Saturday, December 27, 2008
What Is Gregorian Chant And What Role Does It Play In The Liturgy?
What Is Gregorian Chant And What Role Does It Play In The Liturgy?
“Chant” or “plain chant” is a way to sing prayers. The human voices are not accompanied by musical instruments and all the singers sing the same notes. This was the normal method for praying the mass through most of the first fifteen centuries. Nowadays we hear a melody like “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” jazzed up with instrumentation and embellishments, but the bare melody is a ninth century chant. The chant used in the Catholic Church is typically called “Gregorian chant,” because, according to tradition, church music was reformed or at least compiled by Pope St. Gregory the Great (c. 540-604 A.D.) Gregory held that the music of the mass hearkens back to the church’s Jewish roots. Although scholars today contest that it grew out of the synagogue chants of Jesus’ day, one recent study ties the Roman Rite to the ancient Jewish temple rites. Thus chant reunites us with Hebrew praying going back three thousand or more years: the prayers of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the prayers of Annas, Hillel, and Jesus. The first five books of the Acts of the Apostles describe the apostles as constantly praying in temple at Jerusalem. This temple worship came to an abrupt end when, forty years after Jesus rose from the dead, Titus sacked Jerusalem, killed or enslaved the inhabitants, destroyed the temple, and built a pagan city on Zion. Thus as the chants of the priests and Levites were silenced on God’s sacred mountain, the church founded by Peter on the seven hills of Rome was chanting the Christian liturgy first in Greek and, after another hundred years, in Latin. (The Greek Kyrie Eleison is a throwback to the first century mass sung in Greek.)
Gregorian Chant and Vatican II
Perhaps you could begin with: “Gregorian chant makes one think of ancient Catholic worship, or perhaps monks in dark cowls, solemnly singing the prayers of the Mass. While this is at least partly true, the Second Vatican Council specifically requested greater inclusion of chant into the modern liturgy. Our own Latin Rite grew in feasts and song gradually. The biblical building blocks of the mass and the diversity of the liturgical calendar are reflected in Gregorian chant, which is the special musical language of the mass. The Second Vatican Council reaffirmed this musical aptness: “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: the Council’s constitution on the liturgy, ¶116. ) Having the right music for the liturgy is important if it is to achieve its end: “the purpose of sacred music … is the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful.” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, ¶112) One of the reasons the Council Fathers wanted to reform the church’s music is to restore the simple style of chanting that enables the congregation to sing its own parts of the mass. In a real and special way, the Council determined that the congregation has an important part to play in public liturgy, and they should actively sing the Ordinary of the Mass: the Kyrie (Lord have mercy), Gloria, Credo (I believe), Sanctus (Holy, holy, holy) and the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God). In a similar manner, the landmark principle of Vatican II’s Constitution on the Liturgy called for the actual or active participation (in the Latin of the document: “actuosa participatio”) of the congregation: “To promote [actual/active] participation, the people should be encouraged to take part by means of acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons, and songs, as well as by actions, gestures, and bodily attitudes. And at the proper times all should observe a reverent silence.” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, ¶30) This principle grew out of papal support of the liturgical movement. Pope Pius X mandated the reintroduction of Gregorian chant in 1903 and encouraged congregations to sing the Ordinary (the Kyrie, the Gloria, etc.) using Gregorian chant. He used a peculiar phrase in Latin: “actuosa participatio”, a phrase that never appears in classical or Medieval Latin. A careful analysis of its history shows that this, the very phrase the Council used, only occurs before 1963 in certain church documents dealing with Gregorian chant. Thus the phrase is a phrase with a history, a history that ties the Council’s core principle to the century long movement to restore chant to liturgy.
But Why Latin?
Chants exist in English as well as Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, and virtually any language human beings have used to adore God. Many people are “enchanted” with plainsong, the chants of the English Book of Common Prayer. Yet Gregorian chant itself is intricately tied to the Latin language, the tongue of prayer for the West these past two thousand years. There is a symbiotic relationship between the language and the music. This relationship grew from the melodies’ slow development interacting with the scriptures of the liturgical calendar over fifteen centuries. Orally, Latin is specially suited for sacred music. The purity and frequency of the vowels are especially apt for musical expression. Composers, mostly anonymous, over centuries marshaled Latin’s sounds and cadences to bring out the beauty of the scriptures and rites of the liturgy. The simplicity and purity of the sounds lend a special solemnity to the liturgy that is difficult to reproduce in English or many other languages.
Why No Instruments?
Today, when we a popular song on the radio or a CD, it is the industrial product of a small army of technicians and instrumentalists. Chant is produced by the unaided human voice. It is preindustrial music.
Chant helps us gain a new perspective on what the mass is. Some liturgists focus on the mass as a supper and a communal get together. Another meaning of the liturgy is suggested by the word’s etymology. “Liturgy” is based on a Greek word that meant a “public work.” In a very real sense the mass is a type of work, the hard work of worshiping the King of Glory.
Work has changed so much we have forgotten how human beings worked together before the age of machinery. We have forgotten the existential reality of millennia of sweat and exertion. Work is highly industrialized in our world. We either do our specialized tasks to the clang of a machine or we work in silence in paper factories. Admittedly some of our paper factories produce only "virtual paper" as the work is done in the silent isolation of a cubicle.
The norm in our more human past was to sing as we worked. Work was physical and power was muscle power. This dependence on people rather than machines puts a premium on teamwork. Getting team members to literally pull together requires physical coordination: power in line was more than one person pulling together.
Why sing? The melody made men move together. True folk songs are predominantly work songs. In times past, songs unified men in work. This is how gangs of men build the rhythm needed to work in unison. Think of sea shanties. When crewmen were hoisting a topsail, they might sing “Blow the Man Down.” The song coordinated their work. When they sang, “Way, hey, Blow the man down!” each crewmember pulled on the beats, “Way” and “ Hey.”
In the liturgy, the role of chant is to join us in the rhythm of prayer: the common work of praising the transcendent God. The Holy Father chose the name of Benedict of Nursia whose motto was "Pray and Work" (Ora et Labora.) When St. Benedict’s monks sung the mass and the office, they were working just as much as when they tilled the fields with a song in their lungs and hoes in their hands. The divine work in the oratory produced fruit no less than the human work in the fields.
When we chant, the chanting unites the priest, the congregation, and the heavenly martyrs, angels, and saints as they do this divine work, a work that bears eternal fruit.