About this blogger:
A theorist, organist, and conductor, Jeff Ostrowski holds his B.M. in Music Theory from the University of Kansas (2004), and did graduate work in Musicology. He serves as choirmaster for the new FSSP parish in Los Angeles, where he resides with his wife and children.
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“Urban VIII appointed four Jesuits to reform the hymns, so that they should no longer offend Renaissance ears. These four, in that faithful obedience to the Holy See which is the glory of their Society, with a patient care that one cannot help admiring, set to work to destroy every hymn in the office.”
— Fr. Adrian Fortescue (1916)

Voice Leading Matters
published 9 December 2010 by Jeff Ostrowski

S EVIDENCE THAT Gregorian accompaniment is a legitimate part of our Catholic musical tradition, Corpus Christi Watershed has posted more than 15,000 pages of chant accompaniments, which you can freely download at the Lalande Library Website. I have been advised to keep this article rather short, so I will (alas!) only be including a handful of examples. The opinions expressed below correspond to my own personal ideas about what a “standard” Gregorian accompaniment should be. In general, my perspective is the same as the Lemmens Institute, which produced the Nova Organi Harmonia. For more on this, please read the Preface to our new Chabanel Psalms Publication. I do not consider “improvised” harmonizations or those that use special registrations, as this would require a separate article.

Let’s start with an example by the legendary Gregorianist, Dr. Peter Wagner. He churned out literally thousands of pages of Gregorian accompaniments, but I have serious issues with his approach. The below (part of a melisma on the syllable “num” of Dominum) is a typical example:

Frankly, I think his accompaniment is just awful. The entire thing is basically just one, long, boring, root-position C chord. It doesn’t “go” anywhere, harmonically. Then, too, I don’t like how he uses an incomplete chord (marked as no. 1), something Wagner does constantly. This example also displays something I loathe in Gregorian accompaniments: it leaves a chord, then immediately returns to that same chord (marked as 2-3-4). When I see an accompaniment like this (which, by the way, he obviously liked, because he repeats it each time this melody occurs), I cannot help but wonder why he didn’t do something like this:

That was the first harmonization that popped into my head (which probably means I’ll hate it tomorrow morning). Granted, I’m not saying it’s perfect, but it uses structural changes of chords (in other words, it “goes” somewhere), uses a variety of different chords (to avoid ear fatigue), employs plenty of common tones, starts with a nice “walking” bass line (which, in Grad school, you have to call “stepwise,” just like you have to call a “pick up” note an “anacrusis”), and “consistent” harmonic rhythm (i.e. subtle chord changes at regular intervals).

Next is an example by Achille P. Bragers:

To me, the first half is decent. But in the second half:

(A) He “camps out” on a chord I dislike for a long time (blue bar). Were I to use such a chord, I certainly would not sit on it for such a long time.

(B) I find one spot in particular (red bar) quite “stagnant.” I would prefer some kind of motion or progression there.

(C) Just as Wagner did, he falls into the age-old trap (pink bar): he leaves a chord, then immediately returns to it. Some might argue that it’s not exactly the same chord, but my ear certainly hears it as (essentially) a root-position, D-Major chord.

Now for an excerpt by Rev. Fr. Michael Horn, O.S.B., a Gregorianist from the Monastery of Seckau. Of all the books we’ve added to the Lalande Library, his Kyriale accompaniment is certainly one of the rarest.

Marked by a red bar is a spot my composition teachers would say has a bad case of “Wanderitis.” His accompaniment simply wanders around. It doesn’t “go” anywhere (again, a common defect in so many Gregorian accompaniments).

This example, by Max Springer (a famous Gregorianist), has some really nice moments:

However, I find many places quite disturbing. For instance, at the red line, he employs a Dominant 7th chord (which is pretty much the chord you must avoid at all costs), and then adds insult to injury by resolving to an incomplete F Major chord. Mozart would be proud, but those of us who adhere to the “Lemmens school” cringe. Then, too, note how he leaves and then returns to the same exact chord three times in a row (marked by orange stars)!

This next example is very painful for me, as I’m forced to criticize the predecessor to the Nova Organi Harmonia:

It would seem the Desmet brothers and Depuydt still had a lot to learn. Their accompaniment is quite stagnant (purple bar). Then it suddenly harmonizes each note (red bar), just like they did in the nineteenth century!

We are offering a special, brand new collection of Gregorian accompaniments for Responsorial Psalms, wherein I’ve attempted to avoid every pitfall, presenting (hopefully) a true representation of the Lemmens school of accompaniment. If you value the resources offered by Corpus Christi Watershed, such as the Lalande Library, I would ask you to please send your friends to this link. Sales of books will help us continue our work for the Church.

Here is a typical example of a Chabanel Psalm. There are hundreds more like it in the 180 page organist book, and all feature: 100% modal purity, harmonizations that “go” somewhere, counterpoint appropriate to Gregorian accompaniments (i.e. contrary motion, correct voice leading, abundant common tones, and pedal tones in all voices), and numerous varied harmonizations of each Refrain that work well in any conceivable circumstance or acoustic. At all times, jarring chord changes are avoided.

By the way, the Chabanel Psalms don’t require organ accompaniment. Here’s an example of how they sound a cappella: