Over the next 3 months, I have at least 4 different presentations on the topic of liturgical chant and its connection to the new translation. These are presentations that I am more than happy to have to work on, as I think back to only 4 or 5 years ago. Would I have thought then that I would be talking to groups of Music Directors, Cantors and Clergy about how to best incorporate chant in our regular parish liturgies? Not because it is a pet project of mine, or because it happens to be what is called for by the music documents of our Church (including the most recent USCCB document on music, Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship).
No, I’m speaking on this subject because it is what is now expected of us as church musicians concurrent with the implementation of the new translation. I remember thinking how nice it would be if that were ever to happen, having the Church expect us to use chant at Mass, but I certainly don’t remember expecting it to happen so soon.
But times change, and with them our expectations must change also.
Ever since the unhappy coincidence of an increasing use of vernacular at Mass and the decreasing use of Gregorian chant in the liturgy going back to a number of years prior to Vatican II, there has been the persistent and mistaken perception that Gregorian chant was “done away with” or even “banned” by the documents of Vatican II. This impression is closely related to the also mistaken notion that Latin was “banned” by the Council, an idea that is easily refuted by an even cursory reading of Sacrosanctum Concilium. Both of these ideas have begun to run their course with the increased awareness of the liturgical music of the Church and the heritage of Latin in the liturgy. There is perhaps no better example of this awareness than the new translation of the 3rd Edition of the Roman Missal and the musical settings that have been composed as an integral part of that translation.
But the new translation and the chants that accompany it also raise some questions about the eventual direction that we are headed in. Not too many years ago, Gregorian chant meant specifically Latin chant, and there is a not small number of advocates out there who are hesitant to call these new vernacular chants Gregorian chant, preferring instead the more generic term “liturgical chant” or just plain “chant”. The English language settings of the Ordinary are adaptations of actual Gregorian melodies - the Kyrie from Mass XVI, the Gloria from Mass XV, the Credo III, the Sanctus and Agnus Dei from Mass XVIII. Many of these choices might seem obvious as they are the most well known settings from the Gregorian repertoire, but the choice of these particular melodies might be for another less obvious reason.
We find in Sacrosanctum Concilium the following oft-quoted passage:
“Steps should be taken enabling the faithful to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass belonging to them” (SC, no. 54).
And it is this passage that is referenced in the 2006 document Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship when it calls for the following:
74.The Second Vatican Council directed that the faithful be able to sing parts of the
Ordinary of the Mass together in Latin.70 In many worshiping communities in the United States, fulfilling this directive will mean introducing Latin chant to worshipers who perhaps have not sung it before. While prudence, pastoral sensitivity, and reasonable time for progress are encouraged to achieve this end, every effort in this regard is laudable and highly encouraged.
75. Each worshiping community in the United States, including all age groups and all
ethnic groups, should, at a minimum, learn Kyrie XVI, Sanctus XVIII, and Agnus Dei XVIII…(SttL, #74-75)
And so, leading up to 2006 the objective was to pursue the singing of the Ordinary in Latin using the Gregorian settings indicated above. But then in 2008 or so, rumors began circulating that ICEL was busy working on a set of English-language chants to accompany the new (and somewhat delayed) translation of the 3rd Edition of the Roman Missal, the so-called “ICEL Chants” which then began making their way around the internet. It was not that big of a surprise then that the settings used for the English language chants were exactly those that were indicated in Sing to the Lord as being those which were to be eventually sung in Latin.
What exactly is the final objective then? Is it to preserve the use of chant, whether in English or Latin? Is it to preserve the use of Latin through the medium of chant? There is another detail that might give a clue to the answer.
The new missal, when published, will include these English language chants for certain. But it remains to be seen whether the Latin originals will also be included as an alternative. The set that is posted online at the ICEL site includes the Latin versions of the Gloria, Sanctus and Agnus Dei as alternative versions to the English settings. Will these be included in the actual Missal? Will they be included in commercially published worship booklets? If not, then why were they offered as alternates in the ICEL project?
It seems to me that the eventual objective is to strive for the ideal set forth in Sacrosanctum Concilium – “to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass belonging to them”. But the obstacles to that ideal have been great, and an effort to re-introduce the sound of chant back into the liturgy would be a first step in overcoming perhaps the biggest obstacle of all.
The combination of chant and Latin is a difficult sell in many places, but how about chant in English? That easily puts to rest the argument about understanding the meaning of what is being sung, leaving only an objection to the musical style of chant itself, a less successful argument to be sure. The new translation makes necessary the learning of all new settings anyway, and the ICEL chant settings then become one setting among many. But they also have an advantage…they are the first settings to be approved, and they are required to be included in the Missal itself, and as the primary setting in all commercially published music booklets.
And so we can foresee a situation in the very near future where chant, albeit in English, will be heard for the first time in a long time in many parishes in the English speaking world. And that’s the first step. Many Catholics, including many young Catholics, will be learning the traditional Gregorian melodies of these parts of the Mass. And then there is the considerable and growing body of English language chant settings being newly composed and distributed online, many of them at no cost. These will begin to be heard in many parishes as well. How difficult would it be, from that point, to introduce the Latin settings of chant?
I’m curious to know whether the Latin alternates will be included in the Missal along with the English settings as that would be a very telling sign about the direction we are heading. If anyone out there knows the answer to that question, I’d like to know. Otherwise I’ll have to wait until October for our new Missal to arrive.