The question of music at Mass is a thorny one. Everyone has their preferences and to some extent taste will dictate what some people like. Thankfully, the guidance of the Church, while not dictating everything, is helpful:
The main place should be given, all things being equal, to Gregorian chant, as being proper to the Roman Liturgy. Other kinds of sacred music, in particular polyphony, are in no way excluded, provided that they correspond to the spirit of the liturgical action and that they foster the participation of all the faithful.
Since the faithful from different countries come together ever more frequently, it is desirable that they know how to sing together at least some parts of the Ordinary of the Mass in Latin, especially the Profession of Faith and the Lord’s Prayer, according to the simpler settings. (General Instruction on the Roman Missal, 41)
I don’t believe that the Church is saying that chant and Latin should be exclusively used at Mass. But it does strike me that “main place” (Latin, principem locum) means more than just every once in a while. In fact, a more literal translation of the phrase might be “first place.” The Latin princeps, principis is defined as: first, foremost, leading, chief, front; earliest, original; most necessary. Thus, when the translators of the instruction for Mass give us “main place,” they are highlighting the prominence that Gregorian Chant should have at Mass.
Let’s be clear as to what Gregorian Chant is and is not. By definition, Gregorian Chant is sung in Latin (and a very little bit of Greek here and there). Vernacular chant is not Gregorian Chant. Even in the Latin language, there are many different styles of chant, of which Gregorian Chant is only one. One of the most prominent other kinds of chant in Latin is Ambrosian Chant, the chant that has been used in Milan, Italy. One also speaks of Mozarabic Chant, historically used in parts of Spain. Religious orders also have different styles of chant, although these really seem to be variations of Gregorian Chant rather than unique styles. Familiar tunes used for benediction (O Salutaris and Tantum Ergo) as well as the Marian hymn, O Sanctissima, are not Gregorian Chant but are rather metrical settings of Latin words.
Before an answer to this question is possible (tomorrow’s post), a little bit of history will be helpful. Gregorian Chant refers to the particular style of chant in Latin that developed in the early Middles Ages in the monasteries of the Holy Roman Empire. This chant incorporated features from the Old Roman Chant that dated to the introduction of Latin into the liturgy in Rome in the late 3rd century, which in turn was a translation of the Christian chant tradition that first developed in Greek.
By the late Middle Ages, Gregorian Chant was already being displaced by polyphony. At the Council of Trent (1545-1563) some consideration was given to banning polyphony in favor of exclusive use of Gregorian Chant, but the council fathers elected instead to state a preference for Gregorian Chant, while allowing also for polyphony.
The rabid secularism of the French Revolution and, to a lesser extent, Napoleon (1789-1814) almost destroyed monastic life in Europe, leaving the Church’s tradition of sacred music in tatters. In the 19th century, it became common to use popular melodies from secular music for the words of the Mass. Catholics heard the same type of music that they would hear in concert halls at Mass or the priest simply elected to celebrate a Low Mass in which there was no music at all.
Under Pope Pius X (1903-1914) there was a decision to return to the Church’s tradition of sacred music. Pius X banned the use of secular music in the liturgy and stressed the importance of Gregorian Chant. Choirs should sing the most difficult chants, but even the lay faithful should be able to sing the simpler parts of the Mass. The expectation was that all Catholics would have a rudimentary understanding of the invariable Latin parts of the Mass. Even today, this legislation remains on the books!
The effect of this push for more Gregorian Chant varied from country to country. Typically, countries influenced by Irish Catholicism did not make much progress. In Francophone and Germanophone Catholicism, progress was greater. Latin Catholicism was somewhere in between.
The liturgy documents up until Vatican II (1962-1965) continued to stress the importance of Gregorian Chant, while opening up the possibility of singing in the vernacular at Low Mass. In Sacrosanctum Concilium, Vatican II’s document on the Liturgy, the central place of Gregorian Chant was reaffirmed, while opening up the possibility for a greater use of vernacular music, especially vernacular chant. When Paul VI promulgated the new Missal in 1969, he relaxed some regulations about how and when Gregorian Chant could be employed during Mass in order to facilitate its use.
In the age of liturgies almost exclusively in the vernacular, both John Paul II and Benedict XVI have repeatedly called for a wider use of Gregorian Chant
Papal documents on liturgical music return consistently to three characteristics that liturgical music should have. It should be sacred, beautiful and universal. Gregorian Chant is taken to be the paradigm against which all other music is to be compared when determining whether or not said music should be used for worship in the temple of the Lord.
