Rorate Caeli

Gregorian Chant: Perfect Music for the Sacred Liturgy

I am pleased to publish here at Rorate Caeli the full text and video of the lecture I gave on Gregorian chant as the supreme model of sacred music—a reservoir of faith and a wellspring of devotion—at the Sacred Liturgy Conference in Spokane, Washington, in May of 2019. The organizers of the Sacred Liturgy Conference gave me permission to post the video, which I recommend for its slides and musical examples. However, the text may be of value to those who prefer to print it out and read it. There are slight discrepancies between text and video that make no difference to the meaning. PAK

Gregorian Chant: Perfect Music for the Sacred Liturgy

Peter A. Kwasniewski

One might think that something called “plainchant” or “plainsong” would not furnish much to talk about; after all, its very name says it’s plain and it’s chant. In reality, Gregorian chant it is anything but plain, except in the sense that its beautiful melodies are meant to be sung unaccompanied and unharmonized, as befits the ancient monastic culture out of which they sprang. What we call “Gregorian chant” is one of the richest and most subtle art forms in Western music—indeed, in the music of any culture. In my presentation today, I will first give a rapid sketch of the history of chant, then address why we sing our liturgy rather than merely speaking it, and finally delve into the characteristics that make Gregorian chant uniquely suited to the Catholic liturgy.


To understand the origins of chant, we must go back to the Church’s Hebrew roots. The tradition of chanting Scripture—a practice known as cantillation—began at least 1,000 years before the birth of Christ. In the Old Testament, the Book of Psalms and the Books of Chronicles speak of musical instruments and the central function of music in temple worship. There were two basic forms of worship for the Israelite: the bloody sacrifice, involving the death and destruction of an animal, which represents the total surrender of one’s being to God in adoration, obedience, and humble self-effacement; and the chanted psalter, expressing our praises and petitions, as “verbal incense” offered up to God by our intellects. Since the Psalter of David was composed for the very purpose of divine worship and was seen as the messianic book par excellence, the first Christians spontaneously chose the Psalter for their prayer book. We see Peter, Paul, and the Apostolic Fathers quoting it countless times in their preaching and letters. Moreover, Christians saw the Lord’s offering of Himself on the Cross as the fulfillment of all the bloody animal sacrifices; the Eucharist makes present the reality and fruits of this supreme sacrifice in an unbloody manner suitable for those who have been redeemed. Thus, all Christian liturgy can be said to spring from the combination of Psalter and Sacrifice. We should not be surprised, then, to find that the traditional Roman rite of Mass, which is primarily a sacrificial offering, is permeated throughout with verses from the Psalms; and that the other great public prayer of the Church, the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours, is primarily composed of Psalms, yet with incense burned at the altar during the Gospel canticles—an acknowledgement of the one supreme sacrifice that unites heaven and earth.

The early Christians continued to chant psalms and other prayers in the Hebrew manner familiar to them from the Temple worship in Jerusalem and from the synagogues spread throughout the Roman world. Some Gregorian melodies still in use are remarkably close to Hebrew synagogue melodies, most notably the ancient Gospel tone, the Preface tone, and the tone used for Psalm 113, the “Tonus Peregrinus.” But Christians also absorbed influences from surrounding Greek and Roman music, particularly in the development of the system of eight “modes.” This system—like so much else—developed separately in the Latin and Byzantine realms, which roughly correspond to the Western and Eastern halves of the ancient Roman Empire. To this day, most Latin chants and most Byzantine chants fall into eight modes, but the only thing these modes have in common is that there are eight of them. (I’ll talk more about modes later on.)

Chant developed prodigiously in the first Christian millennium. Over time, not just the psalms and their antiphons were cantillated, but also the Scripture readings, orations, intercessions, litanies, instructions (e.g., “Flectamus genua”), and, in general, anything meant to be proclaimed out loud. By the time we reach Pope St. Gregory the Great, who reigned from 590–604, a body of chant already existed for the Sacrifice of the Mass and the daily round of prayer (Divine Office). Even as he gave final form to the Roman Canon, which is the defining trait of the Latin rite, St. Gregory organized this musical repertoire, as a result of which the chant ever afterwards has been honored with his name: “Gregorian.” The core of the Gregorian chant repertoire dates to before the year 800; the bulk of it was completed by the year 1200.

