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Gregorian Chant: “Pride of Place”

Look up “Gregorian chant” in just about any current dictionary or encyclopedia and you will see a description that says it “is the liturgical chant of the Roman Catholic Church.” Notice that the tense of the verb “to be” is in its present form of “is.”

What Should Customarily Be?

The definition doesn’t place Gregorian chant in the past tense and tell us that it “was” a liturgical chant that we Catholics long since forgot. If it is our current liturgical chant, isn’t there something odd in the fact that so many of us Roman Catholics never hear it at Mass?

Redemptionis Sacramentum (RS) is an instruction issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacrament. This instruction was developed to help stop abuses in the liturgy and it reiterated the right every Catholic has to truly sacred music in the liturgy. “It is the right of the community of Christ’s faithful that especially in the Sunday celebration there should customarily be true and suitable sacred music…”(RS 57).

Although many of us see little or no evidence of it, the Church holds a high preference for Gregorian chant in the Mass. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM 41) states that “Gregorian chant holds pride of place because it is proper to the Roman Liturgy” [emphasis mine]. Again we note the tense of the verb “to hold.” Rome could have said “once held.” But they didn’t. They said “holds.” There goes that present tense popping up at us again.

Some think that Gregorian chant was swept out the door by Vatican II. But Vatican II never swept Gregorian chant away. The real truth is that Vatican II preferred Gregorian chant. The Vatican II document Sacrosanctum Concilium (116) stated that “the Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as especially suited to the Roman liturgy; therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services.” This past December, Monsignor Valenti Miserachs Grau, President of the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music, explained the problem: “Gregorian chant has been unjustly abandoned and its place in the life of the Church should be recovered” [emphasis mine].

Choirs of Angels

I’ve waited expectantly for Gregorian chant to recover its place at Mass in response to Rome’s instruction. The way that I look at it, if Rome has a preference for it, well, then I prefer it, too. It seemed for a while that Gregorian chant wasn’t going to come to me, so I went to it. I asked for and received CDs of Gregorian chant at Christmas.

So now I was in the odd situation where I was hearing Gregorian chant at home, but not in church. That was until one Friday night during Lent at Stations of the Cross. I knelt before the tabernacle to pray before the start of Stations. And that is when I heard it. First it echoed through the church. Then it echoed through my heart and soothed my soul with songs so lovely and so joyous that that there might well have been choirs of angels singing and lifting me upon their wings for flight. This sacred music lifted my prayers to a higher plane.

But it did more than that. It rooted those in the church with a solid sense of spiritual unity and rich tradition. At one point, I glanced quickly around at fellow worshipers. With faces all aglow and sparkling eyes, they let me know with approving nods that their joy was equal to, if not surpassing mine. Because Gregorian chant is the traditional music of the Church, it unites us to the Church. This unity was there that night at Stations because an individual in church said yes to Rome, and in saying yes to Rome, thus said yes to Christ. Just as Our Lady surrendered all to God in her “fiat” (“let it be done to me according to thy word”) and Christ surrendered all to God at Gethsemane (“Father, not my will but Thy will be done”), so we are called to surrender everything to the Father — even the music that we play in church and at Mass.

The Banal or the Holy?

Gregorian chant opens the door between heaven and earth and rather than bringing the world into the church (which some pop Christian music can) it lifts us up toward heaven. Our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI (then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger) expounded on the problems with pop music in his book, The Spirit of the Liturgy: “Pop music…is aimed at the phenomenon of the masses, is industrially produced, and…has to be described as a cult of the banal” (p. 148). And because it is banal, no matter the good intent, pop music can stifle our yearning for holiness and block our journey in spiritual depth.

Unlike popular music, Gregorian chant is not banal. It is holy. And because it is holy, it helps make us holy. Gregorian chant is named after Pope Gregory I, and is part of our rich Catholic heritage. The sacredness of this music has stuck to the church and helped to transform the souls of saints through the ages. Just as the sacredness of this music has stuck to the church, so it sticks to the soul.

There is lots of fun and lively popular music at youth conferences and conventions in this modern age. Such music can come and go at almost anybody’s whim. Sometimes this lively music is transported to the church building, before the Tabernacle of our Lord, during the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. In an interview from Rome, Francis Cardinal Arinze, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, gently reminded us that the music we find at youth conventions is different from the music that we sing in church. He had this to say of singing and musical instruments at Mass:

The local church should be conscious that church worship is not really the same as what we sing in a bar, or what we sing in a convention for youth. Therefore it should influence the type of instrument used…. People don’t come to Mass to be entertained. They come to Mass to adore God, to thank Him, to ask pardon for sins, and to ask for other things they need. 

