The Birth of the Simple English Propers Project

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This article tells the back story of the Simple English Propers Project of Adam Bartlett--the project that will produce a complete set of propers in English for use in every parish. This is a case study in how a huge variety of influences feed into the emergence of new things in the world of art and liturgy, how a symbiosis of people and events can elicit the emergence of an answer to a need that no one entirely knew existed until it became apparent through a circuitous route.

My excitement about this project is no secret. I think it could result in providing that missing link in current resources for Catholic liturgy: musical settings of the liturgical text that choirs can sing every week. It can become a collection that can truly transform the sound and feel of Catholic liturgy in this country, both in the near term and in the long term.

Bartlett has a praise-music background, playing upbeat popular music in parishes only a few years ago. About the time that the CMAA started putting chant editions online, Bartlett found himself drawn to the chant tradition: its solemnity, integrity, and authenticity. He sought out the mentorship of Fr. Columba Kelly, a chant expert who struggled mightily in the 1960s to provide English settings of chant for use in the postconciliar period. Fr. Kelly's work never went mainstream due to many circumstances of time and place (the champions of English found his work too stodgy and the partisans of chant regarded it as too progressive). But he never dropped his enthusiasm for the idea, and this has been passed to Bartlett through careful teaching and instruction.

Bartlett opened SacredMusicProject.org to make Fr. Kelly's settings available and provide a forum for development of several projects to promote the chant in a variety of forms. Just a year ago, the two of us argued incessantly and sometimes very hotly in private emails about methodology in chant, its rhythmic structure, its production, and much more I won't go into here, but those who know about the old "words vs. music" controversies will be able to imagine the details. At some point this past summer, we both came to a mutual realization: what we were arguing about didn't matter nearly as much as the larger goal of reestablishing the Gregorian ideal.

We set the arguing aside, and in August 2010, we started brainstorming about what kinds of editions of English chant could actually work in a regular parish as a means of transitioning musicians and parishes out of one paradigm into another that is much closer to the ideal.

Later that very month, I attended the Atlanta Archdiocesan Liturgical Music program. My first session went perfectly. It was attended by people who had a preexisting affection for chant, who had CDs at home, who might know a passing Gregorian melody, who had a sense that something was wrong and uninspiring about the mainstream model, and who were ready for answers. It was an extremely receptive crowd.

I explained my understanding of the musical structure of the Roman Rite (people's parts, schola parts, celebrant's parts; propers, ordinary chants, and dialogues). I gave a sweeping history of church music to explain how we found ourselves in the current predicament. I spoke of ways to get from here to there, and otherwise inspired optimism about the future. I then passed out the Parish Book of Chant, a book designed to use traditional Mass ordinaries and Latin hymns to revive interest in the fullness of the Gregorian repertoire.

We sang and sang and it was wonderful. There was a question and answer session that was full of energy and excitement. It was like magic. My presentation ended ninety minutes later, and I received a standing ovation.

My second presentation began, and I began with more confidence than ever, giving the same presentation with more flourish. I continued on and on with the history, the structure of the ritual, the nature of liturgical chant, and more. …