Liturgical Music is a Prayer, not a Performance

A listener should not be lulled to sleep listening to chant: she should be awakened and inspired to prayer and devotion.

(photo: Jan van Eyck (d. 1441), “Singing Angels”, The Ghent Altarpiece)

I have purchased and listen often to many recordings of liturgical music: Gregorian chant, English Recusant polyphony, the great Counter-Reformation polyphonic works of Victoria, Palestrina, Gesualdo, Lassus, and Josquin de Prez; Mass settings by Mozart, Beethoven, Cherubini, Bruckner, and others; motets, sequences, the propers of the Mass for various feast days, and even hymns. Most of the recordings are by professional choirs and groups: Harry Christophers and The Sixteen, The Cardinall’s Musick, The Tallis Scholars, the Monteverdi Choir, Stile Antico, etc. I do have recordings by the monks of Clear Creek Abbey in Oklahoma and its mother house, the Abbey of Fontgombault in France (chant according to Solesmes Method), and by cathedral choirs, like Westminster in London and Notre Dame in Paris.

Because my interest in the history of the English Reformation, I have collected recordings of the Masses and motets of Robert White, Robert Parsons, Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, and Peter Phillips. Several of the professional choirs have made recordings to highlight the historical context of these composers’ careers as they struggled to remain Catholic in England when celebrating the Mass, assisting a priest, and denying that the monarch was the head of the Church were all felony crimes. Tallis and Byrd were so talented that Elizabeth I seems to have ignored their dissent from her Church of England, but Peter Philips, in exile on the Continent, was arrested and imprisoned by English authorities suspecting him of conspiring against her. I’ve written more about these recordings here.

I try not to listen to Gregorian chant or other liturgical music as though it is background music. Readers might remember the “Gregorian Chant for Relaxation” CDs issued after the great success of the recordings by the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silo in the mid-1990’s. Gregorian chant was promoted as calming and perfect for meditation, Christian or otherwise. One critic commented on an anniversary re-release of the CDs:

. . . this is music for reflection, calming down, re-fueling and getting away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life--which may be even more needed now than they were 10 years ago. Texts are not supplied and you won't need them; it's all about reverence and mood. Doing nothing but listening to this in 25-minute chunks will allow your breathing to slow and re-energize you. Each 55-minute CD will probably put you to sleep--and this isn't meant as a criticism.”(Emphasis added)

Since the Latin Biblical texts are the reason that chant exists, saying that they’re not necessary demonstrates a real misuse of this liturgical music. A listener should not be lulled to sleep listening to chant: she should be awakened and inspired to prayer and devotion.

On the other hand, I don’t want to respond to this music as though I’m in a concert hall, applauding a performance.


How to Listen to Chant

The best way to hear this chant—the way congregations heard it in Latin-rite churches for centuries—is at Mass or the Liturgy of the Hours. As the website for the Abbaye Saint-Pierre of Solesmes explains the efforts of their congregation to revive and restore this ancient musical tradition:

“Gregorian chant is not primarily a subject of scientific and historical study. Although this research is important and necessary, turning the chant into a memorial to the past would destroy the Church’s living Tradition. By its very nature, Gregorian chant is at the heart of the liturgy, the public prayer of the whole people of God. The Gregorian repertoire is therefore contained in the Church's current liturgical books. These books are the Gradual, containing the Mass chants, and the Antiphonal, containing the entire divine office.”

But if you don’t live near an abbey of the Solesmes congregation, an order or institute that celebrates the Extraordinary Form of the Latin Rite, or a parish that has chosen to use the Gradual, you probably aren’t going to hear Gregorian chant at Mass or the celebration of Liturgy of the Hours.

Therefore CDs (or digital downloads) are going to be your source for learning about the music—in the case of Gregorian chant or Renaissance polyphony at least—that Pope St. Pius X promoted in Tra le sollecitudini and the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, encouraged. I have some suggestions on how to listen to this great legacy of the Church that should have never been forgotten:

  1. Set some time aside (15 or 20 minutes) when you are doing nothing else to listen to the music.
  2. Have the Latin text and English translation in front of you.
  3. Pray the words as you listen to the Chant or polyphony.

If you find this practice beneficial to your devotional life, try to find recordings for the seasons and feasts of the liturgical year. The monks at Clear Creek Abbey offer a recording of chants for Easter, for example, including all the chants for Mass and Vespers (Evening Prayer). Then listening to the chant may enhance other liturgical prayer at home and at church. Although the music is ancient, the devotion and worship it enhances is ever new: “Cantate Domino canticum novum, cantate Domino omnis terra (Psalm 96). Sing to the Lord a new song, sing to the Lord all the earth!” Alleluia!

Archbishop Hubertus van Megen celebrates the episcopal consecration of Father John Kiplimo Lelei as auxiliary bishop of Kenya’s Diocese of Eldoret on May 25, 2024.

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