The Year of English Chant Propers

Article excerpt

There are parishes where the pastor has said to the schola or choir: no Latin under any circumstances, not even for the propers that the schola aspires to sing. They can chafe and complain about this edict, or they can find a workaround, still using music of the Roman Rite while employing the vernacular. Before very recently, this was a tricky proposition but in the last year or so, everything has changed. There are now six sets of English propers online, either complete or on their way toward completion, and available for immediate download at no charge.

One set is provided by Fr. Columba Kelly, O.S.B., a monk of St. Meinrad Archabbey. He was a student of chant in Rome, having studied under Dom Eugene Cardine, receiving his doctorate in 1963. He began setting chant to English following the Second Vatican Council, and especially following the 1965 missal issued in the United States that contained propers in English. He saw this as a way of preserving the Gregorian melodies and sensibility within a new time in which chant would have pride of place in the liturgy. It was a way of mediating between the demands to preserve the treasure and for people to be more involved in the musical experience of Mass. He retains the modes of the Gregorian while adjusting the melodies.

In these years, his settings have mostly remained as the private possession of the monastery. But the recent announcement of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy that it would now permit royalty-free digital distribution (1) inspired a devotee to create a website containing a compilation of his chant settings. (2) They are reductions of the Gregorian and composed to capture the sense of the original, retaining the mode but offering a melodic structure that could be sung by the people in time, especially if the antiphon is repeated following psalm verses. He offers entrance, psalm, Alleluia or tract, and communion.

Here, for example is his setting of Cantate Domino, introit for the Fifth Sunday in Easter in the new calendar.

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It shares an overall melodic similarity (at least to my ear) with the original, but the melismas are kept to a minimum and used only on vowels and in places that lend them themselves to elaboration.

Fr. Kelly's settings, which use the missal texts and not the texts from the Graduale Romanum, include entrances, psalms, Alleluias and tracts, and communions for all Sundays of the year. They are written in square notes with four-line staffs, and thereby provide something of a pedagogical bridge to eventually embracing the originals. The calendar he uses is for the ordinary form.

Another set of English propers online was published in 1964, and seem to be driven by the same motivation as those of Fr. Kelly's. However, they are assembled according to the demands of the extraordinary form of the Mass (1962 missal). The book was published by the World Library of Sacred Music, and edited by Rev. Paul Arbogast. (3)

Here is the same chant from above, the mode changed from VI to I.

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One of the most distinctive projects is the American Gradual compiled with loving care by Bruce Ford. (4) He has preserved the Gregorian melodies in their original modes for all of the propers, and he has done this for good reason. These are the most wonderful melodies ever written. They are bound up with the history of the Roman Rite. They have inspired musical elaboration for many centuries. They capture the sense of the text in a beautiful way. Even in English, they are worthy of preservation.

It goes without saying that a critical part of the musical information is lost in translation. The words cannot match the melodies. And English is an awkward language to set to melismatic chant, given the hard endings to words. But Ford overcomes the obvious limits with sensitivity to the text.

What I especially appreciate is how these are highly useful for some circumstances where the Latin propers are not possible, and yet their structure is always working to point to the ideal. …