Friday, December 2, 2011

Why We Should Use the Propers

First, a reminder for those who don’t remember what “propers” are: they are the chants that the Church chooses to be sung for a particular Mass. (Yes! There is “official” music for the Mass, and it can be found in the Graduale Romanum!) The propers are the chants to be used as the introit (entrance antiphon), the gradual (the response after the first reading), the Alleluia verse, the offertory antiphon, and the communion antiphon.
The GIRM (General Instruction for the Roman Missal) has been updated in 2011, and there are some changes in the wording the emphasis placed on the official chants of the Church. Jeffrey Tucker at The Chant Café made some observations about this back in July. See that link for his full post.
Mr. Tucker noted that:
Some of the most advanced thinkers in the world of music and liturgy have long identified the critical problem in Catholic music today. They have pointed out that the Mass itself provides for the texts and the music for the Mass, but in the General Instruction on the Roman Missal, there appears a loophole. Musicians can sing what is appointed, or (“option 4”) they can sing something else, and that something else is limited only by what the musicians themselves deem as “appropriate.” What this has meant, in effect, is: anything goes. This is why it often seems that when it comes to music at Mass that, well, anything goes.
But with the new 2011 GIRM, some of the ambiguity has been resolved, and the liberal interpretation used up till now is no longer valid. For example, here is the GIRM section concerning the introit (entrance antiphon):
48. This chant is sung alternately by the choir and the people or similarly by a cantor and the people, or entirely by the people, or by the choir alone. In the Dioceses of the United States of America, there are four options for the Entrance Chant: (1) the antiphon from the Missal or the antiphon with its Psalm from the Gradual Romanum, as set to music there or in another setting; (2) the antiphon and Psalm of the Graduate Simplex for the liturgical time; (3) a chant from another collection of Psalms and antiphons, approved by the Conference of Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop, including Psalms arranged in responsorial or metrical forms; (4) another liturgical chant that is suited to the sacred action, the day, or the time of year, similarly approved by the Conference of Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop. (emphasis added)
In the 2003 GIRM, options 3 and 4 used the word “songs” instead of chants. The change of words indicates beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Church wants us to use chants. There’s a reason for this! The Church does have some wisdom, after all! The Catholic traditions we have are not based on caprice or fleeting whim. And a good summary of those reasons is given by Laszlo Dobszay in his 2003 book, The Bugnini-Liturgy and the Reform of the Reform:
The Proper chants are imbued with a special kind of poetical power, which is lacking in strophic poetry, even in its most wonderful hymns. The chants of the Proper announce the great truths of Christian doctrine and liturgical theology, in most instances without direct didactic persuasion, and without decorating the teaching with lyrical ornaments. They are “poetical” by speaking with the vocabulary of the Bible, i.e. with adapted words. In a certain sense, they resemble similes, chiefly when they quote from the Old Testament. The theological truths are transmitted, and yet – concealed in their intimacy. Simple words and images are, as it were, dropped into the mind of the listener, where they come to light; figurative speech becomes reality in prayerful silence. (p. 95)
The propers have power! But for that power to be manifested, we have to give them a chance. We must open our own minds to that power by actually singing them. Musicians can begin that process by actually following the directives of the Church (as expressed in the GIRM), and beginning to use the proper chants in the Mass. There are many resources for using them, including the Simple English Propers – a great place to start. The book is available to buy, but you can also download the chants for free here.
For a long list of resources go here.

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