Why Do People Want to Learn Chant?

It was my great fortune to be asked recently to substitute teach a master class on Gregorian chant. The event was the Church Music Association of America’s Winter Chant Intensive. The original instructor for the men, David Hughes, became very ill—vale of tears!—and another great conductor, Richard Rice, was called upon to teach the men among the attendees.

But there was a day until the real teacher could arrive, which allowed me the chance to come and teach and get to know some of the attendees. There were forty in total but the program was filled to capacity weeks before the official closing of registrations—an experience that has been typical of the last few years. Chant instruction is in high demand.

Think of this. These are people who have decided to take a full week out of their lives just to go to class to study chant. The coursework is not expensive but the time is. They came from all over the country too. It is a very difficult program. It is rightly named: very intense. But you leave with the ability to perform a new art specifically for liturgy.

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We have been encouraged of late to examine the motivations of those who are seeking to become part of the solution in their parishes. A recent argument made by Audrey Seah, a 2012 graduate of Saint John’s University School, for the blog Pray Tell, offered some speculations.

The sheer instability of the postmodern world, speculates Seah, rattles people to the point that they take recourse to “arbitrary authoritarian sources such as tradition.” “The result is a false and shallow objectivity,” Seah writes, “that manifests itself through partisan support for particular interpretations of liturgical aesthetics and obsessions over the letter rather than spirit of the law.”

Now, this is interesting. Nothing like this was present among the people I met at this great event. They were both men and women. They were both young and old. They had different national origins. Even a variety of faith traditions were present here. None of them seemed especially rattled by postmodernity and none seemed to be irrationally seeking out “arbitrary authoritarian sources.”

On the contrary, the main emotion I saw was love—love for the faith, for music, and for beauty. In other words, it is exactly what you might expect. Only love could drive people to take on this task. The letter is important, yes, but the spirit is what motivates and inspires.

As I told people at the opening, agreeing to this task is pretty courageous. The goal of the week was to learn to read new notation, point psalms, learn a new musical language, sight read music from thick and complicated books, blend with others, master new vocal sounds and approaches, as well as discover for the first time the place of music within the musical structure of the Roman Rite of Mass.

Learning is hard. It is never for the faint of heart. Music is especially hard. It is far easier to rest on one’s laurels and congratulate oneself for the hymns you sing week to week. Moreover, there is not usually any money in learning to sing chant. There are no chant jobs available like there would be for a singer. You get no real bonus points from anyone. The pastor is not usually pushing very hard for the change.

The notion that anyone would do this because of fear strikes me as…implausible. I saw fear on no one’s faces. I saw exactly the opposite. They were excited. They were fearless. They were dedicating themselves to making a change toward the good.

As musicians, they want to contribute their talents toward the improvement of the liturgy. They want to take part in making liturgy more beautiful and true to itself. They want to be part of the real thing. They are tired of substitutes for the real thing. They know that the only reason they are not singing chant now is because they need to acquire the skills. So they set out to acquire them as a way of making a greater contribution to the great liturgical project.

Plus, these people can read Vatican II. They know what the documents say. They are aware that there is some music that is tied to the ritual and other music that is just tacked on. They would like to do their part to fulfill the hope of the Council by singing the actually music that is integral to the liturgy.

Simple, right? I think so. It is also inevitable. The Roman Rite craves chant. It cries out for its use. It is the most natural and normal music. When it is not heard, when it is not part of the rite, there is something serious missing. You only need to hear a chanted Mass one time to sense it. It just belongs.

I admire the people who set out to learn and make chant part of their contribution to the life of the faith. They are bold, progressive, courageous, and they often take this task on at great personal expense. They do it because they know that the faith is calling on singers to do their part.

It is no more or less simple than that.

As usual, I had some sense that the most valuable thing I taught them was the musical structure of the rite itself. This is what begins the process of understanding the task that confronts musicians. We brought plenty of copies of William Mahrt’s book The Musical Shape of the Liturgy. This is the book that puts it all together.

Studying this musical structure, you discover that the celebrant has a special role. The people have a special role. And the specialized musicians have a special role too. It goes beyond just leading the people. The traditional responsibility of trained singers is to sing the propers of the Mass, the passages from scripture that are part of the liturgy at the entrance, the chants between the readings, the offertory, and the communion. Each chant has a different function and sound. And each makes a special contribution to make the liturgy more noble and true to itself.

It is a huge responsibility but people take it on because it is such gratifying work. We play a small part in carrying the chant tradition from the past to the future. It is not about “performatism.” It is about using whatever talents we have to enhance the prayer life of the Church through her liturgy.

Editor’s note: The image above entitled “Christ Surrounded by Musician Angels” was painted by Hans Memling in the 1480s.


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