GREGORIAN CHANT: A BAROMETER OF RELIGIOUS FERVOR
By Stephen Thuis, O.S.B., M. Mus. St. Meinrad, Indiana
Gregorian Chant has been for centuries the official chant of the Catholic Church. If the Chant is an external expression of the beauty and sanctity within the Catholic Church -- and thus part of the very life of the Church one is led to expect that the Chant has shared, in the main, the same fortunes as have been the lot of the Church through the ages. That this has been the case, the writer has endeavored to show in the following pages. In fact, it does not seem too much to say that the status of the Gregorian Chant during the centuries may be considered a barometer indicating the state of religious fervor in the Catholic Church at the time.
We might dwell on the argument based upon the very nature of the ideas concerned, by stating that just as, according to the theological axiom, the lex credienti becomes the lex orandi, so the lex orandi should be the lex cantandi - that is, just as the rule of believing" becomes the "rule of praying," so the "rule of praying should be the "rule of singing." This would result in the statement that that is the best form of church music which best corresponds to the lex orandi the "rule of praying." The next step would be to show that Gregorian Chant is the best musical expression of the prayer of the Church. But history confronts us with the fact that periods of religious fervor have been periods in which Chant flourished, and that periods of falling off in religious fervor have been accompanied by the decline of Chant. In fact, a survey of the synchronous histories of the Church and chant discloses a parallelism that is both striking and significant.
It is of interest to note that today we are experiencing a revived appreciation of the plain chant. This, then, would indicate, from the study of the history of the Chant, that we are in the midst of a reawakening of the religious spirit. From the same study one is led to believe that the extended use and perfected rendering of the Chant today will, in its turn, intensify the revived spiritual life of the Christian community.
The writer indulges the hope that whereas he is not aware of any other attempt to treat this phase of the Chant from just this viewpoint, he may be making a modest contribution to the existing literature on plain song.
A treatise such as this, is usually liable to the charge of the construction of facts in accordance with a preconceived idea. It may be interesting to note how Bekker, in his recent The Story of Music, anticipates this.
I shall probably be accused of "construing" the facts in my own way. I shall not dispute the accusation save to add that I know no presentation of history which is not a "construction" in this sense. Every scientific theory is a construction -- we should not allow ourselves to be pleasantly misled as to the significance of alleged "facts." The question is not whether facts are construed, but what is the opacity of the interpretation put upon them. If it leads to a creative attitude, there must be something alive in it, of which we must take heed, even though it may not have received academic sanction.' Here, too, the writer wishes to protest that in treating of the traditional plain song he has not the least idea of condemning the other forms of music, secular or sacred. The enthusiastic devotee of the plain chant will consistently be also an ardent admirer of the opera, as also of polyphony and the modern forms of church music. But as to music that does not possess the necessary requisites of liturgical music, he does insist that it remain in its proper place - that it do not invade the sacred precincts of the sanctuary.
Just as we do not build a church on the same architectural lines as we do an opera house just as Catholic priests do not wear, in the exercise of sacred functions, an evening dress with silk hat, leaving aside the magnificent church vestments used for centuries so the sacred Liturgy of the Church would not bear to be musically clothed after the style of concert music, dances, and love songs (Manzetti, Church Music and Catholic Liturgy).
Before beginning the comparative study of the two histories that of the Chant and the Church - it has been thought advisable to preface the comparison with an opening chapter including observations on the Chant in general. This, it is hoped, will serve to aid an appreciative understanding of the following chapters
Music is the language of love. Hence the Church, as the Bride of Christ, has always sung the praises of her Divine Lover, Jesus Christ. Her praises, in turn, are the echo of that ineffable canticle sung in the Godhead from all ages. For the Eternal Word Jesus Christ is a Divine canticle singing the Father's praise. This is the infinite hymn that ever sounds "in the bosom of the Father," the canticle that rises up from the depths of the Divinity, the Living Canticle wherein God eternally delights, because it is the infinite expression of His perfection.
But Christ does not separate Himself from His mystical Body - the Church. Before ascending into Heaven, He bequeaths His riches and mission to His Church. Christ, in uniting Himself to the Church, gives her His power of adoring and praising the Father, this is the Liturgy. It is the praise of the Church united to Jesus, supported by Jesus or rather it is the praise of Christ, the Incarnate Word, passing through the lips of the Church. Dowered with the riches of Christ, the Church, His Bride, is introduced by Him into the palace of the King of Heaven, into the Father's presence, and there, united to Jesus Christ, she sings - as she will do until the end of ages the canticle sung "in the bosom of the Father" by the word, and brought by Him to earth.
Since, then, a lover is wont to sing - Cantare amantis est, as St. Augustine says the Church has always made use of music just as she has summoned to her service the other fine arts. But This music must be true art, as the sainted Pope of Sacred Music Pius X, admonishes in his immortal Motu Proprio of 1903, on Sacred Music. To quote further from the Motu Proprio, which has force of law for the Catholic Church: Sacred Music should possess, in the highest degree, the qualities proper to the Liturgy, and precisely sanctity and goodness of form, from which its other character of universality spontaneously springs.
