Friday, May 25, 2012

The Truth About Gregorian Chant

 “What does Sacrosanctum Concilium 116 really say?” asks Fr. Z, and in answering his own question he has some interesting thoughts to share on Gregorian chant. Be sure to read the entire article. Here are some excerpts and a little commentary:

First, the Council said that Gregorian chant was the characteristic music of the Roman liturgy. That fact has been entirely ignored. Also, the very purpose of liturgical music has been obscured. It is not simply ornamentation or accompaniment. Sacred music for liturgy is prayer, it is liturgy. Therefore, the idiom of the music must be appropriate for liturgical action and the texts must be liturgical texts and sacred texts. This has been widely ignored for a long time, with the result that there is great confusion and shoddy music everywhere.
He notes that the common translation of SC 116 is: “The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services.” But true to form, Fr. Z informs us that

This isn’t a bad translation, but it is weak. To my ear it doesn’t convey the force of the vocabulary which sounds like legal language having to do with property, possession, heredity. This is a powerful declaration about something being a prized possession, even the most prized of all, since it is in the “princeps locus” the “first/chief/most distinguished place”.

Fr. Z gives his usual excellent analysis of the Latin words and their appropriate translation within the context of the whole sentence. He concludes that the Church is very serious about the importance of using Gregorian chant in the Mass:

The Council Fathers weren’t fooling around. They wanted to make this forceful and clear by using a construction that emphasizes the character, the nature of chant, and then producing a conclusion, all using juridical language.

…When we read SC 116 “latinly”, it says that, barring something out of the ordinary, Gregorian chant is the first type of sacred music that is to be used in the Roman liturgy, because the Church claims and acknowledges and declares Gregorian chant to have the “first place” among all legitimate types of sacred music. Just as when a father recognized a first-born son that son became the principle heir, to be preferred over even all other legitimate children, so to the Church places Gregorian chant in the first place over all other types of sacred liturgical music. At the same time, there are rare occasions when something other than Gregorian chant can be used.

He then gives us his rendering of a translation more true to the Latin:

The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as characteristically belonging to the Roman liturgy, with the result that, therefore, other things being equal, in liturgical actions it (Gregorian chant) takes possession of the first place.

That’s a much stronger statement, and Fr. Z concludes (my emphases):

If you aren’t praying with Gregorian chant, 50 years after the Council, then you are 50 years out of step with the Council mandated in the strongest terms.

The Council Fathers in Sacrosanctum Concilium go on to talk about the use of other kinds of music and they provide a welcome flexibility. But none of those other provisions eliminates or supersede or mitigate what SC 116 says.

And here is a most important point:

In other words, we shouldn’t justify the use of Gregorian chant. The Church has done that for us. We have to justify the use of something other than Gregorian chant.

In other words, it clearly goes against Vatican II to continually employ guitars, piano, and tambourines at Mass. Gregorian chant utilizes no such instrumentation. The guitars, etc., should be a rarity, not the standard fare at Mass!

Help is available for anyone seeking to learn Gregorian chant, and for anyone seeking to understand how Gregorian chant is properly used in the Mass. Contact Stephanie Swee at for more information.

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