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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“It would be a grave error to imagine that the principle orientation of the sacrificial action is towards the community. If the priest celebrates «VERSUS POPULUM», which is legitimate and often advisable, his spiritual attitude ought always to be «VERSUS DEUM PER JESUM CHRISTUM», as representative of the entire Church.”
— Official Vatican Statement (25 September 2000)

Some Thoughts On "Englishing" Gregorian Chant
published 12 August 2014 by Jeff Ostrowski

958 Gregorian Manuscript ESTERDAY, I POSTED an article comparing several collections of Englished versions of the Graduale Romanum. One of the most fascinating is The Plainchant Gradual, first published in the 1940s by G. H. Palmer, who (unless I’m wrong) was an Anglican priest. In the Preface, Francis Burgess makes something clear about the Editio Vaticana which cannot be emphasized enough. “The Vatican Edition,” he writes:

“…is no mere reproduction of a local or partial tradition, but a Cento resulting from an extended study and comparison of a host of manuscripts gathered from many places.”

How right he is! And let me bring to your attention another wonderful aspect of the Palmer-Burgess Gradual. For the difficult chants, the editors always provide a Psalm tone version 1 immediately afterward. Here’s an example:

      * *  PDF Download: Excerpt: “The Gradual-verse may be sung more simply thus…”

What I find most striking about these Palmer-Burgess adaptations has to do with their approach to language. This is a difficult & unwieldy subject, but I shall try to explain what I mean in the following paragraphs.

THE FAMOUS MUSICOLOGIST AND CATHOLIC PRIEST, Rev. Franz X. Haberl (1840-1910), who followed the faulty approach of Palestrina’s students toward Gregorian chant, had a famous maxim which he repeated a hundred thousand times: “Sing as you speak.” The following excerpt is reproduced with Haberl’s original emphasis:

The musical melodies are as it were constructed on the melody of the language itself, — the language being simply clothed in musical sounds; so that the fundamental rule for understanding Gregorian melody and singing it effectively is: — “Sing the words with notes, as you would speak them without notes.” The natural rhythm of spoken language is therefore the fundamental rule for the rendering of Plain Chant. The even measure (not equal measure) which is observed in a well-delivered speech—the natural melody of speech in undetermined tones—must in the practice of the Chant be transferred to fixed Tone-intervals.

The “sing as you speak” doctrine was popular for centuries. Many books were published with examples like this, and more than 300,000 pages of organ accompaniments were published using various funky notations. In Haberl’s defense, one can look through the Gregorian repertoire and locate many passages like this:

957 Gregorian_Semiology_Tonic_Accent

Such passages seem to back up Haberl’s “sing as you speak” approach because the tonic accents are treated the same way Baroque composers (for example) might treat them. However, Haberl ignores thousands of examples that emphasize the “wrong” syllables, like this one:

956 Gregorian_Semiology_Tonic_Accent

It often seems as if the ancient composers went out of their way to remind us that Gregorian chant has much more sophisticated ways of text-honoring than the “Baroque” method 2 of emphasizing the tonic accent.

Fr. Haberl was a good person, and I’m sure he’s in Heaven, but he failed to recognize something fundamental: music is not speech. Music is music. Palestrina’s students couldn’t accept this fact, so they systematically mutilated 3 the entire Graduale Romanum, and eventually got their corrupt edition approved by Church authorities. Haberl’s spiritual descendants continue along similar lines today. For example, GIA Publications recently released a collection by a “sing as you speak” adherent, with a Preface saying the traditional method of intonation (wherein the cantor sings until the asterisk) is “not recommended,” because it allegedly shows a lack of sensitivity to the “spoken rendition.” But the author fails to realize the deep history behind such intonations, which stem from a time when pitch pipes were not available to give starting piches. Moreover, having the cantor(s) intone is more pleasing from an aesthetic point of view.

THERE IS MUCH MORE that could be said about this subject. For example, it’s incorrect to speak of “the right way” to adapt Latin chants into English. The fact is, the Gregorian repertoire is vast, and various monasteries through the centuries had their own “dialects.” But why bring up this subject at all, when probably 95% of Catholic priests have no familiarity with Gregorian chant?

I do so because attention to the Propers has grown exponentially in the last decade. If you examine the following collections of Propers, you’ll notice that all 4 have come into existence after 2006:

      * *  Article (8/11/2014):  Various Collections of the Mass Propers in English

The “sing as you speak” approach is without question the easiest way to immediately implement the Mass Propers. I, too, have published such collections. However, at some point in the future, we need to recover the notion of cantillation. As St. Augustine wrote:

“For whom is this jubilation more proper than for the nameless God? … And since you cannot name Him, and yet may not remain silent, what else can you do but break out in jubilation so that your heart may rejoice without words, and that the immensity of your joy may not know the bounds of syllables?”

The sophisticated Gregorian melodies go much deeper than the “Baroque” method of tonic accent treatment, although (as noted above) such an approach can be found in some of the syllabic chants. As Dom Gajard reminded us in the Revue Grégorienne many decades ago:

“One does not compose in order to set every word to music, but in order to translate into music a single idea expressed in a number of words. Each element of a musical phrase is a part of the whole and must take its own place in that whole; for instance, the word coeli in the Mass IX Sanctus, or the word Dómini in the Mass XI Benedictus, etc. Here, the melodic line must be given first place, according to the ancient adage: Musica non subjacet regulis Donati.”

So often, individual manuscripts (or even individual words!) are used to justify this or that approach. I’ve always felt that it’s necessary to take into consideration the entire Gregorian repertoire.

I mentioned that G. H. Palmer was not afraid to follow the advice of Dom Gajard, and neither were several others who have produced Englished Graduals. Incidentally, years ago, someone on the CMAA forum started an interesting project of using simplified-yet-melismatic melodies for the Responsorial Psalm:

      * *  PDF Download: “Melismatic” Responsorial Psalm — [anonymous]

I’ve often wondered what became of that project. I felt it had great promise, because it emphasized singing—that is, music as music.


1   The 1961 Solesmes Liber Usualis has something similar, but only for a few Tracts.

2   This is not to denigrate the Baroque method, which can be lovely, and came about partially as a result of humanism. Later composers simply cannot understand the earlier practice. As Willi Apel wrote:

Examples of downright mis-accentuation are not rare even in fifteenth-century polyphonic music, a striking example being the passages angélorúm (correctly angelórum) and salvé radíx sanctá (instead of sálve rádix sáncta) in one of Dufay’s settings of “Ave Regina Celorum.”   In cases like this, one cannot help feeling that the seemingly “bad” accentuation is actually a “good” one, dictated by the intention to counteract rather than over-emphasize. Whether the “barbaric” melismas in Gregorian chant result from such an intention or from plain indifference, it is impossible to say.
3   To learn more about this mutilation, click here.

4   All of them, that is, with the exception of three (3) which were created in the 1960s.