(With a list of Luke's favorite resources at the bottom)
For years I've dedicated my ministry to helping my parish and others recover the beauty of our Catholic Musical Heritage. The four-hymn sandwich (forgive the snarkiness of this term) of modern or traditional hymns is firmly entrenched in almost every parish, but is losing ground as more musicians and priests are waking up to what has been lost. Unfortunately, the General Instruction on the Roman Missal (GIRM) allows this abandonment of propers/chant in favor of hymns. The optionitis of the Roman Missal ensures that people will take the easiest path. This is the usual way of thinking about it, anyway. However, I want to propose an alternative way to think about this. Perhaps it is a blessing that the GIRM provides these options. Instead of seeing them as permission to ignore tradition, see them as a plan to restore tradition. The options in the GIRM are a ladder we can climb back toward chant. In this blog, I'll explain why this is the only proper interpretation (pun intended) of these rubrics.
To begin with, let's look at the historical context. In the late 19th century, Pope Leo VIII asked the Solesmes Monastery in France to take up the project of restoring the Gregorian Chant repertoire from the original manuscripts. For centuries, the chants had been purged of much of their beauty. It was a form of musical iconoclasm that lasted too long. In 1908 the modern Graduale Roman, the official book of Catholic Music for the Mass, was finally published by Solesmes. (More about this here) This comes on the heels of Pope Pius X's 1903 document on sacred music (Tra Le Sollecitudini), which strongly promoted authentic Gregorian chant. Chant continued to grow. I found a newspaper clipping in my basement recently that shocked me. It was a photo of my grandfather from the Berkshire Eagle in Massachusetts from the 1940s. (I've since lost it, and pray someday I'll find it again.) The article described how my grandfather was helping to lead a schola of men dedicated to singing authentic Gregorian Chant at Mass. I had no idea my grandfather even sang. The Second Vatican Council, far from eliminating tradition, officially encouraged the continuation of this Gregorian chant revival with these and similar words "Other things being equal, Gregorian Chant should be given pride of place in liturgical services". The subsequent document "Musicam Sacram" stated: "Its melodies, [Gregorian chant] contained in the "typical" editions, should be used, to the extent that this is possible. It is also desirable that an edition be prepared containing simpler melodies, for use in smaller churches."
Clearly the Church recognized that the chants in the Roman Gradual are the ideal, but that it will be difficult for the average parish to execute them. Simpler melodies are recommended. From that was born the Graduale Simplex, a collection of seasonal antiphons, with excellent and authentic chant melodies. Say what you will about that edition, the purpose of it was clear, to help all parishes sing chant. Keep in mind that at the time these Vatican II documents were written, most parishes were singing either hymns or repetitive psalm tone propers. The restoration of chant was still ongoing. Now add to the mix this statement by the concilium (who actually composed the Novus Ordo) in response to the question of whether it's ok to keep singing hymns instead of propers: "That rule has been superseded. What must be sung is the Mass, its Ordinary and Proper, not “something”, no matter how consistent, that is imposed on the Mass."
So in short, we have a Gregorian chant revival that began in the 19th century, continued through the first half of the 20th, and culminated in Vatican II, but collapsed in the aftermath. These documents, and the statement by the Concilium, put to rest once and for all the idea that hymns can be sung forever in place of propers. So then, why did the GIRM allow hymns? Doesn't this blatantly contradict everything the Concilium and Vatican II said? No, it doesn't. Do you see it yet? The GIRM allows hymns (another suitable song) as option 4 because that is what was currently being done. It meets people where they are. It then provides 3 more options that increase in difficulty until you arrive at option 1. Take a look, but read it from bottom (least preferred) to top. (1) the antiphon from the Missal or the antiphon with its Psalm from the Graduale Romanum, as set to music there or in another setting; (2) the antiphon and Psalm of the Graduale Simplex for the liturgical time; (3) a chant from another collection of Psalms and antiphons, approved by the Conference of Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop, including Psalms arranged in responsorial or metrical forms; (4) another liturgical chant that is suited to the sacred action, the day, or the time of year, similarly approved by the Conference of Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop.
Let me put the GIRM in colloquial language:
4. You can sing a hymn, but when you're ready, move on to...
3. Literally any antiphon. (Read "for the love of God sing SOMETHING from the psalms!")
2. Now you're ready to try the simple chants we have prepared for Mass. If that's the best you can do, good job. If you can move past that...
1. Then you're ready for the Roman Gradual.
It is clear to me that this is a pastoral ladder that musicians were meant to use to climb up from the 4 hymn sandwich to the beauty of our tradition. (Qualifier: Don't misunderstand me as saying hymns are bad. There's a place for a solid repertoire of good Catholic hymns, and they can be a beautiful addition to the liturgy. They should always be subordinate to the propers and Gregorian chant.
But you may be wondering what might have happened if the church simply mandated propers and didn't allow option 3 or 4? Would this have saved us from 50 years of ignoring chant? Maybe. Maybe not. Indults (permissions) are granted to normalize customs which are born of disobedience when they become pervasive (communion in the hand is an example). It's likely that everyone would have continued to sing hymns regardless of a mandate for propers. Then the Bishops would have given them an indult to do so, solidifying the death of chant forever. The composers of the GIRM seemed to anticipate this, and provided a step by step ladder for parishes to move away from the 4 hymn sandwhich and toward chant as the Vatican Council Fathers expected.
With this said, the ladder is a little out of date. It is now easier than ever to sing chanted propers in the liturgy. There are myriad sources of simple chants that are better even than the Simplex. They are better because they have the correct texts. My complaint against the Simplex is that, while the intentions were sound, the decision to alter the texts, condensing them into seasonal texts, instead of merely composing simpler melodies for the original proper texts, was a bad move. It divorced the chants from their ancient liturgical marriage to the liturgy. But now, given all the free and simple chant resources for the Roman Gradual (And Roman Missal) antiphons, there is no longer any need for the Simplex or option 4. The 4 hymn sandwich is the ground floor - the common denominator. Any parish can now easily climb the ladder of simpler chants. All that is required is that the priest and music director understand everything I've just written in this blog, and how to find the resources to make chant happen. To that end, here is a (not comprehensive) list of some of my favorite settings of the antiphons for parish use. Have you seen the movie Ratatouille? As the chef says, "anyone can cook." Well I say, anyone can chant.