to the Roman liturgy, should be given pride of place, other things being equal. Its melodies, contained in the ‘typical’ editions, should be used, to the extent that this is possible.” Musicam Sacram, 50

“Above all, the study and practice of Gregorian chant is to be promoted, because, with its special characteristics, it is a basis of great importance for the development of sacred music.” Musicam Sacram, 52

As I explained in my previous article, “Vatican II and the Treasure of the Sung Mass,” since the early Church, the sung Mass has always been understood as the fullest expression of the Liturgy. The sung Mass is the model and standard for all Masses. In fact, the various traditional Gregorian modes of the sung Mass at one point in history distinguished the type of liturgical celebration (much like the various colors of the vestments). Particular modes, or scales, were used for different liturgical celebrations and seasons. This meant that when they were commonly utilized at Mass, parishioners could identify the particular liturgical celebration or season based on the modes that were used for the sung Introit (the entrance antiphon).   

In light of the Church’s consistent reference to the importance of Gregorian Chant, it would be good to examine the question, “What is the form of Gregorian Chant?” In other words, “What makes it specially suited for the Roman Liturgy?”  

I offer the following points as an answer to this question:

Gregorian Chant is moved by the Word. In a presentation titled, “The Liturgy: A Song of Love,” given at last year’s Sacred Liturgy Conference in Oregon, Dr. Bissonnette-Pitre said: “Gregorian Chant is a sung Bible because almost all of it is Scripture…Gregorian chant clothes the Scriptures with melody.” Metrical music is governed by its beat, which can usually be counted in repeating groups of 2, 3, or 4 beats. Gregorian Chant, on the other hand, is non-metrical, meaning that its rhythm is regulated by the words rather than "the beat". It has no particular time signature and therefore the music is moved forward by the words.

Gregorian Chant is centered on the present moment. The Evil One constantly seeks to draw us out of the present moment because God works in the present moment. Gregorian Chant, by focusing on the specific Scriptural text instead of repeating rhythm, helps us to focus on the present moment. In other words, it demands our presence (our attention) to the proclaimed words of Scripture. The chant is disturbed when attention is lost for even a single moment.

Gregorian Chant is governed by the liturgical action. On account of its attention to the present moment and the proclaimed word of God, Gregorian Chant is always ordered toward the accompanying liturgical action (what is happening in the current moment) and the reverential worship of God during that particular action. The chant appropriately accompanies the liturgical action because it is the prescribed prayer for that particular moment. For that reason, when the movement stops, the chant usually stops (either in unison or shortly after), whereas a hymn must normally continue until it comes to a natural end so as to avoid an abrupt conclusion.

Gregorian Chant highlights the human voice. Its purest form is unaccompanied by musical instruments, emphasizing the human voice as the primary instrument of the Liturgy. Gregorian Chant involves a gentle rise and fall of the human voice (avoiding large skips and leaps) and it is never rushed, so as to maintain a prayerful cadence. It stretches out the words to encourage meditation so that we can “chew on” the Scripture it proclaims.

Gregorian Chant is emotionally balanced. It doesn’t “charm” you or impose a particular emotion on you. It does not seek to draw attention to a particular musician or singer. It does not “entertain” or “overstimulate” or show “exaggerated exuberance.” Rather, it demands a synchronization of voices; submissive to the prayer.

In fidelity to Sacrosanctum Concilium’s vision for Gregorian Chant within the Liturgy, the Church developed two official books of chant that preserve the ancient Gregorian modes of the Roman Rite: the Graduale Romanum (revised in 1974 for the Novus Ordo - “the new Mass”) and the Graduale Simplex (originally published in 1967 and revised in 1975 for the Novus Ordo). The Graduale Romanum is the traditional Latin chant book designed for typical Roman Catholic Churches, whereas the Graduale Simplex contains simplified Latin chants for smaller (mission-style) churches.   

Adam Bartlett, a contemporary American Catholic musician, after many years of prayer, study, and hard work, developed a book of English chant (the Lumen Christi Gradual) rooted in the Gregorian modes found in both the Graduale Romanum and the Graduale Simplex. This particular book of chant allows for a beautiful fusion of the traditional Gregorian modes with the prescribed English Scriptural texts. These are usually the chants that we sing at St. Mary Magdalene Parish for the Introit (the Entrance Antiphon), the Responsorial Psalm, and the Communion Antiphon.

Although Gregorian Chant is universally recognized as the music that belongs in a Roman Catholic Church (see every Hollywood movie scene set in a Catholic Church!), it is rarely the music that one encounters in a Roman Catholic Liturgy. Unfortunately, Gregorian Chant is all too often only heard in Catholic Churches when played from a CD in order to create a prayerful ambiance before Mass or during confessions. Why not create this same prayerful ambiance during Mass with the talented human voices of our parishioners? Why is it the “go to” music outside of the Liturgy, but not during the Liturgy? Although Gregorian Chant is unfamiliar to many of us, it is a beautiful part of our rich Roman Catholic heritage and it is the most suitable music for fulfilling the purpose of the Liturgy.

We live in a culture that has lost the meaning and value of words, and struggles greatly to remain in the present moment. It is a culture where many feel like they have lost their voice in the midst of overpowering human emotions. Maybe a little Gregorian Chant is exactly what we need to overcome some of the challenges of today’s world.