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Holy Spirit Interactive: Arlene Oost-Zinner and Jeffrey Tucker: Chant Leaves the Ivory Tower

Chant Leaves the Ivory Tower

by Arlene Oost-Zinner and Jeffrey Tucker

In November 2006, Francis Cardinal Arinze, the head of the Congregation for Divine Worship, came to St. Louis, Missouri, the home of the musical revolution of the early 1970s, and delivered a blunt message to American parishes. “It is not true that the lay faithful do not want to sing the Gregorian chant,” he announced. “What they are asking for are priests and monks and nuns who will share this treasure with them.”

His comments go to the heart of the objection that one is most likely to hear when it comes to reform in liturgical music, namely that chant is for experts and snobs, not common people in the pews. Cardinal Arinze, by virtue of his position in the Curia, was speaking on behalf of the pope.

Gregorian chant is “marked by a moving meditative cadence,” he said. “It touches the depths of the soul. It shows joy, sorrow, repentance, petition, hope, praise or thanksgiving, as the particular feast, part of the Mass or other prayer may indicate. It makes the Psalms come alive. It has a universal appeal which makes it suitable for all cultures and peoples.”

Cardinal Arinze continued to explain that the Second Vatican Council did not do away with chant, but rather the opposite: It sought to universalize it in the Roman Rite. He cited Church documents, Canon Law, and the writings and speeches of popes. He urged every parish to use it, for theological, artistic, and pastoral reasons. His speech was inspiring, sweeping, and unmistakably clear: Parishes are the rightful home of chant.


The Great antiphon "O Sapientia" for 17 December sung by the Dominican student brothers at Blackfriars in Oxford in 2006.
Click here for more O Antiphons.

Parishes Take the Step

Encouraged by new writings, a new push from the Vatican, and a growing sense of how tiresome liturgical folk music has become, many parishes around the country are discovering Gregorian chant, or at least taking the first steps in that direction. The National Registry of Gregorian Scholas, maintained by the Church Music Association of America, has 140 scholas listed to date, most of them formed within the last two years. Workshops on chant are not only proliferating; they are filling to capacity months in advance.

But new scholas quickly find that mastering the music requires more rehearsal time than they might have thought. And this is not the only or even the most significant challenge, which involves all the considerations that are lumped together under the category of “pastoral,” since it is not only the schola that is learning but also the celebrant, the parish leadership, as well as the congregation. There are huge barriers to overcome, and doing so requires hard work and decisive leadership.

The challenges are large enough, in fact, that Michael Joncas, in his influential book From Sacred Song to Ritual Music (OSB, 1997), wrote that he seriously doubts that chant could ever make a return. Many agree. But here they are as wrong as those who doubted that the Jewish people could ever regain Hebrew as a working language. Enough love of the Faith and the medium in question can and does make the difference. Together they can make a language speak and sing again as an integral part of Catholic liturgy.

Consider the point at which we are beginning this journey. For many decades, Gregorian chant has largely been the province of two sectors: performance art and academic specialization. In art, chant made a notable resurgence in the 1990s in a series of high-quality recordings of monastic singing that soared to the top of the sales charts. It might be tempting to dismiss this event as little more than a temporary fad for new-sounding mood music to be consumed by a generation raised on New Age spirituality. And yet such a dismissal is too quick. While it is true that its text and purpose were probably lost on many who purchased the music, it still provides a window into the sound of the sacred that one is unlikely to find anywhere else in the culture. It also gave a boost to the emerging market for recordings of 16th-century polyphony. The marketing of chant contributed to a greater emphasis on “authentic” performances that integrated chant propers with polyphonic motets and ordinary parts of the Mass for a complete liturgical reconstruction.

As beautiful and wonderful as many of these recordings are, they can also serve to intimidate singers at the parish level, leading people to believe that this music can only be sung by professionals or monks, not by average musicians. Only the wealthiest of parishes can afford to hire specialists to sing week in and week out, and so they would seem to have no choice but to continue what they are currently doing.

There is a further problem with contracting out sacred music. In order for chant to be a part of parish life again, it is not enough that people hear specialists alone demonstrating its glories. This can introduce the danger of a performance ethos to the chant. In order to truly take part and feel a sense of ownership, people must involve themselves in the singing, or at least develop a spiritual appreciation for what is taking place. A greater integration of the work of the schola and the congregation is required.

