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Plainchant, Liturgy, and Evangelisation

At a concert in the Sistine Chapel on the 26th June, 2006 given in honour of Monsignor Domenico Bartolucci, Director Emeritus of the Sistine Choir, the Holy Father in response to Monsignor Bartolucciís opening remarks, stated: "Venerable Maestro, you have always sought to make the most of Sacred Music as a vehicle for evangelisation. Through numerous concerts in Italy and throughout the world, with the universal language of Art, the Sistine Choir under your direction, has co-operated in the actual mission of the Popes, which is to disseminate the Christian message throughout the world." These remarks place the work of the church musician in an entirely new and exciting context.

Previously, we have tended to look upon our work as providing music for the liturgy and have given little thought to its evangelical possibilities. The Holy Fatherís remarks underline its apostolic nature and place it in the forefront of the titanic struggle to bring the Word of God to a doubting world. People cry out for the transcendence of beauty, the spiritual depth of silence; they know (perhaps subconsciously) that these are antidotes to the perpetual noise and clatter of modern living. Our work uses these qualities: we speak to peopleís souls in a language that is unencumbered by words and unsullied by squalid arguments; a language which is universal; a language that demands to be heard and understood. The Popeís words place a heavy responsibility on our conscience. He asks us to see ourselves not only as musicians, but also as Apostles. Our work must surely be re-evaluated in the light of his remarks.

When we take part in the weekly liturgy, itís very easy for our conducting and singing to become mere routine: competent but devoid of inspiration. This, in a way, reflects one of the problems we often have in our prayer life: the maintenance of a genuine sense of commitment and concentration. A wise person once said to me that at every performance of the Messiah, thereís probably someone who has never heard the work and is stunned by its beauty and magnificence. This also applies to plainchant: in every congregation there is often a person who is totally unfamiliar with it, a person who becomes amazed at its beauty, variety and spirituality. This undoubtedly implies that we must always take the greatest care to ensure that our chant is performed to the highest possible level of excellence. There is nothing worse than badly sung chant and an essential part of our mission is to do all that we can to improve the general standard of chant singing and thereby emphasise its spirituality, beauty and wonder. Through these qualities we can lead people to the very gateway of heaven and even into the awe-inspiring presence of our Creator.

I can well remember going to a restaurant in Ireland and hearing Mass 9 being used as background music. On the following Sunday I remarked to the Parish Priest how odd it was that one could hear chant in the local eaterie but not in church. However, this incident caused me to reflect on why the chant appeals to so many people in such a variety of places. I tried to place my thoughts in the context of contemporary culture and considered how extraordinary it is that one canít go anywhere without the depressing sound of thumping and relentless background music. This non-stop availability devalues music; rather like taking a hammer to a magnificent sculpture. When I was a boy, one listened to a broadcast concert in total silence, sitting around the receiver with complete concentration: it was a very important event. Today, one can hear the B minor Mass as a background to a discussion of football results! Music is everywhere, most of it variants of pop, but, strange as it may seem, plainchant has found a place in the charts. One of the reasons could be that it is recognised as a welcome oasis in the aggressive, bewildering and overpowering desert of pop. . Listeners perceive that chant offers something not of this world, something that speaks to the spiritual nature that is within each of us. In the words of the Holy Father: "It is a vehicle for evangelisation". Its effect is similar to that of the wonderful film "Into the Great Silence" about the monastery in Chartreuse. Musicians are one of the channels through which God communicates with His people. This is a frightening thought but if we do our work well, we will experience a profound sense of joy and fulfilment.

One aspect of the chant that receives little consideration is its link with the history and origins of our Church. I am totally convinced that an organisation which is unaware of its past is in grave danger of losing its soul. Some chants precede the birth of Christ and as Alec Robertson, priest, broadcaster and music critic, pointed out, Christ would have heard and maybe even sung some of the chants on which our own are based. Alec spoke of hearing the Lamentations of Jeremiah sung in Rome by a very fine cantor and feeling that the prophet was speaking to him in a personal and direct way through thousands of years of time. This link with Christ is a living connection with our history, something of ineffable value and worthy of our greatest respect.

Some people need to be reminded that the history of the Church didnít begin with Vatican 2. The implementation of the Councilís liturgical reforms has been blighted because they were not seen in the light of the churchís history and traditions. Similarly, liturgical music didnít start in the 1960s and itís a matter of great sadness that many of our congregations are totally unaware of the heritage of Catholic music and have no knowledge or experience of its beauty and spirituality. I have been amazed to discover that many of our young people are not even aware of traditional Catholic hymns. Newmanís Praise to the Holiest is unknown to many of them and Credo 3 is something totally alien. Admittedly, much of our traditional hymnody is poor but much of it is good. Our young people have been denied the opportunity to connect with our rich heritage - the liturgy is very much the poorer because of this. We can only pray that it is not too late to remedy this situation.

