The Jewish Precedent for Latin Chant

I’ve long written in favor of reestablishing Gregorian chant as the primary musical language of liturgy for Roman Rite Catholics around the world. We’ve taken great steps in this direction with the new Missal in English, which embeds the chant tradition in the heart of the book. And for the first time, we are seeing the release and broad distribution of English chant books for other parts of the Mass.

Even so, many remain unpersuaded. The prospect of a chant revival strikes many as undesirable, and, even if it were desired, it is improbable and even impossible. When people gather and worship, it is said, they want to employ stylistic idioms from their own time and place. For this reason, there is no justification to express profound regret, much less to bemoan the falling away of something of the purer form of music. Legislation is one thing; real life is something else completely.

I don’t buy it. The chant is organic to the liturgy, growing up with it in history and shaping Catholics and their understanding of the liturgical year for more than a millenium and perhaps since the early Church. It is a source of unity for Catholics. It helps us pray, gives structure to our musical expression, roots our singing in liturgical sources, and curbs the role of the ego in art in our worship.

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I suspect that many of the arguments against Gregorian chant have a different root. People believe that we’ve gone so far in the other direction—toward pop tunes at Mass and toward the entertainment style of liturgy—that we can never restore what we’ve lost. What people forget is that the chant tradition was nearly lost forever several times before, but then regained through the hard work of a few.

One might cite the idealism of the efforts of the Solesmes monastery of the late 19th century as an example. Here was a restorationist project that began in earnest. It was not only dedicated to putting a restored chant tradition at the core of the Benedictine monastic life of this one institution.

The monks had an evangelistic purpose not only to purify and perfect the editions of chant; they sought to see these circulated internationally and become the basis of a worldwide practice. Some remarkable accomplishments came out of that effort, not the least of which was the Graduale Romanum in 1908 and most all the important chant books in universal circulation in the 20th century.

And yet, can we really call what they did a success? Chant is undergoing another revival but it has yet to penetrate mainstream Catholic practice, a point that can be demonstrated by a random visit to just about any Catholic parish in the United States. There is a very strong chance that the visitor will happen upon a liturgy that employs no chant: not in the ordinary parts of the Mass and certainly not in the changing propers of the Mass.

An obvious factor in the disruption of the restorationist attempt was the abrupt liturgical reform that followed the Second Vatican Council. Vernacularization did not favor the use of Latin, and the encouragement of the profligate use of “other suitable songs” in place of chant led to a nearly complete abolition of the musical form. Only very recently have we begun to see the emergence of chant in the vernacular—fully 50 years following the Council. It is a vibrant movement but very much in its infancy.

We must ask the question: how secure a position did chant truly have before the liturgical reform if it could so easily and quickly be washed away with events? After all, the reform came in the wake of a Council that legislated the highest possible place for chant in the Roman Rite. What seemed to be lacking was a firm and entrenched use in all aspects of the living liturgy of the faith. Despite every effort before the Council, Gregorian music had not actually become the musical language of Catholics.

Let us compare that experience with another restoration attempt that began in earnest around the same time as that of the Solesmes monastery: the movement to restore Hebrew as the living language of the Jewish people. The analogy is not exact, of course, but comparing the two attempts can reveal just how much more a daunting task Jews faced in this undertaking than Catholics did in theirs. What the Hebrew movement sought was not merely the use of an ancient language in worship or song but the re-institution of a vernacular language itself.

On the face of it, it seems like an impossible ambition. Hebrew was not a vernacular. It was a scholarly language and never a native one, even for those raised in all-Jewish communities. For a millennium and a half, Hebrew had the status in the Jewish world that Latin does today in the Catholic world. It was the language of theology and art, poetry and scholarly discourse. It was something to study but not use in communication in the lives of regular people.

And yet here is the astonishingly fast sequence of events, as recounted in A History of the Hebrew Language by Angel Sáenz-Badillos (Cambridge University Press, 1993 [1988], pp. 269-272).

The first public and prominent call for the restoration of Hebrew came in 1879 with Elizier Ben-Yehuda’s article called “A Burning Question.” He did more than merely advocate. He was a great teacher who wrote the monumental Dictionary and Thesaurus of the Hebrew Language. His method was to combine medieval and ancient sources, drawing on both rabbinic and poetic Hebrew traditions, to forge a composite vernacular that would standardize language. New words were created out of Arabic words that had some semantic relationship to Hebrew. Many words stayed in the language but many were not used and fell out of favor.

Jews who already lived in Palestine had become speakers of the language, first in small family units that found others who would join them in speaking Hebrew in their own homes. The language moved into civic discourse in small cells, academic institutions, and finally in public life. There are informal reports of how the most passionate among them would find someone speaking some other language and say to them: “Jew, speak Hebrew.” And this was compelling in part because of the obvious need for an international language of Judaism in an area with a constant influx of immigrants from central and Eastern Europe.

New immigrants were inclined to continue to speak their own native language. But a unified tongue is a critical element of a unified people with a mission, in this case, the settlement of Palestine under the Zionist idea. Other motivations for changing to Hebrew were the desire to renew Jewish culture and recapture grandeur that they had once experienced as a people in the very place they now lived.

In 1922, Hebrew was accepted as one of the official languages in Palestine. When the state of Israel came into being in 1948, there was no question that Hebrew would be its official language. It became the native tongue of anyone born and raised Jewish in this country, and remains so today. It can and did happen, and in an astonishingly short period of time: some 40 years from proposition to fulfillment of proximate goals and some 60 years until its complete realization.

Again, linguists regard language as the organic enterprise of a people that emerges out of the utilitarian need of people to communicate. By its nature, it resists imposition, design, and prescription. But the restoration of the Hebrew language did not happen spontaneously. Nor did it emerge organically from within the community of Jewish people. It was the result of conscious design and effort on the part of an intellectual (and political) movement that understood that for a people to cohere and thrive as a religious and cultural force required that they possess a unifying mode of communication, a verbal expression of their identity that both came from within and served as a relentless external reminder of what brings them together.

It was an effort very much like that of the Solesmes project combined with the work of Pius X. Indeed, the chant tradition was not nearly as unused in the 1870s in the Catholic world as Hebrew was in the Jewish world. The Catholic was more modest in the sense that it did not seek to make Latin a living vernacular but merely a liturgical foundation for music at liturgy. It was and is eminently achievable. Progress was being made by mid century. Why it did not finally come to be realized in the same way is the subject of another post perhaps, but there is absolutely no reason to believe that it is a hopeless cause.

We can take inspiration for the extraordinary triumph of Hebrew in our own times. What the cause needs more than anything else are passionate leaders at all levels of the Church who are willing to make great sacrifices to make this dream a reality. If the Jews could resurrect Hebrew as a spoken vernacular, against all odds, surely Catholics can work to reclaim their own musical language, which is necessary Gregorian chant, a form of musical expression that continues to be respected and admired the world over. Catholics need to make it their own again.


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