Out of the Ivory Tower

As for academia, chant has remained a narrow specialization for many decades. The emerging consensus among most academics has not been favorable to a restoration of chant in liturgy. These specialists would rather write and study as a purely academic exercise. For a musicologist to be a partisan for public performance is to expose a bias that supposedly cuts against academic distance.

What’s more, for decades academics have been severely critical of the old restoration efforts undertaken by the monks of Solesmes, which, with their rhythmic markings, are the one viable source for chant editions available to average Church musicians. It presumes that the rhythm and notes of chant are accessible to regular people and provides a method by which anyone who can match pitch can sing chant in his or her own parish. The method worked well for a century and continues to be the basis of chant in liturgical music.

But the academic fashion for semiology—the science of signs—has claimed that the rhythmic signs of the old Solesmes scholars have no strong historical basis, and that rigorous scholarship must once again return to the earliest possible manuscripts. There is no fixed rhythm to chant, they claim, and the chant cannot be read from current editions. In effect, this means starting from scratch.

Absurdly, the findings of the semiological school are sometimes invoked as the reason—or, rather, the excuse—for why parishes should not attempt to sing the chant. And because there are very few editions available that accord with the findings of semiologists, singers are left with no editions at all. The irony is palpable: Higher criticism and detailed scholarly investigation are being used to discredit any attempt to revive Gregorian chant, and the word “semiology” is being tossed around as the catch-all excuse for being satisfied with a substandard status quo. A recent issue of a widely read liturgical planning guide cited this reason to support the idea that parishes must continue to use contemporary music, at least or until semiologically correct editions are produced.

A Method for All Time

The Solesmes method, which rightly gained the official approval of the Vatican, was developed with a specific purpose in mind. The goal of the turn-of-the-century restoration was to re-enliven the music for use in liturgy, not merely to develop critical editions for scholars. The use of the rhythmic markings, the choice of chant editions to use, and even its original typography (at once medieval and innovative) served this purpose. The goal was to create a universal standard so that singers from all over the world could gather and read and sing the same musical language. In this respect, the restoration was a spectacular success, and the results have never been more useful than they are today.

When Solesmes began this restoration, chant editions were in disarray, and had been for two centuries. In setting out to restore them, they had loftier goals than merely transcribing tenth-century manuscripts. They wanted to elevate them and point to a new and more perfect ideal. This goal is wholly justifiable. When one goes to visit Jefferson’s home, do we really want to see it as it was when Jefferson lived in it, or do we want to see it as he imagined it could be, with gardens in bloom and mechanical parts that work? So it is with chant editions: What Solesmes created is more glorious than anything that had existed previously.

This is where the semiological critique of the older Solesmes school misses the mark. The official editions of chant that we have today are not designed primarily for academic use. They serve the purpose of keeping larger groups of singers together so that the chant can be more beautiful. In this respect, the method is brilliant and essential for parishes today. Whether the editions precisely re-create the chant style of the tenth century—which we are not really in a position to say either way—is beside the point, especially for music that seeks timelessness.

But there is another issue: Most parishes are missing the appropriate artistic sensibility that is a precondition for consistent use of chant in line with what the Church is asking of us.

The Sound and Feel

The most dramatic change that comes with a step toward chant, whether in English or Latin, is due to the sound and feel of “free rhythm” as opposed to the metered rhythm of contemporary (and this includes 19th-century) hymnody. The metered style is grounded in a strict beat, such as that found in any popular music. The free-rhythm style of plainchant has an underlying pulse but it is not forced into blocks of three (as in a waltz), four (as is most typical), or five (yes, some contemporary standards use music in 5/4). Free-rhythm style permits the music to take flight and lifts the sung prayer in a vertical way as it is presented at the altar of God.

The Christian choice of unmetered music is not an accident of history. “It would seem as if the first Christians deliberately avoided poems in meter,” writes Adrian Fortescue in Pange Lingua. “They must have been familiar with them. Both the Greek and the Latin languages had an abundance of lyric poetry before the time of Christ. It would have been easy to write religious verse in those meters. But they did not.” And why? Fortescue writes that metered music and poetry were associated with worldly concern and didn’t reflect the worshipful piety and freedom of the Psalms.