It deserves mention that the chant of the Roman church was not the only chant being used in the Latin-speaking sphere of the Catholic Church. There was also the Ambrosian chant of Milan, the Mozarabic chant in Spain; and the Gallican chant of Gaul. As different as their melodies and particular texts were, these regional types of chant shared the exclusive use of the Latin language and the system of eight modes. Due to Charlemagne’s centralizing ambitions and his allegiance to the papacy, the Roman rite was brought into the Frankish empire. During its transalpine sojourn, many Gallican elements were incorporated into the Roman rite. Later on, these migrated back to Rome. The medieval Roman liturgy was, therefore, an amalgamation of ancient Roman and Gallican sources.

Since chant was the custom-made music that had grown up with the Church’s liturgy, the chant traveled wherever the liturgy traveled. No one dreamed of separating the texts of the liturgy from their music; they were like a body-soul composite, or a happily married couple. Or you could compare the chant to the vestments worn by the priest. The chants are the garments worn by the liturgical texts! We might even dare, with medieval freedom, to apply the words of Psalm 103 to the chant in relation to the liturgy: “Thou hast put on praise and beauty: and art clothed with light as with a garment.” In the Transfiguration of Christ, there were two elements: the mortal body of our Savior; and the radiance of glory He allowed to shine through His body from a soul already enraptured in the beatific vision. In some ways, the chanted text is a transfigured text, radiant with an otherworldly glory that reminds us of our true home.

Gregorian chant flourished in the period ca. 600 to the mid-sixteenth century. The Council of Trent (1545–1563) reaffirmed the place of chant in the liturgy and discouraged the use of excessively complex polyphonic music, especially when it was based on secular tunes. Nevertheless, there began to be a decline in the use and quality of chant, caused in part by the increasing splendor, variety, and quantity of polyphonic music. Monteverdi’s Vespers of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Handel’s Carmelite Vespers are two fine examples of the kind of music that supplanted simpler forms, at least where patrons could afford it. The accent on splendor was particularly emphasized by the Counter-Reformation, which coincided with the Baroque phase of the fine arts. This meant that, to some tastes, chant was just a little too… plain for the perceived needs of the moment. It continued to be used, of course, but it was sidelined.

Old melodies became abbreviated or corrupted, neums were forced to conform to a regular beat like the metered music of the day, and new chants were written that lacked the inspiration and savor of the originals. One who picked up a Graduale in Germany in the 19th century would find melodies stripped of their melismas or melodic embellishments, so that they could be chanted as quickly as possible, and the choir could “get on with” the “real” music in parts or with instruments. This utilitarianism took away the chief beauty of the chants and spoiled the internal balance of the parts of the liturgy.

Restoration of such an immense treasure of the Church—and such an integral part of her solemn liturgy!—was bound to come sooner or later. It came through the combined efforts of a monk and a pope. Dom Prosper Guéranger (1805–1875) founded Solesmes Abbey in 1833 and built it up into a powerhouse of monastic observance, including the fully chanted Divine Office and Mass. The monks of Solesmes pored over hundreds of ancient and medieval manuscripts in their work to restore the chant’s distinctive melodies and rhythms. Soon after his accession in 1903, Pope St. Pius X met in Rome with monks of Solesmes and placed on their shoulders the monumental task of publishing the liturgical books of chant, with corrected melodies and rhythms. From this papal directive was born a long string of influential publications from (or licensed by) Solesmes—most of which are still in use today, most notably the Liber Usualis, the Graduale Romanum, and the Antiphonale Monasticum.

From Guéranger, Solesmes, and Pius X to Chapter 6 of the Second Vatican Council’s Constitu­tion on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium is a straight and logical line. (I am aware that this Constitution has received, and deserves, much criticism, but Chapter 6 happens to be thoroughly traditional.) Let me share with you some choice words from that document—words that many of you may already be familiar with:

The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as sacred song united to the words, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy. . . .
       Accordingly, the sacred Council, keeping to the norms and precepts of ecclesiastical tradition and discipline, and having regard to the purpose of sacred music, which is the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful, decrees as follows. …
       Liturgical worship is given a more noble form when the divine offices are celebrated solemnly in song . . . The treasure of sacred music is to be preserved and fostered with great care. Choirs must be diligently promoted . . . The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy, with the result that, other things being equal, it ought to be given the foremost place in liturgical services. 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.

