Praise the name of the Lord,
give praise, O servants of the Lord,
you that stand in the house of the Lord,
in the courts of the house of our God!
What Is Gregorian Chant?
As commonly understood, "Gregorian chant" refers to the repertory of Latin chant for the liturgy of the Roman Rite, as codified in the books prepared by the Vatican, with the assistance of the monks of the Abbey of St. Peter, Solesmes, France . Their site contains a brief historical survey of Gregorian chant, as well as audio clips of representative pieces with descriptions of where they fit into the liturgy.
Liturgical rites other than the Roman that also use Latin as their liturgical language tend to have their own corpora of chant, both similar to and different from the Gregorian.
Why Gregorian Chant?
"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." (Sacrosanctum concilium, art. 116)
Why does the Church so acknowledge Gregorian chant? To answer that, let us consider some aspects of the Roman liturgy, both those applicable to all liturgical forms and those peculiar to Rome.
Although the liturgy may be celebrated solely in the spoken or "low" voice (hence "low Mass"), its fullest and most solemn manifestation occurs when it is sung, or celebrated in the "high" voice (hence "high Mass"). The command of the Psalms to "sing a new song unto the Lord" finds its highest expression in the liturgy, a song which is new but not in the sense of "freshly composed" or "not heard before"; both of these options are theologically shallow. Rather, since our salvation is not a static event, we are called to renew our covenant with God, and as part of this renew our song of praise to him. We sing the same words each time, but with deeper love, greater understanding, and firmer will. We are assisted in this task by the liturgical year, which, as it moves between the principal events of our salvation, continually gives us a chance to sing a new song as each mystery is presented for our contemplation.
Humans are not spirit alone and not matter alone. We are unique among creation in being integrated beings of matter and spirit, and the song we sing should involve our whole being, being made upon the lips as well as in the heart. What is done in the spirit finds physical expression in the music of the liturgy,
The language of the Roman liturgy is Latin. While Sacrosanctum concilium allowed greater scope to the vernacular languages, it still affirmed the centrality of Latin (art. 36 and 54) in the ritual. We are also reminded (art. 112) that sacred music is more holy insofar as it is more closely connected to the liturgy itself, which for vocal music refers specifically to the prescribed liturgical texts. In modern times, the music heard in Catholic churches often consists in songs tacked onto the liturgy whose texts are not taken from the liturgy itself. While this practice is permitted, it does not represent the fullest and most complete musical expression of our worship.
In Gregorian chant we find a complete set of music for singing the texts of the Roman liturgy, using the language of the Roman liturgy. It fulfills each and every one of the principles so far explained, and, for this reason at the very least, is "specially suited" to the Roman liturgy in a way other music is not.
Gregorian Chant Resources
I have made available a listing of books of or about chant that I have used or read, with descriptions of their contents, and shortcomings, if any.
The Spirituality of Gregorian Chant
Reflections on the Spirituality of Gregorian Chant is a delightful little book, taken from the work of one of the Solesmes monks, which reiterates some of what I say in these pages, but goes far beyond.
While a student at Northern Illinois University, I attempted to start a society for promoting Gregorian chant, which since my departure has unfortunately ceased to exist. In the course of our meetings I shared with them several reflections on the chant's spirituality:
- Chant and Scripture
- An Augustinian Perspective on Singing to God