Unquestionably, there has been an avalanche of new liturgical music since Vatican 2, some very poor and much extremely good. Many fine hymns have been written: good music and excellent words and it is wrong to blind ourselves to these developments. Some contemporary music is outstanding Ė I have recently listened toliturgical choral music written by Michael Joncas the composer of On Eagles' Wings. To my ears it displays genius, deeply spiritual, musically inspired and totally contemporary. I am not one of those who believe that chant and 16th century polyphony are the only ideal forms of liturgical music. Undoubtedly they are superb, but in some ways contemporary music has a greater liturgical relevance because it reflects the culture of our own age. Why do we restrict the work of the Holy Spirit to a particular continent and time? Why do we believe that the Holy Spirit stopped inspiring composers at the end of the 16th Century? The Holy Spirit certainly chose that period to inspire the perfection of a particular style but surely the Spirit is as active today as in previous times. There is a grave danger of misinterpreting his work because of our restricted and often prejudiced vision. We tend to forget that the ways of God are not the ways of men. We need the faith to accept that the Spirit works in His own way across the whole spectrum of time and we should thank Him for the great liturgical music that he continually gives the Church.

The important question is how do we fit the chant into the present liturgical situation? Because of the growing use of what is now known as the Extraordinary Rite, its future is assured and what a wonderful renaissance we are witnessing. However, we must face the problem of assimilating the chant into the current rite Ė this presents a great challenge. The response has to be based on a comprehensive plainchant educational policy for schools, seminaries, training colleges and also Diocesan study days. Catholics have a right to be educated into the chant and church authorities are in error if they ignore this. I feel that before ordination, those seminarians who can, should be taught to sing the simple Latin Mass tones in a musical and confident manner.

We need an authoritative study group, established and financed by the Hierarchy, mandated to write a syllabus for the development of plainchant. This could well lead to the establishment of a School of Church Music, possibly attached to one of the Universities. This study group would need to work through established bodies, be properly financed and begin by instituting an intelligent consultative process involving all interested organisations. It should then produce a practical and acceptable plan to be implemented with the authority of the bishops. "Pie in the Sky" I hear you say, but without vision we will get nowhere.

Chant books will have to be widely available in both modern and traditional notation. These should not be large but they must contain a basic repertoire. They should be published in conjunction with accompaniment books and CDs, the latter for those churches that have no organist or those where the organist is shy of accompanying chant. These are projects the Latin Mass Society could well undertake in conjunction with an established publisher with a wide and successful distribution. These publications could also be made available through the net. If we can develop a sound educational policy, it will become much easier to fit the chant into the current liturgy. This will add dignity to the new rite Ė a quality that many celebrations lack. One of the great things about the old rite was that it could never become celebrant orientated Ė the new rite can, but the use of chant prevents this because it establishes an atmosphere that is entirely God centred and spiritual. Every Parish should develop congregational chant. A simple Mass, Credo 3 and straightforward hymns are ideal but this will never happen until our priests are educated in the beauty of chant.

I was recently reading about the history of the Society of Saint Gregory, a body originally established to spread the use of plainchant. In the 1930s, Westminster Cathedral was packed by the Society and interested worshippers participating in Masses celebrated in plainchant. Again, I remember as a boy in the Parish of St. Swithunís, Portsmouth, playing regularly at Sunday Compline, sung by choir and congregation. We need to recreate this interest because the widespread use of chant will, transform the new rite. A simple example: a chant Introit sets the tone of a Mass in a way that a contemporary hymn cannot. As I said earlier, thereís been a lot of excellent liturgical music written over the last fifty years and used wisely, it complements and fits in with the chant. I would like to see the bad contemporary music consigned to the waste paper basket or even the fires of hell, but the best, that which is based upon the teaching of Musica Sacra, has an important place in worship alongside plainchant and polyphony.

Itís wrong to get bogged down in arguments about the "right way" of singing the chant Ė this is akin to "Fiddling while Rome burns!" There is no way of knowing how it was sung centuries ago and all discussion is based upon speculation. We all have our own ways, each of which is valid. I am fairly happy with Solesmes although I strongly object to its revision of some of the melodic lines. This maybe because I was brought up with and taught to love the original versions Ė cranky annoyance is the prerogative of an old man!! We must concentrate on singing the chant, not on arguing about how it is to be sung. However, I cannot stress strongly enough that education is the key to its revival and it is in this area that we need to concentrate our efforts.

In the words of the Holy Father: "Sacred music is a vehicle for evangelisation." Chant is a vital part of his vision. It is an exquisite way of worshipping the Creator, its spirituality, beauty and impact are unique. The manner in which it has been actively ignored borders on vandalism Ė the work of the Devil who must be delighted at its near comprehensive absence from liturgical worship. The chant settles our mind on the Creator, itís a sacramental act of worship and we church musicians are privileged to be playing an important part in its restoration. We must never accept the "dumbing down" of our music merely because some people consider it esoteric or beyond the understanding of ordinary mortals. This attitude is gravely insulting and does great damage to liturgical worship. We are not in the business of popularising services or making them superficially attractive. Our work is the worship of God and the evangelisation of the world, the presentation to the Creator of the best that we can offer. Let us see what we can do to place the chant at the centre of our liturgical worship.

Colin Mawby KSG

A talk given to the Gregorian Chant Net Work on 30th January 2010 at St Wilfred's Hall, Brompton Oratory.

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