I have to say that the first time I read these words many years ago, I was dumbfounded. They corresponded to nothing whatsoever that I had ever experienced as a Catholic growing up in America in the 1970s and 1980s, attending a church with purple carpets, Star Trek lighting, and heavily amplified singers, where the gold standard was “On Eagle’s Wings” or “Yahweh, I Know You Are Near.” The original Liturgical Movement out of which these stirring words of Sacrosanctum Concilium came was devoted to restoring and recovering the richest and most beautiful traditions of Catholic prayer, not to abandoning them and replacing them with second- or third-rate folksy substitutes. An explosive combination of fantasy antiquarianism and a craze for aggiornamento or modernization effectively burned down the house of Catholic worship, obliterating chant from the lives of Catholics. The good news is that a slow process of rebuilding, here and there, has brought back Gregorian chant from near extinction to a moderately flourishing condition again. In any case, chant will never die because it is perfect liturgical music, and whenever this fact is rediscovered, people fall in love with it all over again.

Now, the Council Fathers offer no explanation of why Gregorian chant is the music proper to the Roman Rite—or why, more broadly speaking, ancient chant is proper to the celebration of the liturgy. Were they simply taking it for granted? That might have been naïve of them. It goes without saying that it cannot be taken for granted today, at least in the West. I therefore wish to provide a rationale for the consistent and predominant use of Gregorian chant in the Latin or Roman rite.


Before I go into the eight special qualities of chant, I would like to tackle a more basic question: Why do we sing our liturgical texts? Why not just speak them?

In all religions of the world, we find the chanting of sacred texts. This universal practice derives from an intuitive sense that holy things and the holy sentiments that go along with them should not be talked about as ordinary everyday things are, but elevated to a higher level through melodious modulation—or submerged into silence. Authentic rituals, therefore, tend to alternate between silences and chanting. Both of these may take place by themselves or in conjunction with symbolic actions. The contrast between singing, which is human expression at its highest, and silence, which is a deliberate withholding of discourse, is more striking than the contrast between speaking and not speaking. The former is like the rise and fall of ocean waves, while the latter seems more like switching a lightbulb on and off.

Speech is primarily discursive and instructional, aimed “at” a listener, while song, which more easily and naturally unites many singers into one body, is capable of being in addition the bearer of feelings and of meanings that go beyond what words can convey, greatly augmenting the penetrating power of the words themselves. We find this especially in the “melismas” of chant, the lengthy melodic elaborations on a single syllable that give voice to inner emotions and aspirations that words cannot fully express. “The word that surfaces on our lips frees itself from its limitations and expands into song,” as Giacomo Baroffio puts it (23); chant “is music that infuses deep spiritual recesses with words and breaks the limits of lexical meaning by expressing with sound the ineffable vibrations that otherwise would not be able to free themselves from the human heart” (37).

Here’s a wonderful example of a melisma-filled chant from the Paschal season: the Offertory chant for Easter Thursday, which takes a verse from the Old Testament, from Exodus chapter 13, and applies it to the newborn Christians: “In the day of your solemnity, saith the Lord, I will bring you into a land flowing with milk and honey, alleluia.”

The philosopher Victor Zuckerkandl says:

Music is appropriate, is helpful, where self-abandon is intended or required—where the self goes beyond itself, where subject and object come together. Tones seem to provide the bridge that makes it possible, or at least makes it easier, to cross the boundary separating the two. … By means of the tones, the speaker goes out to the things, brings the things from outside within himself, so that they are no longer “the other,” something alien that he is not, but the other and his own in one. … The singer remains what he is, but his self is enlarged, his vital range is extended: being what he is he can now, without losing his identity, be with what he is not; and the other, being what it is, can, without losing its identity, be with him.

Ultimately, it comes down to this: we sing when we are at one, or wish to be at one, with our activity or the object of our activity. This is true when we are in love with another person. It is most of all true when we are in love with God. That is the origin of the incomparably great music of the Catholic tradition. St. Augustine says: “Only the lover sings.” We sing… and we whisper… and we fall silent.

In the course of this discussion, Zuckerkandl makes a point that reminds me painfully of years of growing up in the Novus Ordo with congregations reciting together the Gloria or the “Holy, Holy, Holy”: “Can one imagine that people come together to speak songs? One can, but only as a logical possibility; in real life this would be absurd. It would turn something natural into something utterly unnatural.” The recitation of normatively sung texts at a Low Mass “works” only because the priest alone is saying the texts, and doing so at the altar, ad orientem. He is not addressing the words of the song to anyone except God. They thereby acquire a ritual status comparable to that of the recited Canon. The speaking of sung texts is not liturgically ideal; really this form of Mass developed for the personal devotion of the priest when celebrating at a side altar with a clerk. To have a large church packed with people and then to say the songs together rather than singing them should strike everyone as odd.

Then, there are the practical reasons for singing. As experience proves, texts that are sung or chanted with correct elocution are heard with greater clarity and forcefulness in a large assembly of people than texts that are read aloud or even shouted. The music has a way of carrying the words and making them penetrate the listeners’ ears and souls (e.g.: “Dominus vobiscum”). In ancient times, epic and lyric poetry, and even parts of political speeches, were chanted for this very reason. Acts of public worship are rendered more solemn, and their content more appealing and memorable, by the singing of clergy, cantors, choir, and congregation.

Allow me to digress for a moment on the use of microphones and speakers in churches. Electrical amplification is unnecessary when architects build spaces that resonate properly and liturgical ministers learn how to sing out. A well-built church with well-trained singers has absolutely no need of artificial amplification. Moreover, contrary to one of the key assumptions behind the wreckovation of our rites, not everything in the liturgy has to be seen or heard by everyone. Obviously one can’t imagine a modern-day airport without loudspeakers for announcements; but when the same technical, pragmatic, impersonal, and unfocused type of sound-production invades churches, it is a tragedy. In a church, the microphone kills the intimacy, humility, locality, and directionality of the human voice. The voice now becomes that of a placeless giant, a Big Brother larger than life, coming from everywhere and nowhere, dominating and subduing the listener. Putting mics and speakers in a church does not enhance a natural process; it subverts it. There is no continuum between the unaided voice and the artificially amplified voice: they are two separate phenomena, with altogether different phenomenologies.

So, then, on to the special characteristics of chant.


Primacy of the word. Chant is, above all, music in service of God’s revealed word, to which it grants primacy. It is sung prayer, a form of that logike latreia or “rational worship” that St. Paul in the Epistle to the Romans (12:1) says we are to offer up to God. The chant exists to proclaim and interpret divine words or human poetry inspired by those divine words. In this respect, it is unlike much later music, where the text serves almost as an “excuse” for the music, a necessary scaffolding for human voices, or where texts of human authorship can be of inferior quality or theologically problematic. Most Gregorian chants deliver to us God’s own words in Scripture, sung in musical phrases that draw out the words’ depth of meaning. Dom Jacques Hourlier quotes Fr. Hameline who says: “It is not a question of adding music to the words, nor even of setting words to music. … Instead it is a question of making the words bring forth the music they already contain.”[i] Chant is an exegesis of the text: the melody and rhythm is not casually or incidentally related to the text, but unpacks and savors its truth, emphasizing this or that aspect of it. Chant may thus be called “musical lectio divina.” It illuminates the words much as medieval scribes illuminated capitals and decorated margins.

To show how chant is musical lectio divina, let’s have a look at this communion chant from the Epiphany season. [There is an extemporanous explanation in the video of the lecture.]

Free rhythm. Precisely on account of the foregoing characteristic, Gregorian chant is “ametrical” or “non-metrical”—the only music of its kind in the Western tradition. Gregorian musical phrases follow the irregular rhythm of scriptural texts. Unlike the pagan poets of Greece and Rome, the Hebrews did not have metered poetry. The Greek and Latin translations of the Psalms, faithful to the character of the original, are not metrical either. Moreover, the Church Fathers were opposed to the use of strongly rhythmical music in the liturgy—“music with a beat”—as it smacked too much of pagan cults. Because chant is not confined to a predetermined grid of beats, such as duple or triple time (think: a march or a waltz) but conforms to the syllables of the words, its phrases seem to float, flow along, meander, and soar. It breathes rather than marches ahead; it moves with a wave-like undulation, or like birds circling in the sky. Non-metricality and modality are the two characteristics that most obviously distinguish chant from all other music. A large part of the “magic” of chant is caused by its unconstrained fluidity and freedom of motion, which seems to break out of the hegemony of earthly time and the constraints of the flesh represented by the beat.

