Saturday, May 1, 2010

Some Thoughts on the Loss of Gregorian Chant

I remember reading somewhere that Richart Hillert, composer of the famous "This is the Feast" canticle of LBW/LW/LSB/ELW fame and notoriety throughout Christendom, once regretted that the through composed music of his setting and other modern settings had so thoroughly replace Gregorian Chant as the primary musical language of worship.  As one who delighted in the sound of the Fryxell setting of SBH, and kept pretty much in tact in LBW, I can well understand his words.  For nearly 1400 years this chant was the voice of the Church gathered in the liturgy.  Of course there were other settings and chants (the Scottish and Anglican chant among them for Lutherans) but Gregorian was the chant that taught the Church to sing with one voice, more than any other.

Alas, though we love to listen to it on CDs, the sound of Gregorian Chant is seldom heard among Lutherans and this is sad.  I am not advocating giving up what we have but suggesting that this is a form worthy of retention as we add to it the various other forms of music and chant.  We struggle with it so now because we are so accustomed to through composed musical forms, or, the refrain and chant settings found in such abundance today.  While I do retain a certain fondness for the Deutsche Messe and its hymnic settings of the ordinary, I do not think it healthy that a congregation choose these for exclusive use.  As much as I like rhymed and metrical forms, they do impose a certain wooden character to the free flowing character of the ordinary.

Just a few thoughts as I sit preparing for tomorrow and the Divine Service...


Rev. Paul Beisel said...

For lovers of Gregorian chant, visit, or Rev. Benjamin Mayes and Rev. Michael Frese have put together a wonderful Plainsong chant Prayer book.

Past Elder said...

First some thoughts on chant, then on its loss.

First, chant is not music. It is a form of speech, a highlighting of speech with tones, and is found throughout the world's cultures and religions. Various forms of such speech-song exist in our society, most notably Blues, Rap, and a preaching style known as hooping. Being a form of speech, the word is primary, and its tonal highlights will conform to the specific language of the words. The great foundational works of our literature, the Homeric epics, as well as the Mediaeval epics, were all "sung", and what we have now is simply the text to what was originally speech-song, or chant. The emergence of truly musical hymns in Gregorian chant is a late development, not characteristic of chant itself. To understand Gregorian Chant in terms of its hymns like Veni creator spiritus (by Rabanus Maurus, a Benedictine of course) from the upcoming Pentecost Vespers is to misunderstand Gregorian Chant altogether. It is not music. It is musical speech.

A related problem is that given its nature, its inflexions serve the language in which they happen -- Gregorian Chant depends upon Latin. That is why more recent chant systems arose, to conform to the spoken rhythms of newer languages, or respect in a newer language the rhythms of another, such as Hebrew in Gelineau psalmody.

As to the loss of chant, while it is true that stuff like "This Is The Feast" has in true Vatican II For Lutherans style become Gloria II, the loss of chant is not entirely a function of things like that.

When I showed up at die Abtei university in 1968, the Council had concluded but the novus ordo was not yet promulgated. My music theory professor was also director of the monastic schola cantorum and was ordained ad organum, as the organist. Students were invited to participate for community Mass on Sundays, and I did. By the end of my second year, in 1970 (the novus ordo was promulgated 3 April 1969, to take effect the next First Sunday in Advent, but not published until 1970) he had been removed from all university and monastic positions for his association with such stuff to be replaced by a new group and was assigned to remote parish work.

Sometime before the end of that year, he an a bunch of us went to the Abbey church at night to record some of the great chant before it slipped under the waves.

That's the loss of Gregorian chant as I experienced it. Goofy as a lot of it is, the nonsense in LCMS ain't nuttin compared to what goes on in the RCC behind the scenes, so fear not!

Past Elder said...

PS. I wish you blackbirds could hoop. Incipits, reciting tones, melismae enough to send my man Guido (also Benedictine, of course) into fits of joy!

Past Elder said...

PPS. Thus did the wonderful work of Dom Gueranger (also a Benedictine, of course) at Solesmes get hijacked by a bunch of revisionist, modernist, liturgical movement liturgical Kristallnacht liturgical thugs.

Chris H. said...

While I haven't read anything on Hillert's view of through composed music, a few years ago I came across an essay by Joseph Herl in a collection of essays in honor of Carl Schalk that touched on this topic. In it Herl referenced Eugene Brand, one of the leaders in the development of LBW, and his preference for a chant setting of the Divine Service for normal use. Chant tends to "illuminate the text without forcing a particular interpretation on it."

In reference to the through composed settings in LBW, Brand noted that "Occasional use of these settings can be exhilarating and refreshing, and provide necessary diversity . . . But regular use of such settings diminishes the impressive power of the texts and soon may lead to the thirst for even more settings."

In September 2009, Ben Mayes was on Issues Etc and discussed Gregorian chant. After that I wrote a brief blog post on it with some reflections from Walter Buszin.

J Harper said...

Check out the Lutheran Liturgical Prayer Brotherhood at

RobbieFish said...

I participated in one of the Mayes/Beisel Gregorian chant workshops. I enjoyed the time, but I have to opine that I don't think this stuff can have a wide application in the LCMS. It is simply too complicated, notated in a manner that even musically well-trained folks of today can only read with great effort, and requires more time to prepare than the average parish choir can regularly afford. I love the sound, but alas, I don't see Gregorian Chant becoming more than a "boutique industry" in the Lutheran church. I would just as soon dedicate my time & effort to drilling basic liturgy & classic hymns into the people's minds & hearts.

And since, historically, most present-day Lutherans are generations removed from a church that practiced Gregorian chanting, I think it's a bit melodramatic to bemoan the "loss" of something we never really had. Rather, trying to "recover" it may come across to some as pushing an unwelcome innovation. Keeping what the church is currently losing should be a higher priority!