Learning the Discipline of Chant
W. Patrick Cunningham
"Whosoever does not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be
my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does
not sit down first and calculate the cost, and determine whether
he has enough resources to build it? Otherwise, after he lays the
foundation, and is not able to finish the structure, everyone that
sees it mocks him." St. Luke 14:27-29
For about two years, one of the hottest series of titles in the
classical music repertoire has been the CD recordings of chant
from a hitherto unknown Spanish monastery. Those of us who for
years have been encouraging the rediscovery of Gregorian chant
consider this musical coup a bittersweet victory. The music has
won a devoted musical following, it is true. But the religious
significance of the music has been lost, and the highest and best
use of the music-worship-remains largely neglected.
A couple of anecdotes will serve to illustrate this reality: As I
was browsing through a widely circulated CD catalogue recently, I
came upon the first of the albums from the Benedictine Monks of
Santo Domingo de Silos, offered as one of the featured recordings.
Ironically, the title did not appear under "choral" or "classical"
or even "religious" categories. It was classified as "New Age"
music. In other words, the catalogue editors were pandering to the
Generation X and Hippie crowd. "New Age" music can best be
described as "aimless melodies to ingest illegal substances by."
Thus the ageless musical prayer of the church has been
appropriated as music to get "high" on.
Some days later, as I was leafing through an eclectic journal of
aesthetics with a circulation the size of a corporal's guard, I
found that someone had written a short article about using chant
to establish a meditative atmosphere. The female author described
herself as a "hermit-priest" in New Mexico.
These two situations may stand out by being outrageous to a
traditionalist, but they represent what the future may portend for
chant if the Church does not seize the initiative and reclaim her
heritage of plainsong. By standing back and allowing popular
cultural use of chant to be diverted into anomalous paths, the
Church runs several risks.
In the first place, for reasons we will discuss later, it converts
to "easy listening" a music intended for singing in common. Chant
is performance music, in the sense that prayer can be performance.
It is only secondarily for "listening" or "entertainment." In
fact, chant is not entertaining in the popular sense at all. The
history of the marketplace proves that. For many years only a
handful of chant titles were available on tape or CD. Today,
because of trendy market demands, a new title seems to be added
every few weeks. But this fad is transitory. In a basic way we
abuse the chant if we merely listen to it, instead of using it in
Popular church music, whether it be from the Dameans or the
Gaithers, is principally music for listening. Because of the
reliance of pop music on rhythmic and melodic gimmicks, much of it
is literally impossible to sing in common. In that sense, chant,
the consummate music for liturgy, is at its root counter-cultural.
Second, just as with language, so with art, misuse promotes abuse.
We have in one human lifetime seen our decadent culture corrupt
the written English language. Just as the meanings of words can be
changed through repeated misuse (e.g. "Gay" for homosexual,
"choice" for complicity in homicide), so can music be misused so
frequently as to change its original significance. As examples,
consider the many popular songs, like "Pretty Woman," or
"Anticipation" that have been licensed for advertising products.
In some cases, even the original lyrics have been changed to fix
the song's identity forever with that of the product. If we permit
chant to be coopted by secular culture, it may take hundreds of
years to reclaim it from more perverse connotations.
Third, nothing prevents the music and texts of chant from being
altered to fit new uses. Chant was corrupted in some areas during
the Middle Ages by ""roping." Words were added to the liturgical
text without changing the melody. These words were not always
orthodox Catholic doctrine. Thus we could have a perfectly
orthodox Gradual text changed into, for instance, a hymn to the
Earthgoddess. In the same way, chant melodies can be changed by
extension, repetition, or addition. Because of photocopy
technology, it would be very easy to fabricate a set of
pseudochants in any language, and pass them off as legitimate.
Such a turn of events would not easily fool students of the chant,
but there are so few of us that our opinions could not seriously
impede the advancement of bogus imitations.
Besides, in today's "anything goes" ethics and aesthetics, who
would care that the music and text is corrupted, as long as it
But I believe that the worst risk we run by allowing the treasury
of chant to fall into impious hands for secular purposes is that
we will lose the essential element of chant. That element is best
described as its internal discipline. An appreciation of that
discipline is the key to understanding the meaning and performance
of Gregorian chant. In turn, understanding and regularly
praying/performing Gregorian chant is the cornerstone of the
edifice of true liturgical renewal.
The first discipline of chant is the relationship between the text
and the melody. In the main, the unison vocal line of chant is the
servant of the liturgical text. Although plainsong is made up of
many standard phrases assembled in a limited, if large, number of
combinations, each melody is in some way different from all
others, and is well matched to the underlying words. The
exceptions to this rule are very few, indeed. The most frequently
cited example is the use of the same melody for the Introits to
the Feast of the Epiphany, "Ecce Advenit"' and the Common Mass of
the Blessed Virgin, "Salve Sancta Parens."
For nearly every other text, a proper melody has been composed.
The melody fits the text in three ways. By carefully following the
accentuation of the text, the chant avoids emphasizing unimportant
words, and draws the participant's attention to the vital ones. As
an example, consider the Introit for Ascension. The less important
words such as "quid" and "in" are set to single notes, while the
vital words for" Galilee," and "heaven" are set to multiples.
