Gregorian Chant: Music of Heaven on Earth

Reposted from our director’s blog

As a boy of 12, I remember our protestant minister commenting on the playing of my friend who was practicing the trumpet. ‘That is heavenly music’ he said with a wide grin. My friend’s satisfaction with the complement was shattered as the elderly man continued ‘it’s of no earthly use!’ What seemed like a remark made in jest, shattered my poor companion – once he had fully realised what it meant, that is.

Some sixteen years later, with experience of diverse musical traditions under my belt and after my conversion to the Catholic faith, I find myself in the privileged position to be directing music for the Traditional Latin Mass. I could ramble on (and probably will, in other articles!) about the innumerable elements of our rich musical patrimony which excite, move and challenge me in this role. I will limit myself here and now to some abbreviated observations of the character of Gregorian Chant as Heavenly Music with much more than an earthly use; the repertoire of chant is the very sound of prayer across the universal Church in each of its states.

We all know from our catechism that the Church is One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic and I will discuss that, as affirmed by the popes and indeed the Second Vatican Council, Gregorian Chant is the native music of the Latin Rite. This is what I term the horizontal unity of the Church across the world in time. This is what we mean when we say that the Church is Catholic, from the Greek meaning Universal.

We also know that the Church is in three states, the Church Triumphant – the Saints in Heaven, the Church Militant – the Church on Earth who continue to battle for holiness against the temptations of the world, the flesh and the Devil, and the Church Suffering – The Holy Souls in Purgatory. I term this the vertical unity of the Church outside of time, in the eternal present of God. The Church calls this the Communion of Saints.

Gregorian Chant: The Music of the Horizontal Church

Gregorian chant has not always been held in high esteem and was indeed lost for many years. In his book ‘The Restoration of Gregorian Chant : Solesmes & The Vatican Edition’, Dom Pierre Combe OSB of Solesmes Abbey describes how the chant of the church was almost lost. Whether it was its replacement by the florid Masses of  Mozart and Haydn, the entertaining operetta style music of the 1800s or the clumsy attempts as resuscitating chant using unnatural rhythm and poor notation, by the time of Pope Pius X, chant had all but vanished. The work that had been ongoing at Solesmes was harnessed when Pope St Pius X set up a commission to restore the chant. The results, after fall outs and arguments, were the Vatican Edition of the Gradual (Book of Chants for the Mass) and the Liber Usualis published by Solesmes. The preface of the 1907 Gradual gives us some food for thought regarding the horizontal unity of the Church’s musical tradition.

‘To avoid divisive differences, and to foster instead the unbroken unity which is a source of both strength and beauty for the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church tries very carefully to preserve the traditions of the ancients.’

Here we see that the same principles which we apply to all aspects of the traditional liturgy apply to its music. Unfortunately, just as the tourist must search for a Mass in his own tongue in 2019, so too he searches for a ‘style of worship’ which suits his personal taste. The universality of the Latin Language and the unity of the one style of music, which transcends the preference of the individual, is an expression of the Church’s oneness.

The chant is integral to the liturgy and not merely an ‘add-on’ and it has roots as deep as the texts.  According to Dr Peter Kwasniewski in his book ‘Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness’, St Dominic, even if offering a private Mass, would always sing the whole liturgy. The antiquity of the chant can be demonstrated with just a couple of examples. Firstly, the ‘Tonus Peregrinus’ used for the final psalm at Sunday Vespers, is thought by music historians to date back to the synagogue at the time of Our Lord. Secondly, Fr James Meacher in his book ‘How Christ said the first Mass’ explains the rounds of sung offices in the synagogue which accompanied the sacrifice and foreshadowed the Divine Office. That is to say nothing of the testimony given by the very early chant books and that the chant repertoire was simplified and formalised for the liturgical year by the 6th century and principally by Pope St Gregory the Great after whom the chant is named. The chant has grown with the liturgy as it is the glove which envelopes and ennobles the texts.

In addition to the universality of the chant, the Church, since ancient times has extolled it, as Pope ST Pius X termed it ‘the proper chant of the Roman Church, the only chant which she has inherited from the ancient fathers.’ (Moto Proprio 1903 Tra Le Sollecitudini) The solemnity, seriousness and perfect form of the Gregorian repertoire touches the human heart and raises it to the things above. A good way to assess a piece of sacred music is the consider the transcendental qualities as a standard. If the music is one, true and beautiful, that is, if the music is consistent, conforms to artistic and scientific principles and exudes beauty and order, then it reflects the beauty and truth of God Himself. When judging new liturgical music it should be considered that the more closely a piece of music resembles Gregorian chant, the more appropriate it is for the sacred liturgy. (Pope St Pius X Tra Le Sollecitudini, 1903)

‘Common experience has shown that it not only adds a certain grandeur to divine worship, but also attracts souls heavenwards in a most wonderful way.’ (Preface, 1907 Graduale Romanum)

Many people are attracted to the silence of the Low Mass, some preferring it to the Missa Cantata or High Mass finding in it a refuge from the clamour and chatter of the regular liturgical experience at present. Although other elements of the tradition include organ music and choral motets, the chant is said to ‘clothe the silence.’ It is a music that is not bombastic or distracting but accentuates the texts of the Mass with a flowing rhythm and gentle melodic shape. The church has even stipulated when the organ may accompany the chant and so the seasons gain another liturgical shading.

