What is chant?
Musically, it can be simply defined as monophonic vocal music. But chant is more than music. It is a practical art revealing the fullness of truth, and the source of all beauty. Chant can be found in every human culture, often in rituals. Chant is simple, and yet it is theology in action (see Singing the Mass – Session 3 ).
My parish sings hymns and praise music at mass, not chant. Why do I need to know chant?
To keep things simple, Christian music can be categorized in 3 types: Liturgical, Devotional and Evangelical. Liturgical music is found in liturgy books like the Roman Gradual, it is given to us by the Church, growing organically from the singing of the psalms in the early Church. The liturgy is the “Summit” of the Christian life. Devotional music is to teach doctrine, to grow in discipleship. Most hymns are devotional in nature. Evangelical music is to bring people to the Church with musical tunes they know and like in the secular culture (ex: Christian praise music).
Is not singing-along a guitar simpler than chant?
Objectively, no. To chant, nobody needs to play the guitar, or to have one. Guitar music feels “simple” only because it is simple to turn on some electric device to listen to some. Our concern here is to make music, not just listen to it. Chant is simpler. The simplest. Anyone can chant.
What is needed to chant?
You need only breath, tone and intentionality. Add community to round up to 4 elements. This website focuses on the Christian tradition of chant which shapes tone though reason into the Word. Breath (spiritus) and the Word (Logos) thus unite into a call-and-response with the Trinity (see Singing the Mass – session 1 ). It is Sung theology integral to the Christian rituals and liturgies.
Is not chant a relic of the past?
Chant is outdated only to people who think that liturgical music should be bought and sold, rather than taught and sung. The world needs noble simplicity, or “know-able” simplicity, more than ever (see Singing the Mass – session 2 ). Other attributes of chant that we all need are interiority, and freedom.
Why is chant freeing?
“The truth will set you free” (John 8:32). The Word is freeing. The rhythm of chant also is free. No meter needed. Notice how difficult it is for the liturgical music industry to integrate chant to their economic model: no instrument to buy, no electronics needed, expensive musical education seems no help to chant… And no copyright revenue can be made from anonymous music which has been communal property for centuries… Again, chant is taught and sung, not bought and sold.
Where can I learn?
Resources abound. But as mentioned earlier, chant is interior. No matter what resource helps you, only your own homework will deepen your chant skills. A great place to start is to sing the psalms. For example, start at this page: Chanting the psalms – For beginners , then when it has become too easy, move to this page: Psalm tones . Leave us a message at the bottom of this page if you need more specific help to start.
Yes. Music education can be expensive because as students, we prefer to be entertained than to be taught. Teaching is rewarding when the students realize how much they can learn on their own, and value the teacher’s time to complement their homework, not to supervise it. Since your voice is your instrument, only you can teach yourself to sing. This is even truer with chant, without instrumental support. Once that is understood, seeking the help of a competent teacher will be rewarding to both student and teacher.
Why this website?
The Church liturgical calendar gives us readings for every Mass. Likewise, it also gives us proper chants for every Mass. These proper chants are mostly musical settings of the psalms. This website aims to make these chants better known to Catholics, and to provide help to practice them at home.
How did this website start?
It is the result of the impulse purchase in 2012 of a Gregorian Missal, in a Catholic bookstore. It looked official, yet I had never seen it used… It turned out to be the Sundays-and-Solemnities version of the official songbook of the Catholic Church for over 100 years*, the Roman Gradual (Graduale Romanum), with english translations. Yes, if you did not know, there is an official songbook in the Catholic Church. Actually, now there are 2, since the Graduale Simplex was added in the 70’s for use in smaller parishes. See also Books, books, books,… (*before that, the same music, centuries old, was in the Antiphonale Romanum)
A few weeks later, at a LA Archdiocese-sponsored music workshop at a Santa Monica church, led by reputable liturgists, I expected to learn more about this Missal or Graduale. The professional liturgists explained to us that Sing To The Lord (STL) was the current document of reference for Church musicians in the USA. In STL, in which the Roman Gradual is named 7 times (paragraphs 76, 77, 115 d.,144 a., 157, 190 and 193.), including as first choice for singing at the Entrance, Offertory and Communion. The Graduale Romanum and Simplex are the only songbooks referenced in STL. Yet:
- No Mass near me was then following the Church recommendation to sing from the Roman Gradual whenever possible,
- Few music ministers in parishes seemed to know about STL and its recommendations. Even less knew what the Roman Gradual was, or had ever opened the book.
In 2016, a nearby parish started a Mass where the music from the Roman Gradual was sung: sung orations and dialogues, congregational singing of the “Ordinary”, and proper sung by the choir. I joined the schola and was able to practice every week. Recording myself was a practical tool for my own progress, but also to invite others to join the schola.
As questions arose about the paradox that is liturgical music in the Catholic Church, answers have been added to explain what is an authentic implementation of the Church’s directives on Sacred Music. My past experience, told above, is that such implementation is possible. It is also a powerful tool for Evangelization.
How is the Roman Gradual a tool for Evangelization?
The Roman Gradual is a well-suited tool for apprenticeship into the Liturgy of the Church. The Roman Gradual has a broad spectrum of chants: from simple call-responses to elaborate melismas. You need no musical education to start (no instrumental accompaniment is needed). Also, singing from the Roman Gradual is predictable: you can now start preparing the liturgy you will sing in 3 months or in one year… Take the time you need. It will go faster if someone who knows more than you can help: become an apprentice. Hopefully this website can get you started (See also this post).
Who maintain this site?
Hervé (pronounced Air-Vey), Catholic cantor, singer and children choir director started this site in 2013. Maintaining this website is part of an on-going learning, teaching and giving that Hervé considers the duty of a music minister as awed by the tradition of sacred music in the Catholic church as he is. For us the faithful, liturgy is the participation of the people of God in the Work of God. It is about making offerings, and passing on the tradition inherited from generations who had a keener sacramental imagination than our contemporaries. Hervé is an “amateur” in the original sense of the latin word amator, he loves the tradition of sacred music in the Catholic church. For those who are looking for liturgy and music credentials, this “resume” page may answer them.
Should we chant in Latin, or in the vernacular, like English?
Catholic means “universal”. Latin is the language common to all Catholics, worldwide. Of course, not all-latin-all-the-time is necessary. But some-latin-by-all-catholics will cement the unity of the Church. Again, Musicam Sacram and Sing to the Lord are must-read documents for any Catholic singer.
However, chant is first and foremost about the Biblical texts given to us for the liturgy. Plainchant grew from reading the Bible aloud (“cantillating”). Understanding the text is necessary to our ability to enhance it with chant. If Latin is an obstacle, then English chant is a great place to start. Chanting regularly will naturally lead to discover the unique depth of chanting in Latin.
Should we sing the liturgy of the hours, rather than the Mass, at home?
We encourage you to sing the liturgy of the hours too, of course. Starting with singing the Mass sets a “weekly” goal, easier to reach than a “seven-times-a-day” goal. See also Liturgy of the Hours .
Where can I read more about this?
A great place to start are three short articles that were written by Father Cassian DiRocco and published in the bulletin at Mary Star of the Sea:
Embracing what is ours, part two- Gregorian Chant
Embracing what is ours, part three- The Mass Propers
I find the Musica Sacra website, and its Forum, extremely useful !
Their own FAQ is fantastic.
Episode 11 of season 2 of “The Liturgy Guys” podcast hits the nail right on the head. “Liturgical asceticism” expresses very well what this website is about: practice makes perfect!… Exactly. I recommend this podcast.