There is even some tone painting going on in this magnificent
Introit. As the cantor intones "Men of Galilee," the music
literally soars upward, in imitation of the Lord's Ascension.
Other examples from the chant literature include the old Matins
antiphons from Holy Thursday, with their dark tonal references to
the traitor Judas. A final instance is found in the Communion
antiphon for the Sunday on which the miracle of Cana is celebrated
(Second in Ordinary Time). The words of Jesus "Implete hydrias
aqua" (fill up the water pots with water) are set to a tune that
should remind us of hard, monotonous labor being done. When the
words of the winesteward are sung, "Servasti vinum bonum usque
adhuc" (You have kept the really good wine until the end!) the
melody soars into the musical stratosphere. It sounds like a
shrill, pouty remonstrance from a functionary to the householder.
These text-enriching melodies are found on almost every page of
the chant literature. Some have even become commonplaces in other
musical compositions. The most notable of these is the first
phrase of the "Dies Irae" from the Tridentine funeral Mass,
probably the most frequently quoted fragment in all of musical
The Ascension Introit fragment also introduces us to the second
element of chant discipline-the melodic shape. Most plainsong
phrases are images of the underlying word-phrase, and have a
parabolic shape. Note that the Introit phrase begins at a low
pitch, rise in steps and short leaps to a high point in mid-
phrase, and then falls off toward the end. Skilled chant singers
emphasize this shape by a crescendo of volume to the peak of the
phrase, followed by a decrescendo to the end. Chant rarely uses
intervals larger than the fourth (C to F). We can contrast this
design restraint with much popular "church" music, in which wild
intervals and rhythmic syncopation provide artificial musical
interest, and the text is deformed from the Scriptural original to
fit the modern composer's idea of a melody. As an example of this
forcing of text into music, one could examine the old standby
"Earthen Vessels" from the St. Louis Jesuits.
The monodic nature of chant is its third distinguishing feature.
Monody is an essential part of the chant discipline. It is
sometimes confused with monotony. I have good friends, including
musicians, who insist that Gregorian chant was "frozen" in its
shape too early, and that its natural development would have led
to harmonization, as in the Russian Orthodox churches. This idea,
however, ignores the fact that Gregorian chant hardly "developed"
at all from its roots in the Jewish synagogue. The melodies became
more melismatic, more decorative, over time. New melodies were
developed as new texts became available. But there is not one
shred of evidence that harmonization of chant was used in the
Western Church before the rise of organum in the early Medieval
period. Because organum was unstable - a transitional form - it
evolved rapidly into early polyphony, but nobody would argue that
polyphonic music is Gregorian chant.
The reason we can reject harmony-as-chant so decisively is that
chant, in its purest, most natural setting, creates its own
transitory harmonies. When sung up-tempo in a resonant setting,
such as a stone chapel without absorbent acoustical tiles, each
series of notes lingers momentarily, blending with its neighbors
in thirds and fourths, and generates an ethereal effect. This
effect is particularly pronounced when repetition reinforces it,
as in the Gradual verse "Benedictus qui venit" from the Dawn Mass
of Christmas. In modern musical terms, this melody features an
outlined F Major triad, reiterated in a descending manner, and is
highlighted by a brief pause after the last note. This triad is
commonplace in Gregorian mode 5, and is a feature of the fifth
mode psalm tone used in the Liturgy of the Hours.
When one attempts to harmonize the chant, by singing thirds or
fourths in parallel to the melodic line, not only are these
internal consonances entirely covered up, but some truly awful
harmony structures can also be produced. On the other hand, the
pure Gregorian melody, when sung briskly by experienced voices,
always produces a singularly positive, almost transcendent
harmonic effect best experienced in person.
In passing, we must insist that the Church reconsider its romance
with plaster and "acoustic" tile if the desire for good music and
actual participation in the liturgical mysteries is authentic. I
consider the most important facet of the design of a church to be
the acoustic effect. If there is adequate reverberation in a
building, perhaps three to four seconds or longer, then chant and
congregational song will both be effective. Furthermore, even a
small pipe organ will sound magnificent. When congregations can
hear themselves sing, they will be able to sing. If their hymns
and psalms are swallowed up by acoustic tile, they will simply not
be able to sing with much intensity.
Unfortunately to produce the kind of magnificent musical results
we associate with our best churches, architects must budget for
brick and stone walls and floors and hard-surfaced ceilings.
Candidly, It is cheaper to use sheetrock and acoustic tile for the
interior facings. The argument is somewhat inartfully made that
"we can't have reverberant churches because our homilies and
prayers are hard to hear." Of course, this argument is fraudulent
in the late twentieth century. In order to have both reverberant
churches and good speaking acoustics, one must simply design a
sound system with an adequate number of loudspeakers, tuned to low
volume, close to the listeners. These can be pre-wired through the
floors into the pews, or retrofitted through the walls. A
civilization that can design theme parks of a couple of hundred
acres, with every square meter bathed in environmental sound, can
wire a church so everyone can hear the preacher, but be able to
experience organ, choir and congregational song fully!
