A Case for Chant

People often ask me, "What is your favorite liturgical music?" Even after thought, I find this question impossible to answer simply. It is like asking a connoisseur of wine what his favorite wine is - impossible without qualifying what type of wine, what time, what meal pairing, and what sort of event it is for. Similarly, I can't say what my favorite piece of liturgical music is without knowing the context of the particular liturgy, the culture of the people, the instruments, the ensembles, the skill of the musicians, the acoustics of the space, etc.

 

This sort of question also distresses me because it assumes that the question of music in the liturgy is simply a matter of personal taste, as if when I choose music for the liturgy I just pick out my favorites. There are several considerations to hold in balance when asking whether a particular style or piece of music is suitable for Catholic liturgical worship. One of those tensions is between old and new. On one hand, we have the centuries old tradition of Gregorian chant: "The Church recognizes Gregorian chant as being specially suited to the Roman Liturgy. Therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services."1 On the other hand, the liturgy is open to new compositions: "But other kinds of sacred music, especially polyphony, are by no means excluded from liturgical celebrations, so long as they accord with the spirit of the liturgical action."2

 

A civil war of Post-Vatican II liturgy has been fought over what "pride of place" and "spirit of the liturgical action" mean. I've heard many people who favor a deliberate return to chant and polyphony argue that we should do so because it sounds "churchy." If you look to religious scenes in movies and TV, they say, you won't hear guitars, contemporary ensembles, folk music, and tambourines; you will hear chanting, classical choral music, and organ. While the suggestion that we take our cues for liturgy from the entertainment industry makes my skin crawl a little, I wonder if there might be something to the suggestion that certain music is better suited to liturgical prayer than others. I'd like to avoid the usual slinging quotes of church documents as grenades at the enemy, and maybe put something more substantial behind language of "churchiness."

 

Music is something common to humans. It's one artistic expression that can require no tool, no instrument except our voices. Who has not experienced the power of music to move one's whole being - body, mind, and soul? The skill of a composer and musician is in knowing the right ways to craft melody, harmony, rhythm, and timbre in ways that communicate the desire effect on the listener (see Leonard Bernstein's "The Infinite Variety of Music"). Perhaps the people who are most skilled at this are the movie score composers, those people who have told us what is churchy and what is not. They know how to grab us with the right emotion at the right time, to sync it up with the action going on in such a way that we forget that we are just watching a movie from our easy chairs. We have a transcendent moment where we forget ourselves or find ourselves resonating with something happening on the screen in front of us.

 

Music in the liturgy seems to often work the same way. When skillfully prepared and carefully choreographed, we transcend limits of human finitude, meeting God together and praising Him with the gift of our bodies in song. But isn't there something distasteful about having my emotions manipulated? Shouldn't liturgy allow us to freely express our prayers to God rather than programmatically dragging us through a one-size-fits all spiritual program?

 

It seems to me that this may be one of the great merits of unaccompanied song, especially chant. The naked melody has the power to express a meaning, but it is more open-ended than homophony and polyphony. If you were to give 100 composers an unaccompanied melody and asked them to harmonize it, you'd probably come up with 100 variations. But you don't have to be versed in music theory and composition to feel the freedom of music that lets you receive it as you are as a unique individual. We can just intuitively feel the difference whether or not we know how to explain it.

 

Certainly there needs to be a balance in our liturgy between the individual and the community. And certainly, there are times when we need some prodding to push us in a new direction. I believe that chant strikes that balance. Singing the same melody together, we have a sense of the community praying together. The music is not atonal - it suggests harmonic structure but doesn't force it uniformly upon us. Still, how marvelous it is that we can all be singing the same words and same notes at the same time, and yet each of us is having a unique experience. My dynamic, never repeated life provides the harmony. Behind the communal song is an unheard body of masterpieces that is so human and so heavenly.

 

Isn't this the way God works with us? Sure, sometimes we have spiritual experiences where God seems to unexpectedly shake us up, bring us from one place to another. But more frequently, doesn't the Spirit move more subtly and mysteriously, meeting us where we are and working on us little by little over the course of our lives? I definitely won't say that I have the right to tell God how and in what way to be in dialogue with his people. What I do suggest is that we do often need a prayer that is raw, honest, and open to whatever might be said in secret between a single soul and the One who is beyond all sense and understanding, all found within the tradition of faith made present uniquely in the community now gathered.

 

1. Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 116a.

2. SC, no. 116b.