Solène Tadié is the Europe Correspondent for the National Catholic Register. She is French-Swiss and grew up in Paris. After graduating from Roma III University with a degree in journalism, she began reporting on Rome and the Vatican for Aleteia. She joined L’Osservatore Romano in 2015, where she successively worked for the French section and the Cultural pages of the Italian daily newspaper. She has also collaborated with several French-speaking Catholic media organizations. Solène has a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas, and recently translated in French (for Editions Salvator) Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy by the Acton Institute’s Fr. Robert Sirico.
In his letter to Cardinal Joseph Höffner for the Seventh International Congress of Sacred Music, John Paul II praised the unifying power of Gregorian chant within Catholic liturgy because of its “genuine sense of religion.” In his view, Gregorian chant was, compared to new sacred music, like a “statue in front of a painting.”
These words illustrate the high esteem that this holy pope had for what is considered one of the greatest treasures of the Christian heritage. In the same way, his successor on the throne of St. Peter, Benedict XVI, made it a point of honor to bring Gregorian chant back to the center of the Church through numerous initiatives.
Today, as this unique art is being more than ever put in jeopardy by the constant and increasing advance of modern chants and music in many Western churches, young forces are striving to save it from disappearing.
This is the case for two young seminarians and students of the Swiss University of Fribourg, Stefan Ansinger and Alexandre Frezzato, who are actively promoting Dominican Gregorian chant through the YouTube channel they created in November 2019. OPChant, which now has more than 16,000 subscribers, offers weekly videos in which the two friars share with the world the richness of the 800-year Dominican tradition with regard to Gregorian chant.
“We heard some brothers ask where they could find Gregorian chant lessons on the internet to get some practice within the framework of the monthly lessons we have in our community, at the Monastère de Chalais,” Asinger told the Register, explaining there currently are very few examples online. Moreover, Dominican Gregorian chant is slightly different from the classic Latin one, which makes its teaching even less widespread.
According to him, the loss of knowledge of this sacred art is due to the “radical rupture” that occurred in lots of parishes and communities worldwide in the wake of Vatican II, leaving a whole generation without training. “Many communities simply said goodbye to Gregorian chants to embrace new forms of liturgical chants, and it has left a generational gap that remains difficult to bridge,” Asinger said.
The videos are all available for free access on YouTube and can be used as a sort of online musical library. “The main goal of this project remains to instruct Dominican communities from all over the world and help them rediscover Gregorian chants for the liturgy, but it is also aimed at all those who wish to get to know sacred music,” he said.
Expression of the Faith
If these two friars are dedicating so much of their time and energy to such a teaching, it is because they consider Gregorian chant as part of the very essence of their order, as it combines two core principles of its constitution: sobriety (sobrietas) and solemnity (solemnitas). “These chants express our spirituality in a beautiful way, better than any other style,” Asinger said.
But the scope of such an art goes beyond any religious order. And if it is considered a jewel of the Christian heritage, it is also because it has the power to beautifully put its sacred texts into music. Most of Gregorian chants are, indeed, based on the Psalms or other Scriptures.
“They express the deposit of faith in an excellent manner, like Vatican II’s instruction on music in the liturgy recalls,” Asinger said, adding that he knows people who are not Catholics or who don’t understand texts in Latin but are still touched by these works. “I think that’s because you cannot separate the two things, text and music, the way the melody follows and expresses the sacred text.”
To this extent, Gregorian chant can also be a powerful evangelizing tool. “We can touch people’s hearts because it shows something of real beauty. God himself is the source of our beauty; it can help people rediscover faith.”
The Return of Tradition
As traditional liturgy attracts more and more young people, the success of this digital initiative is not surprising. Indeed, it embodies a perfect synthesis between tradition and the most modern technology means, a synthesis which is much sought-after by the new generations who wish to keep pace with the times without turning away from their roots.
“We are receiving a lot of manifestations of support worldwide, and it is a sign of the fact that tradition is more and more coming back,” Asinger said. This return of tradition, in his view, has to do with the fact that in the past decades, the exterior signs of liturgy — such as chants, music, incense or beautiful vestments — have been strongly neglected.
“Our Catholic liturgy has become so much text-based that sometimes it is difficult for young people to really immerse themselves into it and to fully live it, he said, adding, “However, these exterior signs, which of course include Gregorian chants, help us orient our lives in the liturgy to Christ. A lot of young people nowadays need these signs, and we’re here to help people get them.”