The Second Vatican Council and Sacred Liturgical Music

The foundation of the “Blessed John Henry Newman Institute of Liturgical Music” (NILM) is timely for several reasons. First, there is a need for a greater understanding of the principles which underlie liturgical music. The Church has given important guidelines here based on the experience and wisdom of two millennia. The entire sixth chapter of the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, “Sacrosanctum Concilium” (SC), is devoted to Sacred Music, meaning, of course, music in the Liturgy. The Council Fathers called the Church’s musical tradition a “priceless treasury”, on account of the fact that, when united closely with the sacred texts, music forms an “integral and necessary part of solemn liturgy” (SC112). Therefore they ordered that this Treasury should be preserved and fostered with the greatest care (SC114).

The Council Fathers explained that choirs should be encouraged especially (praesertim) in Cathedral Churches(SC114). This does not mean, of course, that they should only be found there. For such training as is necessary to enable musicians to sing the liturgy must be provided, say the Fathers, in seminaries, the novitiates and houses of studies of religious orders, and (not to be overlooked) other institutes and Catholic schools.(SC115)

“ceteris paribus”
(all things being equal)

The Council Fathers specified Gregorian Chant as “proper to the Roman liturgy”, stating that it “should therefore have first place, ceteris paribus, in the liturgical actions.” (SC116) That phrase “ceteris paribus” (all things being equal) is sometimes quoted as an excuse to ignore or over-ride this important instruction, on the grounds that circumstances in the Church’s life are never, in fact, “equal” in the sense that would allow Gregorian Chant to take its proper place. The Chant has for long been seen by many in the Church as a niche interest and dismissed as too esoteric for ordinary musical tastes. Moreover, it is so closely associated with the Latin texts of the Liturgy that it is judged no longer to have any useful application to a Liturgy conducted overwhelmingly in the vernacular.

Let us look first of all at liturgy celebrated in Latin. Alongside the Chant, “other kinds of sacred music, especially Polyphony, are encouraged” (SC116), as long as they are consistent with promoting “actuosam participationem” (SC30), which, as the great monastic musician Dom Bernard McElligott explained means not so much “active” as “sincere” participation of the congregation in the liturgical action. Hence, properly understood, “participatio actuosa” not only includes “the people’s acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons, canticles and also bodily movements and postures”, but also the need to “observe sacred silence” (SC30) as well as to be allowed to hear and be moved by the singing of the Schola Cantorum.

music for website

All of which makes clear that “scholae cantorum” are seen as necessary for the provision of sacred music in the Liturgy, but not exclusively so. The people also have their musical part to play. What kind of music is best suited so that the congregation may sing “acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons and canticles”? Obviously, insofar as we are looking at what a congregation can sing, polyphony has no place here. Note first of all that this does not mean that none of these items should ever be sung by a schola cantorum, but rather that polyphony always requires a degree of preparation and musical skill and training that cannot and should not be expected of a congregation.

However, there can be no such objection to Gregorian Chant per se. Of course there are chants that, like polyphony, require an extraordinary degree of skill, training and preparation, that only well-trained singers can supply. These include, for instance, most of the proper chants of the Graduale Romanum and even some of the ordinary chants in the Kyriale. But many of the ordinary chants in the Kyriale, including the Creed, are well suited to congregational singing, and have been used as such from the earliest times. Gregorian Alleluia antiphons are sung as Gospel acclamations by congregations without any suggestion that they are too difficult.

Because all this holds true of Gregorian chant set to Latin words, this might be held to create a problem for any Catholic liturgists who dismiss Gregorian Chant as a possible genre for congregational singing precisely because it has been associated for two millennia with texts in Latin. Others also see that because chant is predominantly not metrical, and is frequently set in modes which sound strange to modern ears, it is therefore too difficult for most people to understand and sing well.

But this is a circular argument, insofar as there seems, at any rate at first sight, to be little or no encouragement for the use of the chant in most Cathedrals, seminaries, religious orders or parishes.

For if the Council’s wishes in this regard had been implemented properly from the outset, there is no reason, even now, why chant should not take its proper place throughout the Church. Familiarity in any matter is achieved by frequent exposure to it and, wherever necessary, by explanation of its principles. This is what education can and should try to achieve, if only the will is there. The question is, why is the will not there already?

Latin Originals and the new ICEL English Translations

This brings us to another important point: that because Gregorian Chant is so closely associated with Latin texts, it is assumed that it therefore can have no proper place in vernacular liturgy. Yet this is to misunderstand one of the characteristics of the Chant. Unlike many other styles of music, some of the chant can be adapted to different patterns of language and speech. This is particularly true of acclamations and responses, which is the larger part of the chants congregations will sing at Mass. The new ICEL translation of the Mass not only follows the meaning and register of the original Latin texts far more closely than the old ICEL did, but has also been designed to be more easily sung – in the sense that there is a natural rhythm and flow to the texts which makes musical setting sound more natural.