In the old Solesmes method, one can illustrate the non-metricality of chant by counting groups of 2s and 3s (binary and ternary groupings). As criticized as this approach has been—written off as a romantic reconstruction—no alternative method has proved capable of equaling the old Solesmes method in lyricism, tranquility of spirit, ensemble unanimity, and liturgical fittingness, let alone pedagogical clarity and ease. Since these qualities are actually rather important for us as believers and worshipers, my vote still goes with the old Solesmes method in general, although I do not mind incorporating ideas from the more recent Solesmes school, such as the repercussion of each note in a distropha or tristropha, the omission of the so-called vertical episema, the extension of a one-note horizontal episema over its neighboring note, and greater attentiveness to changes in tempo. Still, it is always my advice that new or large scholas should sing together with the old method, while only the cantors or a small schola of picked singers should try to bring in any of the newer insights, and only to the extent that it produces results edifying for all.

Modality. A mode may be defined as a particular sequence of whole steps and half steps (taking for granted the Western predilection for eight steps in a scale), among which there is a dominant (or reciting) tone and a final tone on which the music comes to rest. The eight modes fall into four “authentic” modes (1, 3, 5, and 7), called Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, and Mixolydian, and four “plagal” modes (2, 4, 6, and 8), called Hypodorian, Hypophrygian, Hypolydian, and Hypomixolydian. A plagal mode has the same final, but starts a fourth below it and ends a fifth above it.

All pre-Baroque Western music (and some post-Baroque music, too) was written using these modes. “Scarborough Fair,” for example, is in the Dorian mode, as are many other English folksongs. But due to the prodigious development of harmony in the Renaissance and of harmonic theory in the Baroque era, music after 1600 crystallized around what came to be called major and minor keys, which correspond (more or less) to only two of the original eight modes.

While the major/minor system of tonality allowed for sophisticated chord sequences and dramatic modulations, melodies were forced into tighter confines, and the subtle variations in feel or mood made possible by the modes were lost—except in chant. And how wonderfully various are these modal moods! Medieval musicologists assigned a special descriptive epithet to each mode: the first was called modus gravis; the second, modus tristis; the third, modus mysticus; the fourth, modus harmonicus; the fifth, modus laetus; the sixth, modus devotus; the seventh, modus angelicus; and the eighth, modus perfectus.

Because our ears are so habituated to the major/minor key system, Gregorian chants, which employ eight different modes that seldom conform to our modern musical expectations, strike us as otherworldly, introspective, haunting, incomplete, or to use a term that has been applied to Byzantine icons, “brightly sad.” We should rejoice in this fact, which illustrates a general rule: an ancient art form is more, not less, likely to be associated by a modern believer with the holiness and unchanging truth of God, His strangeness or otherness, His transcendent mystery, the special homage He deserves, and the need for our conversion from the flesh to the spirit, that is, from a worldly mentality to a godly one: “Be not conformed to this world, but be reformed in the newness of your mind” (Romans 12:2). The very differentness of the art form, which the passing of ages has accentuated, acquires theological and religious significance. We see the same thing with the use of ancient liturgical languages, silver or gold chalices, ornamented priestly vestments, the wearing of veils by women, and Romanesque or Gothic architecture. All of these things have acquired expressive and impressive power due to their longstanding exclusive association with divine worship. In other words, I want to say that we have advantages, in a sense, that medieval people didn’t have.

Unison singing. Because the focus in Gregorian chant is on the word of God as it gathers us into the one Body of Christ, it is eminently fitting that it be sung in unison—that is, everyone singing the same melody at the same time. As a 1974 document from the Vatican put it (another document that was, incidentally, ignored by nearly everyone):

Gregorian chant will continue to be a bond that forms the members of many nations into a single people, gathered together in Christ’s name with one heart, one mind, and one voice. This living unity, symbolized by the union of voices that [otherwise] speak in different languages, accents, and inflections, is a striking manifestation of the diversified harmony of the one Church. (Introduction to Jubilate Deo)

The subtle rhythm of chant and the much-admired inventiveness and intricacy of its melodies are, in fact, only possible because of this insistence, at once practical and symbolic, on unison singing. Harmonized music adds splendor to ceremonies, but it involves a certain sacrifice in melodic purity and complexity. While I am passionately fond of polyphonic Mass Ordinaries, and have composed a few myself, I nevertheless believe that there are irreducibly distinct and great qualities in the plainchant Masses that make them singularly appropriate to the spirit and letter of their liturgical texts. 