Surrendering to entertainment and popular music is easy. Surrendering to Christ and Rome is not. But who said Christianity was easy? Rome has given plain instructions that Gregorian chant ought to hold “pride of place” at our Catholic Masses. For love of God — and for our Holy Father, the bishop of Rome, who cares for us so tenderly — let’s show our loyalty to Rome. Let’s demonstrate that loyalty by restoring Gregorian chant to its most proper “pride of place” in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

©2006 Mary Anne Moresco


Mary Anne Moresco is a Catholic wife, mother and writer.  Prior to her current vocation, she worked as a market researcher, editor and manager for a major corporation.  She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Master’s degree in Corporate and Organizational Communications.


  • mahrt

    The designation “pride of place” is the usual translation of the statement from the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council. In the original Latin it is “principem locum,” better translated as “principal place.” I understand that the General Instruction on the Roman Missal for the new translation will use the term “main place.” “Pride of place” seems a bit honorific, when it really means that Gregorian chant is the foundation of the church’s liturgical music and to be sung regularly in the liturgy.

  • Chant is difficult to sing well. I’ve even heard it sung badly in a monastery. I’ve sung it well, too, with a group I belonged to in Seattle – and we practiced, and practiced, and practiced to get it right.

    What to do when your parish liturgist has a country-western drawl and prefers strumming the guitar? Is there even hope for change short of firing almost every liturgist and music director in the country, and starting over? There is today a lot of momentum for the popular music that most parishes have. How do we begin to change?

  • Mary Anne Moresco

    We need the Bishops to lead us by ensuring that the choir directors are properly trained. There are places in the U.S. where directors can go for proper training. The Church never meant for directors to do whatever suited their latest fancy.

    The notes in chant are easier to sing, and thus should be easier to sing well. Although I have never heard chant sung badly, if it were sung badly it would still be preferable to much modern music of today. Chant is naturally prayer-like. Because of its nature it can’t be confused with entertainment. And entertainment is one of the biggest problems in the Mass today. Mass is about entering into Christ’s sacrifice–not having a good ‘ole time. Chant more effectively roots us in the Sacrifice.

  • I should refine my statement about the difficulty of singing chant. Basic chant with a single melody line can be sung by anyone. More complex forms of polyphony can be difficult, but I suppose no more difficult than the 4-part harmony most choirs are capable of. To really nail it takes lots of practice but then that’s true of anything.

    Yes, I’d join the group that would prefer bad chant to most anything being sung today.

  • Mary Anne Moresco

    Well then bring on the single melody chant then. The issue can be worked not just from the Bishops down but from the bottom up. That means, with Church teaching on our side, we can ask our pastor if we could introduce chant to at least one Mass, and send someone for proper training. This person could then teach and educate others. We can also start educating parishioners by providing information on sacred music to them. We can also write our Bishop requesting chant at the Masses. Working from the ground up, there is much that could be done.
    http://musicasacra.com/

  • HomeschoolNfpDad

    Chant seems difficult because few ever practice it — and much of it is in Latin, which has different pronunciation rules than English. However, when it comes to technical difficulty, chant is far simpler than many of the songs commonly sung at Mass. However, unlike many such songs, chant is very difficult to simplify from its common form. The best way to explain this is to recount a conversation my eldest son and I had recently about rock-n-roll music.

    This was a discussion centered purely on the technical aspects and marketing strategies of the various bands. The gist of the conversation was this: rock-n-roll music essentially comes in two different varieties. The first variety is pure banality. Simple 3- and 4-chord sequences that anybody with more than a couple months’ guitar experience can play passably. The other variety comes from bands like Pink Floyd or Selena y los Dinos. There are several others, but these are the two I know best. This music can be subtle and complex, mixing technical aspects from various genres into a single, coherent whole. Good bands can reproduce the music in its original form. But only good bands can do this. The authors therefore publish and market sheet music versions of their songs which reduce the complexity down to the 3- and 4-chord patters that our guitarist of 2-months’ experience can reproduce. This is done to sell. That is the primary purpose. And it is not a bad purpose.

    The rock-n-roll discussion amounts to an analogy of all popular music. The good stuff is designed by the authors so that it can be simplified for beginning musicians, while better and more experienced musicians can (and do) play all the subtle complexities in the original work. The genuinely good modern liturgical music falls into this category. A choir/band that plays the genuinely good stuff in its original form is actually doing something much more technically complex than chant. Not more beautiful. But certainly more complex.

    The bad-stuff, unfortunately, is little more than a collection of 3- and 4-chord sequences in its original form. There is nothing subtle or complex about it. Often, there’s little redeeming value, either. But I digress.

