Music Matters: Chant
Chant. It is maybe one of the most divisive words in liturgical music. However, I am fully optimistic that it doesn’t have to be. Before we unpack that statement a little, it may help to have a baseline understanding of what chant is, and its historical use. There are three things that set chant apart from other music we sing at church: meter, harmony, and sound. Chant is non-metrical, meaning it can’t be broken down into “beats” like a hymn could- you couldn’t clap a regular pattern on top of it. Chant is a single melody, not meant to be harmonized. While it may be accompanied, singers generally would not add other lines as in choral music or hymns. Thirdly, it doesn’t adhere to the same system of “keys” we know today. Simply, it sounds unique, and often ancient and otherworldly. More on that later.
While the history of chant is complicated, it can be summed up generally in this way: it is the ancient music of the Catholic Church, in common use since the 7th century. Popular legend would have it that Pope St. Gregory the Great had a large role in codification of the oral chant tradition, leading way to the term “Gregorian Chant.”
I believe there are many reasons why chant is still relevant today, and should be included in any music program. It can have a variety of appeals that vary from person to person. For example, if authority is your appeal of choice, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (which tells us how Mass is supposed to be said) states that “The main place should be given, all things being equal, to Gregorian chant, as being proper to the Roman Liturgy.” If historical appeal is your thing, then it’s safe to say that chant is something uniquely Catholic that has influenced many other types of sacred and secular music. In fact, every college music history course will undoubtedly begin with a study of chant. Because of its noble simplicity, chant can often induce a state of relaxation or contemplation that may appeal to some.
However, I wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t acknowledge some shortcomings of chant. While chant can be in Latin or English (to a newly composed melody), many see it as being incompatible with the post-Vatican II vernacular liturgy. That’s why whenever our choir sings chant, I include a translation in the worship aid for comprehension, and often we end up singing the translation subsequently. While most chants are too complicated for a congregation to sing, there are some that are simply learned and retained- think of the “Alleluia” that is sung every week! As long as chant isn’t completely replacing congregational singing, it can still be a valuable part of the liturgy, especially for those who prefer their “active participation” that Vatican II calls for to be on an internal level, rather than external. Bad performance of chant has led to the impression that it is somehow “lifeless,” “dirge-like,” or “dry.” In my experience, when chant is properly performed, it can be representative of the entire array of human emotions, much like any other music. I will always strive for performances of chant that are full of life--as I hate dirges just as much as anyone.
At the end of the day, maybe you just don’t prefer chant. That’s okay. But, it’s important to challenge those preferences. Why do you feel that way? Is Gregorian chant too wrapped up in the “culture wars” of Vatican II? Has it ever been implemented in a non-pastoral way? Perhaps it has been sung like a dirge in the past? Challenging some of these human issues surrounding chant can help us cut through any emotional baggage we may have and see it in a new light, perhaps a divine one.
At the end of the day, I think we can all agree that the Mass is something that should elevate our souls above everyday life. And that is why I do chant. Like it or not, you won’t hear it anywhere else--it is something that connects us with thousands of years of Catholics before us, and hopefully generations to come. It has the power to lift us out of the popular sounds of our culture and sets the stage for a true foretaste of heaven. Isn’t that something we all want?