It must be holy and must, therefore, exclude all profanity, not only in itself, but in the manner in which it is presented by those who execute it. It must be true art, for otherwise it will be impossible for it to exercise on the minds of those who listen to it that efficacy which the Church aims at obtaining in admitting into her Liturgy the art of musical sounds.
But it must, at the same time, be universal in the sense that while every nation is permitted to admit into its ecclesiastical compositions those special forms which may be said to constitute its native music, still these forms must be subordinated in such a manner to the general characteristics of sacred music that nobody of any nation may receive an impression than good on hearing them. These qualities are to be found, in the highest degree, in the Gregorian Chant, which is, consequently, the Chant proper to the Roman Church, the only chant she has inherited from the ancient Fathers, which she has jealously guarded for centuries in her liturgical codices, which she directly proposes to the faithful as her own, which she prescribes exclusively for some parts of the Liturgy, and which the most recent studies have so happily restored to their integrity and purity.
On these grounds the Gregorian Chant has always been regarded as the supreme model for sacred music, so that it is fully legitimate to lay down the following rule: the more closely a composition for church approaches in its movement, inspiration, and savor the Gregorian form, the more sacred and liturgical it becomes and the more out of harmony it is with that supreme model, the less worthy it is of the temple.
That Gregorian Chant is really the ideal form of liturgical musical expression has been admitted by some of the finest musical minds. As Bewerunge writes: Melodies that have outlived a thousand years and are at the present day attracting the attention of so many artists and scholars, need no apology. It must be kept in mind, of course, that since the language of plain chant is somewhat remote from the musical language of today, some little familiarity with its idiom is required to appreciate its beauty. Its tonality its rhythm, as it is generally understood, the artistic reserve of its utterance, all cause some difficulty and demand a willing ear. Again, it must be insisted that an adequate performance is necessary to reveal the beauty of plain chant.'
Gregorian Chant is essentially prayer sung-not merely music rendered. It is prayer first, music second. Here we see the difference from so-called "religious music," which is so often confounded with liturgical music. By "religious music" here is meant music which has a certain atmosphere of devotion as the "prayer scenes" in the operas, as the oratories, as some "Masses" of the masters, like Bach and Beethoven. "Religious music," be it ever so beautiful and artistic, is not necessarily liturgical music. Liturgical music is prayer "religious music is the expression of the personal emotional reaction in the soul of the individual. In church the composer and singer are there to pray, not to force their own personal mood on others. They are there to aid the faithful to follow devoutly and to realize deeply the awful liturgical action at the altar-they are not there to direct attention to the choir loft.
The priest at the altar is re-enacting the greatest Drama world has ever known-and undoubtedly with deep emotion. Yet he does not make wild grimaces, does not dishevel his hair, does not utter groans and piercing laments. Such belongs to the opera. But here all is idealized, and the individual-with his devotional intensity not at all suppressed, only restrained, restrained from individual caprice and arbitrariness,-is merged into the universal. The exact ceremonies and rites of the Mass serve as an aid and expression of religious feeling, at the same time preventing the most sacred of rites from degenerating into whimsical and arbitrary show. God is here and the music like the priest at the altar- must observe the gravity and reserve proper before the "King of Kings," even though its suit and burden be of the most urgent nature. This is as it should be even before a mere earthly monarch how much more so, then, before the Real Presence of the unspeakable God Himself, before Whom the very angels tremble.
Before taking up the actual comparison of the two histories that of the Chant and the Church -- the writer takes the liberty of mentioning here a difficulty that frequently suggests itself in regard to the plain chant. Many a well-intentioned person complains of an absence of relish for Gregorian Chant. Such a one may, possibly, find it of benefit to ask himself the three following questions. "In the first place, am I really certain that I have ever heard Chant properly and artistically sung?" You would not judge a Beethoven Sonata by its treatment at the hands of an inexperienced school boy-. 'Secondly, am I actually capable of judging according to the standards of ideal liturgical music?" -We have suffered much from mal-education especially in the sphere of church music. In the world of music at large, not every listener appreciates Bach and Beethoven. "Finally, do I really, love prayer?" Gregorian Chant is prayer sung: it is prayer first, music second. Pray the words as you sing - and then judge.
We shall now proceed to consider the various periods of the history of the Chant in relation to the history of the Catholic Church at large. It w ill be well to recall the words of Dickinson in writing of the early Christian music: It [the music of the early Church] was an outgrowth of the conditions of the age, of the necessities of devotional expression, and of that peculiar genius of Catholicism that has made every external phenomenon symbolic of the spiritual life within. The Catholic Church develops, but, in essence she does not change. The history of her music is likewise typical of her whole history.'