To be frank, Gregorian chant is bound to be far less effective in
a church with absorbent acoustics than it can be in a more ideal
setting. This may be the reason many who have tried plainsong in a
parish have abandoned the attempt: over half the musical effect is
lost in the marshmallow insulation that envelops our modern
The final element of chant that exhibits its disciplined nature is
the melisma. This is, perhaps, the most beautiful and
controversial facet of plainsong. The melody lingers on a syllable
of text, chanting ten, fifteen, twenty or more notes to the same
sound. In the "Benedictus" cited above, the phrase "et illuxit
nobis" (and has shone upon us) ends with a thirty-five note
melismus: This is by no means even close to the longest such
passage in the literature. Such extensions of the chant seem to
the modern ear to be overdone. In a day when "rap" lyrics are fed
to the ear like bullets into a Gatling gun, a singer dwelling for
such an extended period on one sound sounds affected. The very
existence of the "trope" cited earlier demonstrates that other
ages agreed with this superficial judgment. Yet melismas are an
integral part of the discipline. Listen to a good Jewish cantor
for any time to realize why. The melisma is a vital part of the
Semitic root of chant.
The music provides a kind of non-verbal interpretation of the
Biblical words. It is in effect the emotional context of the
textual meaning. Consider one passage from the Christmas Midnight
Mass: "In splendoribus sanctorum, ex utero ante luciferum genui
te." (In the splendor of the holies, from the womb before the
morning star I have begotten You.) On a cognitive level, it would
appear that the most important words for musical expression would
be "splendoribus," "sanctorum" and "genui te." But the chant
setting says something very different: The superficially
"important" words are treated casually. The musical high point of
the prayer is the phrase "from the womb." The reality that the
Godman was literally carried in the uterus/womb of a human being
is what leaves the Church awe-struck on Christmas. As Chesterton
comments, following the Fathers of the Church, what is astonishing
to humans is not that Jesus was God, but that He was truly man.
The chant reinforces this sense of awe. Furthermore, the elaborate
treatment of "ante luciferum" leaves no doubt that the Church is
not thinking of the planet Venus when it sets the child Jesus
"before the morning star." There is a clear reference here to the
divine Nativity as God's redemptive response to the ancient
rebellion of the original summit of creation, the primal morning
star now fallen from grace-old Lucifer himself.
In the whole, this wonderful little Communion antiphon from the
Christmas liturgy constitutes a kind of liturgical protest song
for late twentieth-century America. In its quiet, repetitious
melody it offers the Christ child a lullaby. It celebrates the
fecundity of the Blessed Virgin in a culture that honors sterility
and either ignores or subsidizes infanticide. And in so doing, it
thumbs its nose at the spirit of the age and its ancient rebel
leader. It is noteworthy that this wonderful text, so beloved to
the ancient Church, has been ignored by modern composers.
Now we can return to the stories that began this excursion. In a
sense, we can admit that Gregorian chant is "new age" music. It is
music from the post-Resurrection world. The Resurrection of Jesus
changed everything. It brought new hope and new life to the world.
It gave birth to the Church, the Bride. It signs forth to a world
of rebellion against God the beauty of a disciplined and obedient
liturgical life in Christ. In a real sense the Resurrection gave
birth to the chant because it gave the Church a form of expression
for the prayer that sprang from the Paschal mystery, the Mass. It
is the transformation of the music of the synagogue into the music
of the Church. It is the voice of the Bride for her Bridegroom.
We cannot allow chant to be relegated to the realm of "easy
listening because chant is not meant to be easy. It is the musical
narrow door through which the Church passes daily on her way to
praise Her Savior. It demands musical excellence, habitual
practice, and a discipline of mind and heart that subordinates the
self to the Word even as the melody is subordinated to the text.
A number of years ago a psychiatrist was called in to consult on a
monastery that was falling apart because of stress. The clinicians
tried everything. Their problems only cleared up when the
psychiatrist put them back to regular use of chant in their
prayer. Chant is a discipline that cannot be taken up lightly. It
is hard work, though uplifting and rewarding. In time, any
treatment of chant short of total devotion will be mocked and
The Church cannot lose her chant heritage to "the world," because
it would be the loss of the artistic soul and disciplined form of
Christendom. It therefore follows that to regain that musical form
and reclaim it in its richness will be to come closer to the
divine intent for the Church. If we accept its internal
disciplines, and reappropriate our music as we enter the twenty-
first century, we will follow the Master's decree that, as wise
householders, we bring forth from our storehouse treasures both
old and "new."
W. Patrick Cunningham, CLU, ChFC, MSFS, works for Connecticut
Mutual Insurance company. He is also a teaching associate in
finance at the University of Texas, San Antonio.
Taken from the July/August 1996 issue of "Fidelity" Magazine, 206
Marquette Avenue, South Bend, IN 46617. Subscription price is
$25.00 per year. Letters to the editor may be sent by fax, 219-
289-1461, or by electronic mail to CompuServe 71554,445.