A Fix for Catholic Music

Jeffrey Tucker

There is a sense in which everything is nobler when sung. It would never occur to us to light the candles on a birthday cake and parade into the room while reciting the words: happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday, dear John, happy birthday to you.

John would probably suppose that this was some kind of cruel joke.

People often miss this point when thinking about the Mass. In contrast, the Fathers of Vatican II understood the ennobling power of music. They reasserted in the Council documents the Church’s view that music is critical to liturgy because it assists in making liturgy more beautiful and therefore more fitting for the praise of God.

This is why, for example, music appears again and again throughout salvation history, whether in the dramatic prayers of the Psalms, the songs of the angels at the birth of Jesus, or even when Jesus cried out on the cross. Drama and meaning are enhanced by music. Can we even imagine Heaven without it?

Catholics in particular have an astonishingly noble history in music. It is the Church’s tradition that formed the basis of Western music with Gregorian chant in the first millennium. Catholics invented the first form of staff writing so that music could be transferred across time and space without memorization. In fact, Catholics dominated music for the first 500 years in the second millennium and gave the world what is called the treasury of sacred music. This tradition belongs to the Church and we must reclaim it for use in every parish.

What we lack are three crucial ingredients: inspiration, direction, and a practical plan for getting from here to there.

If I were to pick one word to describe the present state of music in the Catholic world, I would choose tedium. Nothing new ever happens. The repertoire is mostly from the 1970s, with some 1980s elaborations, but in a style that is dreadfully dated by popular standards. It is particularly pathetic that much of this music depends heavily on the sound and feel of people who want to be inspired by the “groove”—yet the music demonstrates a chilling lack of inspiration. Most of this material does not play itself; it sounds unusually boring in the hands of bored musicians.

The hymns are chosen before Mass from the usual standbys, as if there were nothing more to Catholic music than flipping pages and pointing. Why even bother to rehearse? It’s no wonder that pastors don’t want to spend any more time or resources on the music program than what they currently spend. What do they expect to get that they aren’t getting now? Is there anything to be excited about? Anything to learn?

Inspiration is precisely what the discovery of the Gregorian tradition provides. You only need to know one antiphon and feel the way the Latin works so beautifully for the singing voice in order to gain this inspiration. This music touches something deep within all Catholics and all the more so when we come to realize that this is the music that developed alongside the Catholic liturgical structure as an integral part of it.

There is so much of this music—vast quantities for every liturgical purpose—that it overwhelms us with astonishment at what we’ve been missing and how much we don’t know. Even the slightest effort toward learning music pays very high returns. One chant can transform an entire Mass. We aren’t just singing tunes; we are singing part of the Mass itself. The style and text fit precisely, and we can know with certainty that we are doing what’s right.

What’s the point of doing anything in life unless we feel some inspiration to work at it and do a better job? Catholic musicians rarely benefit from such motivation because they are mostly unaware of the demands that the liturgy makes on them. They do not understand the musical structure of the Roman Rite and their role within it. Once they become aware of it, they also become aware of their awesome responsibility and the work it requires.

Let’s suppose for a moment that being a priest involved nothing more than putting on a collar and reading out loud from a book. Would anyone be seriously interested in taking on this task or committing his life to it? The more a task demands of us, the more we are willing to put into it. If musicians knew what the Catholic liturgy truly demands of singers and organists, they might respond by devoting more time and energy to the task.

Sacred music, then, helps musicians do a better job of what they aspire to do as musicians. What’s especially interesting is the effect of chant on parish culture. Sometimes musicians fear a revolt by the people in the pews, but I’ve found precisely the opposite. Many people long for chant. People who have never known chant at least have a tacit understanding that it belongs as part of Catholic worship.

Many people find themselves intimidated by the sheer volume of sacred music that is available, but rather than being overwhelmed, this realization can provide a direction and goal that is completely lacking without it.

Look at the settings available for singing the ordinary chants of the Mass: the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus/Benedictus, and Agnus Dei. The Church has provided us with eighteen full settings of these chants, plus many additional ones to be used at the discretion of the singer. They are all structured so that the people can sing them. These are not chants for specialists but for everyone.

In Catholic history, there have been whole parishes that knew them all. Reports from the nineteenth century suggest that widespread knowledge persisted from the middle ages into modern times.

Restarting this tradition is not easy. It takes commitment. Even if the music director at a parish were to start learning them today, it could take ten to twenty years, or even a few generations, before all eighteen settings were widely known among regular parishioners. Yet just knowing that these settings exist provides that crucial sense of purpose and goal for one’s work in a parish.

