The chant comeback

The chant comeback

This article looks at the trend to bring back Gregorian chant and asks what does sacred music sound like? I’d give the writer more credit if he didn’t offer up whoppers like this:

It’s a debate that has raged since 1963, when Vatican II reforms brought contemporary music to Catholic churches. Just as the Latin Mass almost immediately disappeared amid attempts to modernize, chants gave way to guitars and snappy folk tunes. The new music helped fill pews, but it left church conservatives and formally trained musicians reeling.

What? Didn’t it do exactly the opposite? The pews were full before Vatican II and have emptied ever since. While the reasons for the decline in attendance are vigorously debated, no one can deny that it happened. To claim that new music put people in the pews is to deny reality.

In any case, apart from that flub, he does get some good responses from proponents of chant and polyphony as well as those who favor the new stuff. One of the St. Louis Jesuits claims that chant is eurocentric and requires trained singers that most parishes can afford. That’s bunk. In fact, chant was designed for non-professional voices, for monks of varying abilities to be able to pray together and have it sound good. It’s this new stuff that requires professional musicians and cantors and we can’t sing it anyway because it’s always an octave or register or something too high. (I’m not a singer so I don’t know the terminology.)

Learning to sing Gregorian chant is difficult, maybe, but not impossible, says William Mahrt, a Stanford University music professor. “It may not be immediately sing-along-able; it may take some practice,” he says. A parish should be able to pick up most chants over the course of three or four Sundays. Music is like anything else, he says; you get out of it what you put into it.

It’s only difficult because we’re not familiar with it. Besides, no one says we have to do only Gregorian chant. There’s a lot of good sacred music that pre-dates the St. Louis Jesuits/Haugen/Haas/Schutte that isn’t chant. We could even sing that. Please, can we sing that?

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Written by
Domenico Bettinelli