    Chant is different. The simplest chants will often include not just chord sequences but scales and arpeggios, each alternating with the other and often in combinations that defy any rendering in the common chorded-up sequence that many guitar bands expect. I once tried writing chords for Salve Regina, but it never quite worked. There are things in there that just don’t fit, like G-F# combinations on the same note, or polyphonic combinations that go off in opposite directions. Then there are the pauses that are commonly added but are rarely marked in common music notation. A lot of chant allows for this — indeed that’s part of the very notion of “plainchant,” meaning a choir can render the meter in slightly different ways if this is desired. Such a level of liberality is almost unheard-of in the tightly controlled meter of modern music, where the relentless count marches on with little change to the velocity or spacing of the meter. Chant, on the other hand, allows for it — even seems to encourage it. It’s like every line has an unmarked fermata — or not — and without someone to provide direction (or lots of experience in the choir and congregation), it can be easy to get lost.

    But on purely technical ground, such music is easier to sing — at least easier than the good modern stuff, with all the subtle complexities actually noted in the complete score. And the effective way to simplify chant is not to simplify the apparent F#m chords to D. or anything similar. Rather, the best approach is to have the entire choir sing the melody. Ignore the polyphony until the choir gets the basic melody down. At that point, the different voices can be added back in. Meanwhile, take full advantage of the plainchant aspects. If there’s a tough transition, make it a real pause, so that the choir can prepare itself to proceed.

  • Mary Anne Moresco

    It would also be greatly beneficial if Catholic universities and schools would teach chant to the students.

  • noelfitz

    I think two different things are being discussed here. The original article is about Gregorian chant.
    But PH wrote:
    Basic chant with a single melody line can be sung by anyone. More complex forms of polyphony can be difficult, but I suppose no more difficult than the 4-part harmony most choirs are capable of.

    Polyphony is not Gregorian chanty.

  • HomeschoolNfpDad

    Not necessarily two things being discussed, but perhaps. Polyphony is just an older term meaning “many sounds.” The modern terminology includes things like harmony and descant for specific types of polyphony, as well as terms like contrabass, bass, tenor, alto, soprano, and sopranino for specific ranges of polyphony. But Noel is absolutely right: Gregorian chant typically includes polyphonic aspects, but it is not necessary to include the polyphonic voices in order for it to be chant. Moreover, other varieties of music also incorporate polyphony. Notably (but not exclusively) the orchestral music that rose out of the liturgical tradition of Pope Benedict’s own Bavarian region of Germany is polyphonic, traditional, and beautiful. But it sure ain’t chant.

    A brief article that speaks of the orchestral tradition is available at http://www.adoremus.org/0603Chorale.html

  • noelfitz

    HomeschoolNfpDad

    thanks for saying I was right. But I think you did not get my point, so maybe I was not right.

    I was trying to say Gregorian chant is not polyphony. A definition of it or plainsong is monophonic liturgical music without strict meter and traditionally sung without accompaniment.

  • HomeschoolNfpDad

    Well, that does seem to be a bit of a quibble, Noel. Per the definition you provide (which is, of course, the historical definition), one would define as Gregorian chant a rendering of “Victimae Paschali Laudes” in which the entire choir began on Mi and continued apace throughout the whole song. Then, one would be required to define as “not Gregorian chant” a similar rendering of the same song in which the choir split its voices to Mi, Sol, Si, and (high) Mi — and continued with four voices throughout.

    Does it not seem a bit more reasonable to say that “Victimae Paschali Laudes” remains Gregorian chant even when the choir sings with four voices? Perhaps polyphony remains a good idea even when mixed with the (traditional) unison of Gregorian chant? And the chant owes no less to St. Gregory the Great for the harmonic voices?

  • noelfitz

    HomeschoolNfpDad
    I agree with what you say about my bit of a quibble.
    I often have little quibbles. They are not important, what is important is our faith, and in it there is no room for bits of quibbles.

    I do like to get discussions going here and to do this one often needs to be a bit pedantic.

    Basically, if there is polyphony there is not Gregorian chant.

    Would you like to listen to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zf2MGsLSCBE ?

  • mahrt

    Polyphony is quite different from Gregorian chant, but it derives from it. Much polyphony incorporates Gregorian melodies, either as a main melody standing out in one voice (cantus firmus), or as carried by each voice in turn (imitation). There is good reason that the papal and conciliar documents give a special place to polyphony.

    On the other hand, accompanying chant with chords is not really polyphony, and I agree that the intrinsic harmonies of Gregorian melodies do not accommodate chordal harmonies well.

  • noelfitz

    mahrt,

    it is good to hear from you. Many thanks for contributing here.

    I hope we will get many contributions from you to our discussions.

  • Michael Cooney

    It comes with great serendipity that I stumbled upon your post today. I just wrote an article addressing this. http://cooneystudio.com/2013/05/timeless-music/

    Would love any response or input you might have!