Let the People Sing: Gregorian Chant for Congregations

By Treacy, Susan | Sacred Music, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Let the People Sing: Gregorian Chant for Congregations


Treacy, Susan, Sacred Music


Efforts must especially be made to restore the use of the Gregorian chant by the people, so that the faithful may again take a more active part in the ecclesiastical offices, as they were wont to do in ancient times. (1)

T his exhortation from the 1903 motu proprio of Saint Pius X is well known to many people, yet from time to time one hears it said that the faithful are incapable of singing most of the ordinary chants of the Mass, or that even if they do sing, they are incapable of a performance that is worthy of the sublime art of Gregorian chant. Further, some have even said that Saint Pius X was ill-advised to recommend that the faithful be allowed to sing the ordinary chants because there is no proof that the congregation sang them in the early church or the medieval church. For now I shall postpone addressing these objections, but here I shall make a beginning at presenting some ordinary chants that most people can sing at Mass.

In parishes where Gregorian chant is sung by the faithful, perhaps the most commonly sung chants are Sanctus XVIII and Agnus XVIII. Add to these the equally simple Kyrie XVI, the Credo III, and Gloria VIII, and you have what is often called the Missa Jubilate Deo, because of their inclusion in the chant booklet Jubilate Deo, issued by Pope Paul VI in 1974. Gloria VIII also belongs to the so-called Missa de Angelis, probably the most popular chant ordinary of the last century. William Mahrt has quite rightly made the point that the Kyrie of this particular set of ordinary chants, with its somewhat melismatic melodies of later composition, has been loved and sung by people worldwide, thus indicating that somewhat ornate chants are not out of the realm of possibility for the typical parish. (2)

Mahrt has written eloquently about Kyrie XI (Orbis factor) and its suitability for congregational singing. (3) No less suitable are the other chants of Mass XI, designated to be sung on Sundays per annum. (4) Gloria, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei XI, while not as nearly repetitive as Kyrie XI, do have certain characteristics that make them relatively easy to learn and remember, and that can establish these beautiful chants as a regular part of parish liturgies. All the chants of Mass XI are either mode one or two, which means that they share the same finalis--re--and that thus they have some of the same melodic characteristics and modal sound.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

This mode-two chant does not use the entire plagal range of la-la, which surrounds its re final. In fact, its range is rather narrow. The lowest note of the chant is do--one note below the finalis--while the upper la is touched only once, at its close ("in gloria Dei Patris"). Otherwise, the highest note is sol, making the operable range of this chant a perfect fifth. David Hiley has classified this Gloria as a "recitation type," a melody that "is dominated by a single recitation note with neighbouring tones, delivered in a highly inflected, elevated manner which raises them above the level of, say, the introit or communion psalmody heard elsewhere in the mass. Ends of verses are often marked by cadential flourishes." (5) Gloria XI is a "northern version" of a melody from southern Italy, (6) and features--as do a number of Gloria chants--melodic formulas that are repeated and varied. The most striking such formula is the one that opens the chant and consists of an upward leap of a fourth (re-sol) followed by a stepwise descent to mi, a "flip" (podatus) up again to sol, a descent to re, an ascent to the recitation tone fa, and a final descent to re, the finalis. Seven different phrases either feature or begin with this same melodic formula. There are other turns of phrase, as well, that are used several times, for instance the cadential formula re-do-mi-fa-mi-re-re. (7) So much melodic repetition makes it easy for a congregation to learn this chant.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Another mode-two chant, Sanctus XI encompasses the entire range (la-la) of the mode. …

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