Rorate Caeli

Gregorian Chant: The One True Liturgical Chant of the West

 Fr. Hubert Bizard, FSSP
Aug. 20, 2023

There are many ways to sing at Mass, but only one way to sing Mass: Gregorian chant.

To talk about the traditional liturgy, or even to just think about it, almost automatically brings us back to Gregorian chant, which is one with it.

The inseparable liturgical chant

Why is it so? Because our liturgy is meant to be sung. And sung... in Gregorian chant, since this is the only chant to be found in the official liturgical books.

Father Paul Doncoeur, military chaplain during the First World War and apostle of scouting, rightly asserted: "the liturgy is created solemn, and the pieces of the Divine Office can only be fully understood in the melodic context that rightly accompanies them".

This melodic context is, once again, Gregorian chant: a chant that is not something to be listened to or performed in the course of a liturgical action, but which is truly "liturgical sung action."

It's one thing to hear hymns or canticles during mass - however beautiful they may be - it's quite another to "sing mass"; in other words, to sing the Mass proper (Introit, Gradual, Alleluia, Offertory, Communion) or the Kyriale (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei). Not to mention the Epistle and Gospel, for which the Church also provides us with the Gregorian melody.

Interpreting texts through melody

Dom Jean Claire, a disciple of Dom Gajard (famous choirmaster at Solesmes Abbey for 57 years) said of his illustrious master:

When we were in the novitiate, we noticed that when we served him Mass, after reading the Introït, Gradual, Offertory and Communion - in short, all the choral pieces - he would pause for a moment, unforeseen by the rubrics, and absorb himself in meditation. One day, one of us dared to ask him why he paused in this way, and he got this answer: "For these pieces of chant, the missal only gives the text, which is open to many interpretations. What I'm interested in is the Church's interpretation, and I believe it's very clearly expressed by the melody with which this text is clothed in the Gradual. So, let me stop and think about it for a moment. You see, Gregorian is the official commentary, authentically given by the Church itself, on liturgical texts.

And Dom Gajard goes on:

Those who deliberately disregard the melody as an unnecessary luxury, and stick to the text alone, are depriving themselves of a great help. For it is the melody that defines the true meaning, scope and climate of the Church's prayer.

Why Gregorian chant?

But why Gregorian chant, which seems so complicated and out of reach for our contemporaries?  Because this chant, which dates back to the first centuries of the Church and was codified by Saint Gregory the Great in the 6th century, is "the proper chant of the Church".

This is what the Second Vatican Council affirmed:

 The Church recognizes Gregorian chant as the proper chant of the Roman liturgy. All other things being equal, Gregorian chant must take pride of place in liturgical actions. Other genres of sacred music, but especially polyphony, are by no means excluded from the celebration of divine offices, provided they are in keeping with the spirit of the liturgical action. [Sacrosanctum Concilium, n°116]

In the field of the arts, architecture, sculpture and painting, the Church has never wished to recognize any particular school as its own. And yet, in the field of music and song, the Church has canonized (i.e., in the literal sense of the word, given as a rule, as a canon) Gregorian chant. Let us listen to Pope Pius XII: "Sacred music must be holy. It is in this holiness that Gregorian chant excels above all else" [Musicae sacrae disciplina]. "It contributes in the highest degree to increasing the faith and piety of those present [Mediator Dei]. 

Gregorian chant according to St. Pius X

Let us conclude with Pope St. Pius X, who stated in one of the first texts of his Pontificate[4], and went so far as to give - based on Gregorian chant - a rule for the evaluation of all liturgical music:

- Sacred music, as an integral part of the solemn liturgy, participates in its general end: the glory of God, the sanctification and edification of the faithful. It contributes to enhancing the dignity and splendor of ecclesiastical ceremonies; and just as its principal role is to coat with appropriate melodies the liturgical text proposed to the intelligence of the faithful, its proper end is to add greater effectiveness to the text itself, and, by this means, to more easily arouse the faithful to devotion and better dispose them to reap the fruits of graces that the celebration of the Holy Mysteries procures.

- Sacred music must therefore possess to the highest degree the qualities proper to the liturgy: holiness, excellence of form, from which its other character spontaneously springs:

- Gregorian chant possesses these qualities to the highest degree; for this reason, it is the proper chant of the Roman Church, the only chant it has inherited from the ancient Fathers, the one that over the centuries it has guarded with jealous care in its liturgical books, that it presents directly as its own to the faithful, that it prescribes exclusively in certain parts of the liturgy, and whose integrity and purity recent studies have so happily restored. [Tra le sollecitudini]

For these reasons, Gregorian chant has always been considered the most perfect model of sacred music, for the following general rule can rightly be established: An ecclesiastical musical composition is all the more sacred and liturgical the closer it resembles Gregorian melody in allure, inspiration and taste, and all the less worthy of the Church the further it deviates from this supreme model.