In our times, we see recordings of Gregorian Chant topping the classical charts as many people are touched by its inherent spiritual value. The chant itself satiates their thirst for God, or begins to, although they don’t know it. This should give us church musicians and the clergy all the encouragement they need to utilise this tool for evangelisation. Souls roam the world searching for oneness, truth and beauty. Do they find such an integrated experience in our parish churches?

Sacrosanctum Concillium, despite the abuse of its call for ‘actual participation’ confirms that Gregorian Chant should have ‘pride of place’ in the liturgy. Read in continuity with the teaching of Pope St Pius X and Pope Pius XII, this participation is first of all an interior one of recollection and secondly the singing, in Latin, of the Ordinary parts of the Mass by the faithful.

In short, if the tradition of the Church was preserved and handed on in faith and worship, which are inextricably bound together, then the horizontal unity of the Church would be more visible and more readily experienced by the faithful.

Gregorian Chant: The Music of the Vertical Church

On this topic, I will relate but one story to illustrate that the chant is the music of the whole communion of saints and is inspired but God the Holy Ghost.

As a preface I point out that, just as the Holy Scriptures themselves were inspired by God who used human instruments, so too the chants, the texts of which are predominantly from the Bible, have been inspired using human skill and cooperation. Dom Pierre Combe OSB explains that according to the famous liturgist and Abbot of Solesmes, Dom Gueranger, the chant is simply an intelligent reading and understanding of the text. It is the raising of the voice in response to God through which the Church returns these texts to the Father. It is through Lectio Divina using the texts that the sacred melodies have been written and they are, therefore, prayer made audible. This is a significant way in which the Holy Ghost has prayed on our behalf in sighs deeper than words (Romans 8:26).

To the story I promised, that of the apparitions of Our Lady of Good Success. The scene is Quito Equador at the beginning of the 17th Century. Our Lady warned Mother Mariana de Jesus Torres, a Conceptionist nun, of the blasphemies, heresies and abuses that would take place in the church and in society at the hands of bad priests and the Freemasons in the 20th century. The Holy Nun gave herself as a victim for those times. In one of the apparitions, Our Lady asked Mother Mariana to have a beautiful statue of The Blessed Virgin made and to enthone it in the Abbess’ throne that the convent may be under the holy rule and protection of the Queen of Heaven.The faithful nun sourced the finest materials and had skilled artists produce a statue. Mother Mariana told Our Lady with great regret that the statue would not be completed on time but the Blessed Virgin assured her that She and the Archangels would complete the statue.

‘On the night before [the return of the painter from sourcing materials in Europe], Mother Mariana and all the sisters redoubled their prayers, asking Our Lady to complete the statue Herself, as She had promised. In the early morning hours, while Mother Mariana was making her customary prayer alone in the sanctuary, the church was illuminated with celestial lights. The Tabernacle opened and she was given to understand the sublime mystery of the Incarnation of of the Divine Word in the womb of Mary Most Holy. She also realised the infinite love of the Three Divine Persons for Mary, who was present there, magnificent and captivating. Then the Archangels Michael, Gabriel and Raphael saluted the Queen of Heaven…In an instant the august trio followed by an army of heavenly hosts were in the upper choir where the Statue was being made. They were joined bt ST Francis, who with the Three Archangels, transformed and finished the holy Statue…As the heavenly choir sang the Salve Sancta Parens the Queen of Angels, amid this great joy, approached the Statue and entered into it. At that moment the Holy Statue took on life and intoned with the celestial choir the Magnificat.’

We know that the Sanctus is found in the book of Isaiah and would have been recited at the last supper and is recited in Heaven around the throne of the Lamb, and there are other examples such as this. When I read this story, however, I was astounded that the angels of heaven sang the Salve Sancta Parens which I have sung innumerable times – the introit chant for the Mass of Our Lady still sung on ferial Saturdays. We see then that not only is the chant repertoire a treasure of immeasurable value that has been passed down in the tradition along with the rest of the sacred liturgy, nor is it only the music of the horizontal church, it is the very music of the choirs of angels: Music of Heaven on Earth.