We can make a few generalizations about the Gregorian chants of the Ordinary. The Kyrie, with its melismatic melodies, has the character of intensely pleading for divine mercy. Its traditional ninefold structure gives it a doubly underlined Trinitarian character. As befits a longer text, the Gloria chants are syllabic or neumatic (that is, each syllable of the text is set to one musical note or, at most, a few notes) and full of solemn joy, in keeping with a hymn intoned by angels in honor of the Redemption. The Credo melodies are simple and stately, graceful and balanced, perfectly paced for the prayerful confession of the dogmas of faith.[ii] Like the Gloria, they tend to avoid melismas, except for the Amen. The chant settings of the Sanctus, hymn of the angels par excellence, are particularly solemn, owing to the proximity of this prayer to the offering of the Holy Victim on the altar. The Sanctus often features broad, lofty, noble, soaring, ecstatic melodies. The Agnus Dei, a miniature litany that complements the penitential Kyrie, features a tripartite structure. The melodies are focused, imploring, and reserved, since they are being chanted in the very presence of the King.

Unaccompanied vocalization. To this day, Eastern Christian tradition does not allow instrumental music in the liturgy: it has clung to the ancient rule that in the temple of God only the human voice should be heard—the God-given, inborn instrument of the rational creature made (and remade) in the image of the incarnate Logos, Christ, the “New Song,” as St. Clement of Alexandria calls Him. While the Western Catholic tradition starting in the Middle Ages was friendlier to the development of both accompanied and instrumental music—and with magnificent results!—it cannot be denied that Roman Catholics have often faced the difficulty of keeping our music sacred, or to put it negatively, keeping the profane out of the temple. As Joseph Ratzinger points out, there have been three major periods of encroaching secularism: the century before Trent; the century before Pius X’s Tra le sollecitudini; and the half-century after Vatican II, down to the present day.

Although this fourth characteristic is perhaps the least startling (especially since there are other types of vocal music frequently sung unaccompanied, such as Renaissance polyphony), it remains true that the sound of the naked human voice raised up to God in prayer is singularly real, sincere, humble, focused—and less vulnerable to the kind of distractions that come with the use of instruments, especially when played virtuosically, rambunctiously, or just plain loudly. (Sometimes chant is quietly accompanied by a modest organ accompaniment, but this is not optimal. People learn over time to sing better, more confidently, and with more satisfaction when they are not “leaning” on an organ for support.) Few things witness more impressively to the unity, antiquity, and universality of the Church than a large congregation chanting the Creed together at Mass, demonstrating in action that the Church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.

Anonymity. The vast majority of Latin chants were composed by anonymous monks, cantors, and canons. We will never know their names in this life. What a healthy corrective to the egotism that often comes with artistic creativity and performance! Chant quenches distinctive personality—both in that we usually do not know its author, and in that we cannot “shine” or stand out in a rock-star way when singing chant in a schola or congregation. It works against the desire for show, encourages a submersion of one’s individuality in Christ, and makes us act and feel as members of the Mystical Body. Like other traditional liturgical practices, use of chant strips us of the old man and clothes us with Christ. This process of conversion needs to be gentle and continual if it is to be ultimately successful. It cannot be the result of fits of enthusiasm, emotional highs, or psychological violence.

Emotional moderation. It would be a mistake to say chant is without emotion. The melodies are deeply satisfying to sing and to listen to (when well executed). They plumb the depths of joy and exultation, bitterness and sorrow, yearning and trustful surrender. They express many fine shades of feeling. They can even induce tears in one who is spiritually sensitive. However, the emotions in chant are moderate, gentle, noble, and refined. They induce and conduce to meditation—to the flight of the spirit into God, who is Spirit. In this way, chant is well suited to the ascent of prayer, which begins with a symbol or text that we encounter, on which we ruminate, from which desire is kindled, and which, when God favors us, rests in His embrace, as we gaze on Him. I am referring here to the four stages of lectio divina, which Guigo the Carthusian identifies as lectio, meditatio, oratio, contemplatio.

