Thoughts on music and the forthcoming Missal

September 20, 2011

It is time, once again, for me to climb atop one of my favourite hobby-horses. Bear with me.

Sacrosanctum concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy from Vatican II, is the most authoritative recent statement on the Church’s liturgy that we have. As has often been noted, it states:

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.

It goes on to say that, in certain circumstances, allowance may be made for other music, such as polyphony or the music native to a particular region, but, nonetheless, a clear ideal has been presented. Gregorian chant is the music of the Latin rite; it has no other reason to exist.

In practice, we almost never hear Gregorian chant during the liturgy. The reasons are many, but, arguably, at least part of the blame may be assigned to the General Instruction on the Roman Missal, the authoritative practical guide to the celebration of the liturgy. The version in force in the United States, for instance (most recently revised in 2002), says, in reference to the Introit, or Entrance Chant:

In the dioceses of the United States of America there are four options for the Entrance Chant: (1) the antiphon from The Roman Missal or the Psalm from the Roman Gradual as set to music there or in another musical setting; (2) the seasonal antiphon and Psalm of the Simple Gradual; (3) a song from another collection of psalms and antiphons, approved by the Conference of Bishops or the diocesan Bishop, including psalms arranged in responsorial or metrical forms; (4) a suitable liturgical song similarly approved by the Conference of Bishops or the diocesan Bishop. [my emphasis]

Analogous guidelines are given for the other Mass Propers. Note that little word “song”, which has provided a justification for those who wished to ditch the chant in favour of something else. Something with guitar accompaniment. And drums. Something with an ethos quite different from that proper to the Latin rite. “Song” became a weasel word.

The forthcoming new translation of the Mass (due in parishes this Advent) has been an occasion for hope to those of us who love the Church’s liturgy and her heritage of liturgical chant. Because the new translation will affect even the Mass Ordinary, much of the sub-standard music that has been composed since Vatican II may be joyfully tossed out the Church’s open windows, and we have, in a real sense, an opportunity to try again to faithfully implement the intentions of the Council Fathers, as least insofar as the music of the liturgy is concerned. As stated in Sacrosanctum concilium, the basic objective should be: more chant, sung competently and prayerfully. We should do our best to restore the resounding glory of our worship, using the music that the Church herself gives us.

Furthermore, the new translation of the liturgical texts is being accompanied by a new translation of the General Instruction on the Roman Missal, and in the new translation the weasel word “song” has been replaced by the clarificatory “chant” (see, for instance, Paragraph 48 of the linked document), thus, one would think, removing that one slender reed that has supported so many ill-advised liturgical experiments.

So far, so good.

Enter the Canadian Bishops’ Conference (and I will focus now on the Canadian situation, since that is where I am). If one searches their site for resources related to the forthcoming new translation, one finds that they are publishing a book called Celebrate in Song intended for the pews of parish churches in order to promote “a seamless transition to the new translation of the Roman Missal in your community!” Celebrate in Song includes something called “ICEL Chants”, plus three new musical settings of the Mass Ordinary. Audio of the new settings can be streamed from the same site. Listen if you dare. Two of the three settings are essentially pop music; the third is not quite as bad, being somewhat closer to a sacred music aesthetic, but it is (and without wishing to impugn the motives of the composer in any way) still pretty mediocre to my ears. This is distressing.

And what of those cryptically named “ICEL Chants” packaged with them? Here things begin to brighten again: the ICEL Chants, it turns out, are English-language chants from the Roman Missal, very much in the style of Gregorian chant! They include music for the Mass Ordinary, Prefaces for the feasts, Eucharistic prayers, some hymns, blessings, and much else. The Mass Propers are apparently missing, but that lacuna could be conveniently filled with the Simple English Propers. Together these two sources would provide, I believe, a complete, simplified, English-language chant for the celebration of Mass in the new translation.

In some cases the music of the “ICEL chants” is clearly based directly on the Gregorian models: compare the Sanctus for Eucharistic Prayer IV to the Gregorian Sanctus XVIII “Deus Genitor alme”, for instance.


As is evident, in this case the music is actually the same. In other cases, the English-language chant has been streamlined and simplified relative to its Gregorian counterpart, but it is clearly cut from the same cloth. This is tremendous.

Why these Missal chants have been saddled with an alienating bureaucratic title — “ICEL” stands for International Commision on English in the Liturgy, which is the body responsible for the new Missal translation — I have no idea, and it is rather unfortunate, but their inclusion in Celebrate in Song can only be an occasion for rejoicing.

What shall we make of this situation? I am of two minds about it. On the one hand, I fear that many parishes will ignore the quasi-Gregorian Missal chants and adopt one of the pop music settings, either from Celebrate in Song or from some other source. On the other hand, it is barely possible that our Catholic Bishops are cunning in their tactics: perhaps the Missal chants have been bundled with mediocre alternatives in the expectation that the chant will thereby appear all the more alluring? If that were the case, however, why include the pop music at all? It does seem to be tempting fate.