Moreover, the introduction of the new translation later this year offers an opportunity not only for congregations to learn the new texts together with the chant settings already provided for them in the forthcoming English Missal, but also for the clergy to realise the “necessary and integral” role of singing their own parts of the Liturgy. The present Pope has frequently expressed his own hopes of seeing the Liturgy renewed by a recovery of the sense of its intrinsic sacredness, to be achieved by, among other things, its “re-enchantment”, as Mgr. Andrew Burnham has recently put it. It is significant that the word “Enchantment” means to cast a spell by singing or chanting. Singing their own parts of the Liturgy will enable bishops, priests and deacons the better to express the transcendent “otherness” of the Sacred Mysteries of the Faith they celebrate with and in the midst of the holy People of God. Singing the Mass enhances the power of the spoken word and deepens its effect. When Augustine made his famous statement “qui cantat bis orat”, he was surely not thinking that any extra effort as such required in singing made it more meritorious, but rather that singing intrinsically extends the power both to express and to communicate all that is contained in sacred texts.

Yet the ordinary chants of the Missal alone do not provide the entire repertoire necessary for singing the Mass. There is also the body of chants known as the “propers”, which vary from one Mass to another or from season to season. The traditional corpus of these chants is to be found in the Graduale Romanum. However, as has already been noted, these chants are, generally speaking, very demanding to sing and can only be entrusted to those who have the necessary training and preparation. Such training is, of course, mentioned in SC115 above, which directs that it be given in seminaries, religious houses and schools as a matter of course. Whether or not that is the case is not the point here specifically, but rather the question arises what should supply the need of liturgically suitable chants in the ordinary Parish which has no musicians capable of the difficult Introits, Graduals, Alleluias, Tracts and the other proper chants of the Graduale Romanum?


SC117 states that would be very useful (expedit) for an edition of the books of liturgical chants to be prepared “containing simpler melodies (simpliciores melodos), for the use of minor churches (minorum ecclesiarum)”. Some readers may recall the attempt to supply this need in the publication of the “Graduale Simplex” (GS). Although the GS tried to set the proper texts of the Missal or Lectionary often enough, it frequently resorted to “generic” texts suitable for seasons. Since such settings were usually to psalm tones, this solution seemed to many to be too bald and plain, lacking the attractiveness of true melodies, and never became popular. Moreover, in England at any rate, another solution to the problem of finding suitable proper chants for the Mass was found to be readily to hand in the form of metrical hymns, the use of which had already been growing in the 1960′s as a way of providing music for the congregation to sing in the Liturgy. While many of these hymns were already familiar within the devotional repertoire of para-liturgical services and devotions, they are not, generally speaking, ideally suited to the Mass on account of their not being related to the texts which they replaced, and being in most cases disproportionately long. Since then, these 19th and early 20th century metrical hymns have likewise been supplanted in their turn for most liturgical celebrations in the majority of parishes and virtually all schools by “folk hymns” often led by the “folk group”. Certainly, whatever the origin of this so-called “folk” repertoire, it has virtually nothing to with the indigenous folk music traditions of this country, which have in any case sadly now largely died out, but seem to be largely either of American origin, or written in direct imitation of that style.

The Graduale Parvum

There is, therefore, clearly still a need to find a corpus of chants which can fulfil several essential requirements that are missing from liturgical music as it is usually found in English parishes today: these chants should be settings of the proper texts contained in the liturgical books of the Roman rite; they should be recognisably part of the Gregorian tradition of chant; they should be sufficiently interesting in character to stand repetition; they should also be simple enough for a cantor and a non-professional choir to be able to sing them with confidence so as to harmonise with the sacral, transcendent nature of the liturgical celebration.

Fortunately, such a need has been supplied by the arrival of the “Graduale Parvum” which provides settings of the entire corpus of texts found in the Graduale Romanum: settings which are based on the Gregorian melodic formulae of the Antiphonary. The Graduale Parvum is the work of the Hungarian liturgist and musicologist, Laszlo Dobszay, who has set the entire corpus of Latin texts in the Graduale Romanum and has perfected their execution with his own choir of students in Budapest. Being based on authentic Gregorian melodies, the Graduale Parvum has the benefit both of greater musical richness than the Graduale Simplex and of greater simplicity than most of the chants in the Graduale Romanum. Thus, whereas the Graduale Romanum consists of complex chants which are, more or less, melismatic, (i.e. where a single syllable may be set to a large number of notes), the Graduale Parvum sets the same words to melodies which are predominantly (though certainly not entirely) monosyllabic. This makes the melodies, which are all from ancient sources, simple to learn, and very effective in execution.