In addition, there are five proper chants for each Mass throughout the year: Introit, Gradual, Alleluia, Offertory, and Communion. This is all music that belongs as part of the Mass itself. This is the reference point when the documents of Vatican II speak of chant as having a primary place in the Mass. All of these propers are found in the book called the Graduale Romanum, a version of which is The Gregorian Missal available online or from the Solesmes monastery and dealers who carry their books.

To open this book is to discover a glorious thing: here is the template for music at Mass. It is not weekly hunt-and-pick process but rather a process of working toward singing the music of the Mass itself. To know this is to give direction and purpose to our efforts, and every bit of work that we do builds on previous efforts and points the direction toward more.

This knowledge and awareness help us economize on our practice time. Why spend hours and hours learning the newest praise chorus, only to have it go out of fashion next year, when we could be spending time on chant, music that we know for certain will be in fashion long after we have left this earth? To expend one’s efforts on sacred music is to engage in investment rather than consumption.

It can be a tremendously exciting thing to regain that sense of mission about singing and to see the goal in sight. And what is that goal? I propose we should aim for the ideal of a full Gregorian Mass. Not all parishes will achieve this—perhaps only a few will, in fact—but the goal remains to give a proper direction to our work.

I know of many pastors and musicians who have discovered what I’ve written above in terms of inspiration and direction, but lack a practical plan. It is all too easy to show up on Sunday and sing what has always been sung, and do the same the following week, all while dreaming of that someday when chant returns. But the problem is that progress requires a real break with the status quo, and the only time to get started is immediately. Otherwise, the dream gets put off forever.

As a possible immediate step, I suggest taking the existing music sung for the dialogues between priest and people and eliminating the accompaniment. This is especially helpful for the “great Amen” and the “Gospel acclamation.” This simple step will at least cut out the racket during the most tender and mysterious moments of Mass. Reducing these parts to simple plainchant, rather than trying to turn them into tuneful songs, is a great starting place.

The next stop is to cut out as much of the sing-songy quality to the liturgy as one can, first by eliminating the people’s hymn that often comes at the beginning of communion. There is no existing rubric anywhere that asks the people to sing anything at this point in Mass. This will also add quiet time, which is much needed.

Going forward, there are two general areas to tackle: the ordinary and the propers. Let’s beginning with the propers. At communion and offertory, a cantor or group can sing the proper chant in English, starting from a resource called the Anglican Gradual, which deals mainly in Psalm tones and is free online. If you sing these, you will find that two points in the Mass where people have previously expected musical performances now become occasions for prayer.

Once the clutter is eliminated and dignified propers are being sung, we have the beginnings of a good structure with which to work. The entrance hymn can be completely replaced by the proper of the day sung in Psalm tones. This will change the way Mass begins, signaling that this is not merely a community gathering but a liturgy that seeks timelessness. People can watch the procession for the first time rather than staring at their books.

To extend the propers and make them more elaborate, I recommend the American Gradual by Bruce Ford, also free online. These use authentic Gregorian melodies with English text. Then it is a small step to move toward Latin, beginning with the communion chant and then onward with the offertory chant and introit.

At some point in this process, one must deal with the issue of the ordinary setting for Mass. Adding a Kyrie is easiest. This requires that the celebrant use the first option in the Missal with a Confiteor. The Gloria is next, and I would highly recommend the setting “Gloria XV,” which came very early in the chronological development of chant, but retains its appeal after so many centuries.

At this point, a year or more could have gone by, during which the schola will have had time to work up some English and Latin motets for Mass, in three and four parts. Hymns will be reduced to the recessional only, which is a goal consistent with the Roman Rite. Additional hymns can come from the chant repertoire as found in the Parish Book of Chant—this is the real “popular” music of a Catholic people.

The organist can now play real solos rather than being a mere accompanist. The great secret here is that people actually sing better in absence of accompaniment, if only because what they sing really matters for the overall sound in the parish. And the organist has something extremely important to do, as do the singers (as well as the celebrant, who should also be singing his parts).

The rest of the agenda is then obvious. More and more of the ordinary chants are replaced with real Gregorian chant, and ever more of the propers can be in chant, alternating between English and Latin to make sure that the schola is really learning and not just mimicking the director.

Each parish environment will have to customize this plan depending on the pastor and people and the culture of the parish. The director of music must be wise, clever, and pastorally sensitive. Objections along with the way can be met with polite catechesis. It must all occur within a setting of love and charity. Fights and arguments are no basis for progress in a parish. Peace is a hugely important value during the transition.

I don’t believe that there is a single parish in this country that cannot be transformed in its liturgy through inspiration, a clear sense of direction, and a well-thought-out plan for enacting the change. Then the Roman Rite can be more true to itself. And we will all begin to sing like Catholics again.

Jeffrey Tucker is managing editor of Sacred Music and author of Sing Like a Catholic (CMAA, 2009).