Is Chant Like Folk Music?

Somehow we have this impression that Gregorian chant is part of a high Church ethos. It’s for conservatives and traditionalists who favor their liturgy buttoned up, obedient, and strict. On the other hand, this line of thinking goes, people who want authentic human expression of spontaneous religious experience should embrace popular music and a looser liturgical ethos.

I’ve always been puzzled by this caricature. And it is more than puzzling. It is poisonous to the liturgical debate because it reduces the whole issue to questions of taste, style, and education. It results in a strange class war that has nothing to do with what the liturgy is in its essentials and is asking from us.

If you look back at the roots of chant, and even just take time to understand what it means from a musical and historical point of view, you quickly find that it has nothing to do with music conservatories, stuffy performance venues, and rule-bound authoritarians. And, moreover, it has nothing to do with social class, taste, and educational level. The issue of the chanted Mass is really about whether the liturgy is going to be permitted to be what it is or whether we are going to replace its authentic voice with something else.

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Maybe people forget that Gregorian chant is premodern in its origin. It was not somehow invented in the age of winged collars, top hats, and mutton chops. It arose from the world of the first millennium—before there were universities, conservatories, cathedrals, or individually owned books. Chant arose among people poorer than is even imaginable to us today. The singers were from the lowest class. The composers too were monks drawn from every strata of society. They did not write their music down because no one had figured out how to write music. That only began to happen in a coherent way about the 11th century. The work of the chant composers continued for many centuries and the results have been handed on to us today.

This is why chant is what it is today. And if you look closely, you can discover that first-millennium sense about it. The more you sing it, the more you discover its humane qualities—written and sung by people just like us.

At the same time, it is a window into a world we do not know. The sensibility of chant is spontaneous. It tells stories in the folk vein. It emerged out of a culture of sharing. It wasn’t about musical theory and technique. In those days, people couldn’t write music. Mostly, the people who heard it couldn’t read either. There was no point because books were exceptionally rare and only available to a tiny group. Chant came about within this world to be the most compelling way to express the faith in a worship context.

You know how folk music from the 1960s expresses stories of this lived experience of people, a means to carry on ideas and lessons that provide an authentic expression of truth? In many ways, chant does the same thing.

Readers who were around in the sixties might remember that this was precisely the attractive element behind the “folk Mass” of the period—the paradigm-shattering approach that defined the liturgical experience of a generation and led to the current sad situation in Catholic parish music programs. Chant shares some or many of those qualities that led the “hippies” to imagine that they were breaking with tradition.

Here is Ken Canedo’s recent description of this music and the “free culture” ethos that surrounded it:

The folk song, like the Bible, grew from an oral tradition, pre-dating radio and recording technology. A singer observed a slice of life, turned the observation into a song and, with guitar or banjo, presented it to anyone who would hear, perhaps on a front porch, at the town square, or down in the mine. If people liked it they would sing along and bring the new song home to share with a new audience…. Sometimes the lyrics would change, sometimes the tune was modified, and no thought was ever given to composer credits or copyright protection. A song was a song, something free and sweet for the entire world to sing. And a good song was very sweet indeed.

What strikes me about that description is that if you leave out the banjo part and perhaps the town square venue, you have a pretty good description of the origin of the music behind Gregorian chant. Chant too was passed through an oral tradition, not through one or two generations but through many centuries and over many lands. One of the things that struck researchers of the late 19th century is the remarkable similarity of chants from places as diverse as France and Switzerland and England. There was a certain uniformity to it all.

The oral culture of chant becomes obvious once you look closely. I’m thinking in particular of those chants that use the Parables as the text. Here you have a musically evocative way to tell a story in a culture without books.

Consider the communion chant that sets the final part of the story of the Prodigal Son. This is the happy part of the story, when the father is overwhelmed with joy that his son is back. His son begs forgiveness and the father readily grants it. He is absolutely elated. The text is “It was fit that we should make merry and be glad: for this thy brother was dead and is come to life again; he was lost, and is found.”

Now, if the chant were all about just creating an eery and stern atmosphere of suffering—and a sword-and-sandal epic from Hollywood might have it—this chant could be set in a minor mode and be generally dreary. But no. This is a happy text, one that celebrates the great moment in a father’s life. So of course the monks who put this together in the first millennium chose a happy tune, so happy that you can nearly imagine a dance. It is deeply emotional in that way, almost ecstatic with joy.

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Here is a sung version of it, presented by a single singer. The musical structure is dance-like but of course the setting dictates the presentation and here it is sung with emotional containment fitting to the liturgy. It is a joy to sing too, and it strikes the singer every time. You can just sense the joy and elation of a great turn of events.

Another example of a Parable-based communion chant is Simile Est. This is the story of the merchant who trades pearls. I’m particularly intrigued by this chant because each time it speaks of pearls (margaritas) the melody dips down and rises up again. When the most valuable pearl is discovered, the melody goes wild—at the moment of discovery and then again at the mention of the pearl itself. So the merchant goes into debt to purchase it and the melody digs deep. But then he finds salvation as a result, while the melody soars and settles back down again.

If you were going to construct a song to convey this story to people in a folk-style way, this is pretty much what you would come up with.

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You can listen to this song here.

There are innumerable examples of this type of composition in Gregorian chant. I think of the chant about Lazarus being raised from the dead. The melody reveals the action taking place. So too for the entrance chant that tells the story of St. Thomas and his doubts about the resurrection. The listener can almost hear the physical test taking place. It’s true that there are many formulas in chant too, but what always strikes me is how often the formulas are adapted to accommodate the textual meaning.

Examining them makes you realize that chant is not just liturgical mood music. It is designed to achieve a particular objective that is part of the liturgy, whether that be to inspire deep contemplation, entice a sense of anticipation, evoke a human emotion, or just tell a great story as the one above does.

There are thousands of chants that constitute the corpus labeled as Gregorian. They are hugely diverse. They have many moods and many purposes—as many as there are moods and purposes behind the texts they set. After all, that is the primary purpose of chant: to provide a certain elevation of the text, to make it come alive and live in our presence in a special way.

Folk music swept the Catholic Church in the 1960s because that generation had some sense that it represented a more authentic and human story of faith than the old music did. They were wrong about this, and understandably so. The world of chant in the preconciliar world had indeed become stuffy and cartelized, ruled mostly with an elite who pushed it as the fulfillment of rubrical obligation.

Today matters are different. An elite is dictating the music in your parish but it is a new elite that emerged in the wake of the pseudo-folk trend. Today that group represents the establishment and its existence is dependent on copyright and control. You can’t sing their music without paying them a fee.

But a new generation of chanters is also being raised up, attracted by the sheer authenticity and organic quality that the true music of the Roman Rite represents. Like the folk music of the 1960s, all the chants are free to use, share, and sing. And this stands in stark contrast to the copyright/industrial cartel that distributes music in many parishes today.

It’s a beautiful thing to see history turn like this. But in order to complete the task, the chanting singers of today need to let go of their own high-art attachments and embrace the chant for what it is at its root: the true music of the Catholic people, born of an age before universal literacy in which music itself was a tool of evangelism, communication, and the most authentic form of the worship of God.

Editor’s note: The image above of  “Angel Musicians” was painted by Hans Memling in the 1480s.


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