Gregorian Chant Series – Elevating our Liturgical Experience
Gregorian Chant Elevates our Liturgical Experience
When at Mass the priest sings, “The Lord be with you,” and the congregation responds in song, “and with your spirit,” they are performing Gregorian chant, because those holy texts are an essential part of the Mass.
Gregorian chant is named for St Gregory the Great (590-604).
When performed by a choir, the chants are typically sung in unison without rhyme, metre or musical accompaniment, with the tones rising and falling in an unstructured fashion.
Gregorian chant became the music of the mature Roman rite, said Timothy McDonnell, a composer and conductor who lectures at the Catholic University of America.
What distinguishes the chant from other sacred music is that the songs are vital to the liturgy.
Text Focal Point of the Music
It’s one of the reasons the chant is traditionally sung a capella in plain, monophonic tones, Mr McDonnell said, making the text the focal point of the music.
Singing has been a part of the liturgy since the early Church, and music was seen as enhancing the sacred texts — St Augustine noted that when we pray in song, it’s almost as if we’re praying twice.
But it’s Gregorian chant that is the earliest form of liturgical music written and preserved for the historical record, Mr McDonnell said.
While the chant is named for St Gregory the Great, “Most historians think it’s Pope Gregory II (715-731) who formulated the body of chants that we call Gregorian chant,” he added.
“Gregorian chant can be incredibly involved, with a high level of artistic value. At the same time, much of its beauty resides in its simplicity and accessibility,” Mr McDonnell said. “Anybody can learn to sing some Gregorian chant.”
Gregorian chant has had periods of intense popularity and eras when it receded, he said.
“In many cases, it was things like the fall of cities, including Rome,” Mr McDonnell said.
“In the 15th century, Rome was in ruins, so the culture of Rome had to be rebuilt,” he said. “Whenever you invest in the cultivation of sacred things, the art grows again. So, we saw Gregorian chant flourish again.”
However, in the 16th century, Renaissance polyphony, with its elaborate texturised harmonies, became the dominant music in the Church, Mr
The chant underwent another revival in the early 20th century with Pope Pius X. In 1947, Pope Pius XII encouraged active participation by the laity, further reinforcing Gregorian chant.
Then, the switch from the Latin Mass to the vernacular after Vatican II in the 1960s prompted most parishes to favour musical forms similar to popular culture, Mr McDonnell said.
Later, in the 1990s, an enormously popular album recorded by the Benedictine monks of Santo Domingo de Silos in Spain, titled Chant, was released, once again renewing interest in the practice, he said.
Though Gregorian chant isn’t the principal force in parish life that it once was, Mr McDonnell said that if history repeats itself, it’s in the recovery stage and could once again become a Church music staple.—Chaz Muth, CNS
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