I do not know how our situation in Canada compares to that in the United States and in other English-speaking countries. We are all getting the new translation, but how it will fall out is not clear. It is probably going to be a rough ride all around, but I do think we have a good opportunity here to bring the manner in which we celebrate the Mass into closer congruity with the intentions and wishes of the Council Fathers, and into greater continuity with our own tradition. It appears that in Canada, at least, our resources for doing so are only equivocally suitable for the purpose. We can but do our best.

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8 Responses to “Thoughts on music and the forthcoming Missal”

  1. Aaron James Says:

    Many thanks for this – I’ve been out of touch with the Canadian scene recently, so it’s interesting to see how the liturgical changes are proceeding.

    I agree with you that the composed settings in “Celebrate with Song!” are pretty awful. What they all have in common is a tin ear for the actual rhythms of language – the missal texts are shoehorned awkwardly into a musical setting that doesn’t really fit. The result is that instead of singing the liturgical text, you’re singing a catchy tune that happens to have the liturgical text attached to it. There are plenty of congregational Mass settings that avoid this pitfall (I think of those by Healey Willan, for example), but in general the liturgy seems to be served best by an unmetrical setting (i.e., some sort of chant).

    As a personal anecdote: I have introduced plainchant for the Offertory and Communion propers at my own (Anglican) parish here and have been amazed at the positive response – particularly from guests to the parish (at funerals, high feast days, etc.) Another (Episcopal) church downtown offers a weekly office of Compline with chant and Renaissance polyphony and frequently fills the building to standing-room only (in a former procathedral that seats several hundred). This situation is probably not typical, but it’s clear that there’s an enormous potential interest in traditional sacred music waiting to be tapped – one hopes that those in positions of ecclesiastical leadership will eventually figure this out. . .

  2. cburrell Says:

    That’s an encouraging report, Aaron — more encouraging than I would have expected based on my own experience. I do think that the sacral character of this music is something that people respond to, not only in parish life, but also in popular culture. Chant is associated with Catholicism far more consistently in film, for instance, than in real life. That connection exists in people’s minds, and makes sense to them, and I think they would respond positively to it, given the opportunity.

    I agree that Healey Willan’s settings are exemplary. Composers of his ability, and sensibility, are unfortunately few and far between.

  3. KathyB Says:

    Here is my main problem with pop-style liturgical music: it is actually very hard to sing as a congregation. The syncopated rhythms are way more suited to pop soloists. If you’re wondering what I mean, just listen to a congregation trying to sing “Be Not Afraid” (which I actually like as a hymn): no two people will be saying the consonants in “you shall cross the barren desert….” at the same time. Double-dotted sixteenth notes are not for sight singing.
    Oh, and pop music and church organs do not mix well.

    Secondary, some of the pop settings are very long, with intros, repeats, etc. My kids can sit still in mass for 55 minutes, and no longer. I know that this also precludes me hearing Palestrina, and that is a sacrifice that I am willing to make in order to have children, but if we are going to have a mass that is not a high mass, than the music should not be too lengthy. I don’t want to have to bust out the cheerios and colouring books until at least during the homily.

    Sorry for the rant.

  4. cburrell Says:

    I am sorry to say that we often bust out the colouring books almost as soon as we arrive (which, I am even sorrier to say, is sometimes during the homily).

    • Christina A. Says:

      A true Catholic parent after my own heart! I haven’t seen an entry procession in a while and usually by the sign of peace, the three of us are in entirely different parts of the church. This week, B.’s trick was trying to steal cheerios from another kid and attempting to pick through other people’s diaper bags.

      I’m pleased when mass runs 45-55 minutes (which is a marathon length with a small person in tow) and I don’t care much what the music is as long as it’s well-sung and well-played.

      In any case, appreciated and enjoyed this explanation of the changes to the liturgy that are coming into play.

  5. Mac Says:

    “I fear that many parishes will ignore the quasi-Gregorian Missal chants and adopt one of the pop music settings”

    I would put money on it.

    Regarding the word “song”: ever so slightly in its favor, I do think it’s more accurate than “hymn” for most of the pop-ish music we hear at Mass.

    Speaking of the difficulty of singing many of those, my parish has had a sort of shipwreck lately. We’ve had what is basically CCM for some years now–near-rock. I’ve gotten used to it and the choir at least performed it well. But recently they were joined by a guy who obviously is or was a rock singer, or wannabe. I think he’s a good guy, and very devout, but: he plays around with the phrasing unpredictably, so that it’s impossible for anyone to sing with him, even the other members of the choir. I’ve noticed that the congregation just sinks into silence.

  6. cburrell Says:

    It sounds like your congregation is in need of an infusion of some self-effacing, easy-to-sing music, much like the simple English chant that ICEL is providing. But, as you say, the chances of it being taken up in some parishes is low.


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