What does it mean for music to be “sacred?” The word sacred is a latinate word that means, holy, set apart from everyday use. Sacred music, then, would be music that is recognizably not the kind of music that one would hear outside of a church building. There are two elements of being a music recognizably for Christian worship. The first is that words speak of God’s self-revelation and are consistent with the faith. The second is that the music, even apart from its words, differs from secular music in its tone by being marked by solemnity and seriousness. A question to ask might be, “If I did not know English would this sound like music for Divine worship?”
It is a given that no music drops straight down from heaven but rather develops out of pre-existing musical styles. How did the Church decide what originally constituted “sacred” music?
The exact origins of the Christian chant are somewhat mysterious, but this form of music likely developed from the music used by pagans in certain religious festivals or in the singing of epic poems and Jewish religious songs (thus the continued use of the Hebrew words, amen and alleluia).
In co-opting certain aspects of pagan song, Christians did not randomly choose pagan music and fuse it with elements of Jewish worship. Rather, they selected those types of pagan song that corresponded to the Divine Word (gk. logos) and appealed not to the flesh but to reason (gk. logos). Feasts of Apollo were marked by rationality and sobriety, whereas Dionysian feasts by drunkenness and frenzy. Any reading of Paul’s Epistles to the Corinthians should make it abundantly clear that the Church chose Apollo over Dionysus from the beginning when integrating certain types of pagan music with Jewish religious singing.
Gregorian Chant represents the culmination of the translation of the Christian sacred music from Greek and Hebrew into Latin. Most of the words of Gregorian Chant come directly from the Bible. Its solemnity and seriousness communicate unambiguously that it is distinct from profane music and fitted to religious rites.
The topic of beauty, or soundness of form, raises a long list of possible aesthetic controversies. Blessed John Paul II laid out three criteria in his Chirograph on Sacred Music (2003) that give helpful orientation in establishing standards for beauty in liturgical music. There are three aspects of Gregorian Chant that make it beautiful. Namely, it is true art that adheres to the text of the liturgy and it does so in a way that is comprehensible.
The criterion of adherence to the text has more to do with evaluating the fitness of other styles of music for the liturgy than it has to do with Gregorian Chant itself. Chant must necessarily correspond to the text of the liturgy because the chant books are themselves official liturgical books of the Roman Rite.
At first glance, comprehensibility would be a negative rather than a positive when it comes to Gregorian Chant since most of the faithful do not know even the rudiments of Latin. Two observations are in order. Firstly, the existence of foreign language films with subtitles, the relative ease with which one can print worship aids and the stubborn popularity of opera among certain non-Italian speakers suggests that the language barrier is not as high as it originally appears when it comes to art. Secondly, comprehension of the Ordinary of the Mass in Latin can be attained even without any formal Latin study. In fact, the liturgical documents indicate that the Church considers such comprehension a desirable thing for all Roman Catholics. Far more important than these two points is the fact that comprehensibility in this context does not mean subjective comprehension but the comprehensibility of the music within the context the language employed. Put simply, Gregorian Chant is comprehensible because it sings the Latin clearly and articulately, which cannot be said of much of the popular secular music written in English today. Nor could this be said of certain forms of polyphony.
In speaking of true art, we do well to follow John Paul’s lead. We recognize that any form of music that has continued to exist as a living reality for more than 1,000 years has an unquestionable status as “true art.” An artistic style that lasts for a generation is a fad. One that dominates a century is a movement. The constant that underlies the fads and movements has a relation to what comes and goes much as the trunk of a tree relates to its branches.
When organum and then polyphony were widely used in the liturgy, these styles always existed side by side with Gregorian Chant. At the very least, the celebrant’s orations and the chanting of the readings followed the ancient melodies printed in the Missal and were not subject to the whim of an innovating composer. Those in holy orders who sang in their capacity as clerics during the liturgy had to chant more gregoriano. Thus even the most florid Baroque Polyphony such as Monteverdi’s Vesperi della Beata Vergine begins the with the sober a capella chant of the, Deus in adjutorium meum intende, before an explosion of vocal and instrumental splendor that follows. We should not think of these rubrical restrictions as arbitrary attempts to preserve an obsolete style but as the recognition of the chant tradition as the vital center of the Church’s musical patrimony, the trunk that communicates life to the rest of the tree.