The “temperance” of chant takes on a special importance in our times, when so many people live a fast-paced (if not frantic!) life, busily rushing over the surface of things, hyped up and wired, excitable and even wearied from too much emotional stimulation (e.g., music, movies, videos, internet). In a way that was undoubtedly not as necessary in the Middle Ages, chant becomes for us a medicinal remedy, a health-giving purgative, a summons to greater interiority, an aid for achieving resful silence, a promoter and guardian of right spiritual hierarchy. As Giacomo Baroffio says: “Liturgical prayer teaches us to put ourselves on a wavelength independent of worldly chaos … Gregorian chant has the power to sing, to divert the heart from preoccupations, because it orients itself to God in adoration and silence” (25; 33). Pope Leo XIII says something similar in a letter from 1901:

In truth, the Gregorian melodies were composed with much prudence and wisdom, in order to elucidate the meaning of the words. There resides within them a great strength and a wonderful sweetness mixed with gravity, all of which readily stirs up religious feelings in the soul, and nourishes beneficial thoughts just when they are needed.[iii]

Unambiguous sacrality. This is perhaps the most obvious fact, yet its significance is seldom fully appreciated: Gregorian chant arose exclusively for divine worship, and lends itself to no other use. It is inherently sacred, that is, set apart for God alone. It is the musical equivalent of incense and vestments, which are not used except for worship. Such things are the privileged “honor guard” and “attendants” of Christ, powerfully evoking His presence and effortlessly guiding us into that presence.

Chant, says Swain, is “the musical icon of Roman Catholicism.” As such, it contrasts with secular styles of music that, when brought into the church, have an ambiguous signification: are we dealing with our Lord or with the world (or even worldliness)? Are we lowering God to our own level or asking Him to lift us up to share in His divinity? It’s often been remarked that the connection between chant and Catholicism is well exploited by Hollywood movie directors, who, whenever they want to evoke a “Catholic atmosphere,” make sure there is some chant wafting in the background. If only today’s clergy had half as much “business sense”!

To recapitulate: the eight characteristics of Gregorian chant are: primacy of the word; free rhythm; modality; unison singing; unaccompanied vocalization; anonymity; emotional moderation; unambiguous sacrality. These characteristics, taken together, show that chant is not only a little bit different from other types of music but radically and profoundly different. It is liturgical music through and through, existing solely for divine worship, perfectly suited to its verbal, sacred nature as well as to the needs of the faithful who associate it with worship and who find it both beautiful and strange, as God Himself is.

Human beings are made for the contemplation of God. Gregorian chant prepares us for this contemplation and inaugurates it. It is music evoking and drawing us towards the beatific vision. In particular, the melismas express “the ineffable sighs and groanings” of the Spirit. Gregorian chant—and, in a different but complementary way, the quiet low Mass—brings something of the revitalizing spirit of the cloister, the tranquility of the monastic “search for God,” into every church. If monasticism is simply the Christian baptismal vocation lived out as radically and integrally as possible, then our liturgy, too, should have this monastic core identity, purity, and efficacy. Without it, we are already on a downward course into superficiality, distraction, and worldliness.[iv]

We can see better now why the Second Vatican Council says that chant is a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy; why it gives a nobler form to the celebration of the liturgy; and above all, why it is specially suited to the Roman Rite and deserves the foremost place within it. When performed in an edifying manner, chant in and of itself “accords with the spirit of the liturgical action,” which cannot be assumed for any other type of music. It is, in other words, the very definition of what it means to “accord with the spirit of the liturgical action,” and other musical works must line up to be evaluated, as it were, by this supreme criterion—even as Pope Pius X had said in his motu proprio Tra le Sollecitudini:

It is fully legitimate to lay down the following rule: the more closely a composition for church approaches in its movement, inspiration, and savor the Gregorian form, the more sacred and liturgical it becomes; and the more out of harmony it is with that supreme model, the less worthy it is of the temple.

[i] Hourlier, Spirituality of Gregorian Chant, 27.
[ii] In his big book on Bach, Albert Schweitzer says that the Credo is an awkward and difficult text to set to music, as it was written without any clue that it would later be sung. It seems that Schweitzer was not familiar with the Gregorian Credos, which are so singable and so elegant in form.
[iii] Quoted by Hourlier, p. 27.
[iv] As Baroffio puts it rather bluntly: “The marginalization and expulsion of Gregorian chant from the liturgy have encouraged the spreading of cackles and mawkishness that, beyond their artistic inconsistency, are not able to direct hearts to God” (42).