Lent and psalm tone

Penitential seasons, one observes, are when Holy Mother Church returns to Her liturgical roots. We notice the unmistakable traces of austere Roman-ness in our Lenten liturgies, a character that intensifies as we approach closer to Holy Week. It is during the entire season of Lent when every feria is honoured with a complete set of readings distinct from that of the Sunday and of the other ferias. We can therefore generally look forward to singing an entirely different piece of Gregorian chant on each of the forty days of Lent.

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Sacromusically speaking, we can expect chant to be sublime and grave. We see a lot of even-numbered modes. Cantors, in fact, who cultivated the Gregorian repertoire for Holy Week tracts, built their comfort zone around the plagal of the Dorian mode. But what is perhaps the most chorally striking about Lent itself is that on its first and last Sundays the longest tracts in the Graduale Romanum are sung. The sheer length of these tracts—Qui habitat for the First Sunday of Lent, and Deus, Deus meus for Palm Sunday—understandably terrifies us cantors and choristers to such a point that for fear of attracting attention either to our indiscreet polyphonies, or to our vocal insecurities, or to our wandering key, we usually whimper into a corner of the choir loft and sing out the tracts in psalm tone.

And so Lent also unmasks our ongoing incapacity to own Gregorian chant, to treat it as a treasure worth displaying in its full glory. For, in reality, the temptation to retreat into the undemanding exercise of psalmodic chanting plagues us the whole year round. Peace is to a succession of puncta and virgæ, as chaos is to a scandicus subbipunctis and a torculus resupinus initio debilis. It is fashionably modernist to think that complexity is a disease, and that its medicine is simplicity. How easily we are egged on to equate time-honoured complexity with hierarchical arrogance and no-nonsense simplicity to self-effacing humility. We do not pride ourselves as modernists, but the idea of simplicity still interests us, usually qualified as noble. And, sadly, we have been deceived that the lingering tradition of psalmodising Gregorian chant has had an ennobling effect on this brand of simplicity.

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History teaches us otherwise. Psalmodising Gregorian chant, in due time, created a humiliating effect on simplicity. The practice altered churchly thought processes, pointing at a direction of a more radical way forward. We have already humbled sacred music by resolving the extraneous salicus, the whimsical porrectus, the contentious quilismata into harmless puncta, to the barest and merest chant grapheme, why cut back in our adventure now? And we wonder why the people enacting the reforms after Vatican II entertained neither trepidation nor indignity in subordinating Gregorian chant, sanctified for centuries in the lips of our saints, to alios cantos aptos, endorsed by eccentrics more for their latent sloganeering than for their liturgical suitability, no. 116 of Sacrosanctum Concilium notwithstanding.

In the usus recentior, an element of enforced uniformity ensures that alii canti apti preferentially remain in the forefront of music in the consecrated edifice. We are thankful, at least, that the modern concept of uniformity attracts weaker clout in the usus antiquior. That is, no one can force us to use psalm tone or use authentic Gregorian melodies, although instructions and decrees govern the exercise of sacred music. We know that approved books for both options are available, and we know that the former practice is tolerated by decree of the Sacred Congregation of Rites. Publication and toleration, however, are not a culmination that leads to naught.

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We like to think that the monks of Solesmes did not compile the Chants abrégés to replace the Graduale Romanum or the Liber usualis. They have worked so dearly to reestablish Gregorian chant in its pristine form and practice, why would they want to throw everything out of the window in 1930? In the same vein, it would be criminal to think that Father Rossini published his psalmodic propers around the same time with the intention of replacing Gregorian propers themselves. After all, his mandate from the bishop of Pittsburgh was to carry out the reforms outlined by Pius X in Tra le sollecitudini, not invent something else. There is, therefore, a common denominator in these two efforts so seemingly separated by distance, and that is the perennial concern and maternal affection of Holy Mother Church for Her children. She understands that not every Catholic can readily cast out the old corrupted praxis and with tantamount haste embosom chant as restored by ongoing scholarship. Chants abrégés indeed advises:

These abbreviated chants are meant exclusively for churches where it is not possible to execute in a convenient manner all the melodies of the Graduale Romanum, and for those which tolerate a simple psalmody of the sacred texts (S. C. R., decree 3697, at 5). Anywhere there exist sufficiently skilled choirs, they should make use of the official chant from the Graduale Romanum.

Ces chants abrégés sont destinés exclusivement aux églises ou il n’est pas possible d’exécuter de façon convenable toutes les mélodies du Graduel Romain, et pour lesquelles on tolère la simple psalmodie des textes sacres (S. C. R. n° 3697). Partout où il existe des chœurs suffisamment exercés on doit s’en tenir au chant officiel du Graduel.

But we need to look beyond this horizon. Boldly we shall claim here what we would otherwise acquiesce to ignore: that psalmodic chant is not an end in itself, to which alone we should aspire to gain impeccable virtuosity. It is not even a paradigm where we can elect to situate ourselves in our attempt to avoid the disagreement between ictualists and semiologists. It is, rather surprisingly, a tool, a methodology, at our employ to attain that supreme goal of mastering Gregorian chant. We, therefore, join fellow workers in the Lord’s vineyard who had noised abroad the oft-overlooked preeminence of the Graduale Romanum [1].

Holy Mother Church believes that we can learn the chant that sanctified hundreds and thousands of Christians before us. It would be a monumental failure on our part if we detect in these psalm-toned propers nothing but an invitation to isolate ourselves in basic simplicity, rather than an encouragement to build steps around that facility and ascend to the summit of sacred music. For these simplified chants personify a foretaste of that heavenly harmony, that holy terror, that hope for the Beatific Vision, we often associate with well-executed Gregorian chant.

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The objective to restore Gregorian chant, driven by paleography, obtained its momentum in the 19th century from the realisation that there was something wrong with what we chanted and how we chanted it, a thorny question that continues to evolve and inspire debate across different disciplines. It was, ultimately, the same festering wound that Charlemagne decided to remedy in 774 A.D., rectifying Frankish chant through a return to the source that was Roman chant [2]. Unfortunately, when some wounds heal, they leave scars. Our inability to wean ourselves from the ease of psalmodic chant cements that blight, that scar, that continues to disfigure the face of sacred music we so zealously claim to defend and uphold.

And we decry this because sacred music and sacred liturgy are inseparable. Qui bene cantat, bis orat, Saint Augustine is thought to have said [3]. “The chant proper to the liturgy” ought to be “the liturgy itself in chant”, says Maestro Fulvio Rampi [4]. Often, it is the gradual, the alleluia, the tract, and the offertory that fall under the scythe of our beholden dedication to psalmodic chant. We thus redouble our disapproval because oftentimes these are the most beautiful parts of the propers of the Mass.

For this we reecho the plea of our predecessors in the choral office: In this holy season of Lent, let us sprint to that extra mile, let us deny our hankering for ease, let us stir our dormant spirits, and sing in full the chants that Holy Mother Church keeps in Her liturgical treasury.

Ut in omnibus laudetur Dominus.


[1] Jeffrey Tucker, Fr. Rossini’s Proper Settings (23 October 2007): New Liturgical Movement (2007) http://www.newliturgicalmovement.org/2007/10/fr-rossinis-proper-settings.html
[2] John the Deacon, De vita Gregorii Magni bk. 2, ch. 9: PL 75 (1845) 91; cf. Monk of Angoulême, Vita Caroli Magni ch. 8.
[3] Saint Augustine, Exposition on Psalm 72: PL 36 (1845) 914.
[4] Fulvio Rampi, Il canto gregoriano: un estraneo in casa sua (16 January 2013): Chiesa (2013) http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/articolo/1350249.html.