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The Glory of Chant

By Thomas, David | Sacred Music, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

The Glory of Chant


Thomas, David, Sacred Music


Since early youth I have been moved by the intrinsic beauty of Gregorian Chant. My first exposure to chant came when I attended the funerals of our close neighbors. This young Montana boy, raised in the American Baptist (Northern) tradition, sensed that there was expressed in chant that nature of God we describe as mystical--something connected to a much larger world of time and space--something we can sense and know but not completely define nor possess. That connection between chant and mysticism has never left me.

Now, a few years later, I know that my youthful sense about chant was well-founded. Perhaps by being raised to be respectful of my elders, my respect for chant was only strengthened by the many composers who through time have spoken of this music as the source and basis of their music and of music in the Western world. But the core of my love for chant has been sustained by the actual singing of it and realizing that to sing chant is to pray from somewhere deep in one's innermost soul.

For me chant is the essence of fluidity in sound not unlike the primal oceans which our God created and out of which our human form grew in his likeness. Perhaps we have never left far behind that flowing and ebbing milieu which gave us birth. It seems strange to me, a boy raised to see the majesty of God in the seemingly fixed, firm majesty of the mountains, to also sense the living nature of God as something that swirls over, around, under us. It is this rhythmic, plastic flow and ebb that is the very nature of the moving and tugging which shape our sounds as we bring order to our melody. In this moving sense we participate in a special way with our God in bringing order out of the void or chaos of our inner ear.

Gregorian chant cannot be divorced from the language out of which it grew. If our use of music in worship is to connect a living people to a living God, the music used also must be alive. We must immediately face the question whether chant is part of our historic inheritance (only) or if that inheritance is alive and well and living in our parishes.

Music with Latin text has been used in English language services for generations. However, it can remain a practice separated from its origin. If a knowledgeable respect is not accorded the language, then the music risks being a performance piece and we are open to the charge, often justly, that the choir is only concertizing. This disconnect becomes even greater (perhaps fatally) when the liturgical action on the altar is of a lesser quality than the music.

It can only be the grace of God that has allowed chant to survive the many insults and attempts to bury it alive that we have seen in the last forty years. Contrary to what has often been taught, Vatican II never did away with chant or the use of Latin. Rather, the documents of that Council specifically state that Gregorian chant is to be accorded principem locum.

The chant scholar William Mahrt points out that this is accurately translated as "first place" rather than the weak "pride of place" found in the English translation of the documents. Pastors are told in the documents to see that their congregations can sing simple chant settings of the Mass and participate in Latin. Pastors are requested to see especially that their congregations can say the Creed and Lord's Prayer in Latin so that whenever the Universal Church comes together, it can recite its belief and pray in common.

In 1990 I was sent to an International Congress of Choirmasters in Rome.

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