Now this work has been made available for use in this country, and at the same time the entire corpus of chants is being translated into English and set to the same ancient Gregorian antiphon parallel with the Latin settings. An introductory volume, containing a selection of chants from which settings can be found suitable for any celebration of Mass in English, is now in preparation and it is expected that this will be ready when the new ICEL translation comes into use over the three months from September to Advent later this year.

The Launch of the “Blessed John Henry Newman Institute of Liturgical Music” (NILM)

The first task of the new Institute of Liturgical Music will be to introduce the singing of the texts of the new ICEL translation of the Missal, and of the Graduale Parvum, in both Latin and English, to clergy and laity alike, as part of the general renewal of liturgy which is the major desideratum of the inauguration of the new English translation of the Missal. The Institute will be launched at the Birmingham Oratory by Archbishop Longley of Birmingham on Saturday September 17th, the first anniversary of Cardinal Newman’s beatification. The principal event of the launch will be the 11 a.m. Mass, which has become the weekly Pilgrimage Mass to the Shrine and Church of Blessed John Henry Newman since his beatification. This Mass, celebrated by the Archbishop, will also provide a showcase for the Graduale Parvum.

Sessions of the Institute will take place, at least during the first year of its life, either as day-courses held for laity on Saturdays, or as evening classes for the clergy, at the Oratory in Birmingham. It is hoped that as the Institute develops, it will become possible to extend the courses to residential weeks at other locations and study days for those who live too far to reach Birmingham for a day. However, during the first term leading towards Advent and the inauguration of the new ICEL translation of the Missal, courses will be taught in the performance of the chants of the new missal and of the Graduale Parvum in Latin and English, so that clergy, cantors, choirs and congregations may all be able to sing those parts of the Mass contained in the Missal and the Gradual.

The work of the Institute will be directed not only towards the needs of clergy and laity alike, but also to all persons, skilled or unskilled, according to their needs and capacities, who are interested in learning about sacred liturgical music, from a practical and historical point of view. The principal aim of the Institute is in any case the enhancement of the Liturgy in English Parish Churches on Sundays and holydays. Therefore, although the Institute will not be restricted to dealing only with the Ordinary form of the Roman Rite, this will be the principal focus of its work, since it is intended to address the needs of the average parish. There will of course be some guidance on singing the Extraordinary Form of Mass for those who wish it, though since there are several fora designed to assist those who sing the Extraordinary Form already in existence, the Institute will concentrate its efforts mainly on that Form of the Mass which most people are likely to experience in their own churches.

There are, of course, other aspects to the proper provision of music in the Parishes in addition to the training of singers as celebrants, deacons, cantors, choirs, and for the leading of congregational singing. There is, for instance, a need to provide organists for the liturgy. Organists have many different needs: there are those who are really pianists and have been persuaded to make the transition to the organ and who need some instruction in technique; and there are competent players of the solo organ repertoire who nevertheless need assistance in acquiring the art of accompanying cantors, choirs and congregations; for these skills are very different from those of the recitalist.

Another important question that is often asked is: what music should be chosen for the liturgy? What settings of the Ordinary or Proper are available and how are we as priests, choirmasters, singers and organists to select what is most suitable? Which hymns are appropriate for the liturgy and how do we go about identifying and choosing them? We hope that the Institute will give help and guidance in answering such questions as these.

There is also the important, though perhaps rather specialised, art of composing music for the liturgy. This, too, requires both musical training and theological knowledge in order to help composers know what is required of them and just how their skills are put to best use in the liturgy. Composers need to know what kind of music is suitable for particular circumstances, for differing levels of competence and ambition among performers, how instruments should be used and what elements make congregational music work well.

No less important than learning how to sing the Mass is a proper understanding of the theological foundations of church music, of its integral place in the liturgy, and its profoundly spiritual character. One of the most important principles of liturgical music is that it is, or ought to be, intrinsic to the Liturgy, rather than an optional extra. Each session of the Institute will therefore include not only practical guidance, but also catechetical teaching outlining the history and theology of music in the liturgy. In time it is hoped that this form of study may grow into a properly accredited academic course in conducted with the assistance of Maryvale Institute, the Birmingham Diocesan Catechetical Centre, which has pioneered distance learning in theology and other sacred sciences.

In this way we hope that the Sunday liturgy in all our parishes may benefit from a doctrinal, liturgical and musical formation to enhance and deepen the sacramental and devotional life of the Church in our land.

Guy Nicholls, Cong Orat.

Director of the Blessed John Henry Newman Institute of Liturgical Music.

May 26th 2011, Feast of St. Philip Neri