And what did the early Christian sing? “There is no doubt as to what he sang, in the first place. He sang the Psalms of David. Christians had one book that was, at first, their whole literature, the Bible. . . . They sang the Psalms, of course, in Greek. To them psalms were what they are to us, prose divided into short paragraphs. So in awe they sang the threatening Psalms; when they were joyful they sang the happy ones . . . . None of these verses shows any trace of meter in the Greek.”

It takes only one listen to discern the musicological difference between metered hymns and plainsong. What the early Christians intuited turns out to have dominated the large part of Christian history: We have always sung with prose that is untied from strict meter. The goal of the community in its sung worship has not been to bring about toe-tapping but to lift up our hearts, away from worldly concerns into heavenly ones. We sing plainsong rather than toe-tapping music for the same reason that the Eucharistic prayer is in the form of poetic prose rather a memorable limerick. The former is more fitting for elevated worship.

From Theory to Practice

Today, however, most parishes need to be re-acculturated into this free style of singing music, and an excellent place to begin is with English chant in the core of the people’s parts in the ordinary of the Mass. This is arguably a more important first step than taking on the issue of language or anything else. People must again develop an association of free rhythm with Christian worship. The Sanctus is the ideal beginning. A setting such as the following provides an excellent entry point to the sound and feel of free rhythm:

This tune is the most basic of all English settings, the one found in the Sacramentary.

Chant has a weightlessness to it that points heavenward. Its tune and style place the worshipper in a fitting mode of prayer precisely at the point in the Mass when it is most essential to leave time and enter a liturgical eternity. A setting such as this prepares the faithful to undertake more difficult settings in Latin (the Church has provided 18 settings of the ordinary chants for the faithful to sing).

The simplicity of this chant, especially sung unaccompanied, is palpable; it illustrates how holiness and solemnity in liturgical music can be achieved without the complications of academic debates. This takes the intimidation element out of the far-reaching agenda of Cardinal Arinze. It further illustrates how music can and should be another means of prayer, an extension and lifting up of the spoken word.

The next steps take us through the Agnus Dei, the Kyrie, the responses of the people, and to simple settings of the proper parts of the Mass. The congregation can begin learning traditional Latin hymnody, and the schola can explore the eternal glories of the Solesmes edition of the Graduale Romanum. There are years and years of practice and exploration here, always striving toward a new and fitting ideal.

That is no small point. The ideal is what provides the incentive to push forward and the benchmark against which the practice can be measured. We must be clear on this point: What is at issue here is not the introduction of chant as a means to achieve greater “diversity” of style within the parish. The case for chant has nothing to do with appeals to this or that interest group and its aesthetic preferences. Liturgy is an act of the people directed to God, not the “community” and its particular interests, as in Babel. What gives us a sense of community is not our earthly identity, tastes, and preferences but our common goal of worshipping God.

This is why the Church speaks of Gregorian chant as having “primacy of place.” It is the ideal against which all other music must be measured, and the perfection of the goal we should strive to achieve. It preexists and extends beyond liberal and conservative musical tastes and thereby bypasses that dead-end debate entirely.

And what of the problem of skill level? During Advent last year, some cloistered nuns made their singing of the O Antiphons publicly available. They were beautiful but imperfect. Indeed, there were moments in the recording in which some sisters missed the notes completely. Yet the sister who made it available wrote that they are not embarrassed by the imperfections, since “we know that the angels fix our mistakes and make our music perfect before presenting it at the throne of God.”

What a beautiful image. It brings two points home: First, the music we sing in liturgy is heaven-bound, always and ever directed toward the goal of presentation at the throne of God. The sound, style, feel, and text of the music, then, must be fitting to that goal. Second, it shows us that it is possible to have ideals without the ability or even the opportunity to perfect them. Our gifts to God will never be perfectly suitable, but that doesn’t mean that we should despair. We must proceed with courage and hard work to do what Cardinal Arinze is asking, to work toward the ideals mapped out by the Church—not only since Vatican II but since the earliest years of Christian music-making.

There is no reason to wait for the cathedrals to give direction or for the bishop or the pope to intervene with mandates. Genuine progress in this regard begins right at the parish level. Here is the home of simple Christian folk doing something truly beautiful for God.


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