Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Give Gregorian Chants Another Chance

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Give Gregorian Chants Another Chance

Article excerpt

I was a Franciscan postulant in New York City when I first learned to sing in Latin. The "Agnus Dei" was easy to pick up. The "Salve Regina," which we often sang at compline, was trickier. I still remember how the formation director, Brother Wait, would motion to me with sharp gestures to sing softer because I was throwing the rest of the friars off-key.

Though I left the order before taking simple vows, a Mass does not go by without the "Agnus Dei" reverberating in that nebulous region of my mind that spans memory and imagination. There is something otherworldly about both melody and language that emphasize a mystery and grandeur missing from most liturgy today.

Often feeling part of a musical minority in a parish full of avid St. Louis Jesuits fans, earlier this year I was delighted when I heard that the Benedictine monks of Spain's Santo Domingo de Silos monastery transformed the Gregorian chant into an international best-seller. In less than a year, the monks' platinum recording has sold nearly 2 million copies and topped both classical and pop best-seller lists.

The Gregorian chant is no stranger to public acclaim, however. Millions of Roman Catholics over countless generations have practiced their faith with the melodious intonations of the chant echoing in the background.

The Gregorian chant's namesake lived and pontificated in the late 6th and early 7th centuries. Pope Gregory the Great's actual role in the chant's infancy is questionable since the earliest recognizable scores in the Gregorian tradition date to about two centuries after his death. However, generous scholars postulate an oral tradition that may well date back to Saint Gregory, who is said to have codified the church music of his day into an organized compendium.

Rome's official stance on Gregorian chant was clearly spelled out at Vatican II. The council pronounced that the chant "should be given pride of place in liturgical services." Though this pronouncement has gone largely unheeded in U.S. Catholicism, the Gregorian chant is nonetheless intimately tied to Catholic culture and spirituality and is irreplaceable by the more modern songs that prevail in Catholic parishes today.

Sung in Greek, Hebrew, sometimes English, but mostly Latin, Gregorian chant is "wedded to the sacred texts" of Christianity, says Father William Mahrt, professor of music at Stanford University and director of a choir that sings Gregorian chant at Mass every Sunday at St. …

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