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“If a pope were only ever applauded, he would have to ask himself whether or not he was doing things right.”
— Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (2016)

Simple English Propers Organ Accompaniments
published 3 May 2014 by Guest Author

EVERAL YEARS AGO, I had the pleasure of meeting composer Adam Bartlett, introduced through a mutual friend who was a member of Adam’s parish. I had grown up in a parish well-entrenched in “contemporary” worship, feeling instinctively that the music and the sacramental liturgy were at odds, finding solace in Cardinal Ratzinger’s writings on the subject, but having no idea what should be done about the issue. My friend, knowing my love for music and the frustrating liturgical haze I was wandering in, said I must meet this guy and learn about the chants he was composing for the propers. Propers were still a foreign concept to me and chant was an unapproachable ideal reserved for cloistered monks, but I was excited to know that there was something that could be done. Something was missing, and what good news to know that something was being done about it!

Adam enthusiastically catechized on the subject of propers. He explained how these were the texts assigned to the Mass. There was no need for scouring hymnals for texts loosely related to the liturgy – these texts were woven into its very fabric! The Second Vatican Council felt quite strongly about their use, stating:

“What must be sung is the Mass, its Ordinary and Proper, not ‘something’, no matter how consistent, that is imposed on the Mass … To continue to replace the texts of the Mass … is to cheat the people.”

He was nearing completion of a project he called the Simple English Propers, which would provide a comprehensive resource for parishes to carry out this liturgical mission. I had no idea at the time how significant that collection would be to my own experience as a liturgical musician and to English-speaking Catholics the world over.

For more on the propers, there is the wonderful introduction in the new St. Isaac Jogues Missal :

a. Singing even the finest hymns, we feel they are the compositions of a poet ― it is the poet who speaks. The propers, on the other hand, are almost without exception direct quotations from Scripture, and the unmetered Gregorian form is better suited to proclaiming the verbatim Word of God.

b. Gregorian chant’s unique qualities ― which do not rely upon strong rhythms and rhyming strophes ― are better suited to contemplation of the “heavenly liturgy,” whereas a rhythmic and inspiring hymn tune might be more appropriate at the end of Mass.

c. Singing the propers is consonant with the highest goals of the liturgical movement which encouraged Catholics to pray the actual texts of the Mass rather than para-liturgical prayers, no matter how pious such devotional prayers may be.

d. There is a growing desire to recover the unity that existed before substitutions became widespread, when the entire Latin Rite sang and meditated upon the same Mass propers each Sunday.

e. What was quite naturally viewed as a blessing ― the freedom to substitute ― has over the decades morphed into a burden. Musicians feel obligated to “invent” the liturgy each week by unilaterally choosing creative substitutions for the assigned texts. On the other hand, those who sing the Graduale chants are often edified by the profound theology displayed by scriptural selections which normally go back more than 1,500 years.

f. Similarly, the postconciliar emphasis on congregational singing ― initially viewed as a blessing ― has been slightly exaggerated. Many now believe the congregation is required to sing everything (which is not traditional and can even strain the vocal cords). Delegating some propers to the choir alone helps restore the Council’s vision: a judicious allocation of singing for the congregation, cantor, celebrant, deacon, and choir.

g. Perhaps the most significant catalyst has been the plethora of resources for singing Mass propers in English, many of which have become available within the last five years.

Of that plethora, the Simple English Propers stood out since its publication in 2011. I observed Adam’s schola rehearsing these chants during their development and was enthralled. They were beautiful. They carried the message of scripture beautifully, and were a shining example of Pope Pius X’s statement that “The more closely a composition for church approaches in its movement, inspiration and savor the Gregorian form, the more sacred and liturgical it becomes.” I began to implement them in liturgies where I was entrusted with the music selection, scribbling out organ accompaniments for my own personal use. Many other directors were benefitting from the use of the SEP and it was met with instant acclaim. Yet, one question was continually raised: Are there any organ accompaniments available?

Sharing my own early attempts with the community over at the MusicaSacra forum, the appreciation from others was overwhelming and I commenced to compose accompaniments for the entire collection. It’s taken a lot longer than initially estimated, surviving through relocations, theft, complete refocus of harmonic style, and a great deal of revision and trial at the organ console. In spite of some stressful circumstances, and with much grattitude for the encouragement and generosity of the MusicaSacra community, I am honored to present:


     * * [Volume I] —Advent, Christmas, Lent, Holy Week, Easter

     * * [Volume II] —Ordinary Time, Feasts & Solemnities, Ritual Masses (Funerals and Weddings)

HESE SIMPLE ACCOMPANIMENTS serve to subtly underpin the chants, without distracting from their modal nature or their free-flowing rhythm. They are written so that they can be played comfortably with the use of pedals or on manuals alone, and the subtle/quiet nature of chant accompaniment means that no organ is ill-equipped for their use. Both volumes contain harmonized antiphons and verses with pointed psalm texts as they appear in the SEP, table of contents mirroring the layout of SEP, and footnotes throughout for easier navigation of the books. The chosen keys keep the vocal range comfortably from C to C, suitable for all voices. Volume I includes an introduction to the collection with notes on performance and indiosyncracies of the notation.

Along with the hard copies available for purchase, both volumes may be downloaded freely on the MusicaSacra forum. If you use them on a regular basis, consider purchasing the hard copies for your own ease of use (much less printing!) and to support the long hours of composition and engraving work that goes into a large collection like this.

Some choirs are well equiped to sing these (or other collections of) propers. For others this is still a new concept, and integration of these oft-changing texts and the chanted style can prove challenging. In such cases, it may be helpful to reference the index of the Simple English Propers with its list of Eucharistic Antiphons to be used ad libitum. These are permitted for use at the Communion of any liturgy throughout the year. They may be used in successive weeks, becoming familiar to choirs and congregations after some time, and easing the transition to chanted propers.

Along these lines, one of the advantages of the Simple English Propers is that they all stem from a few basic melodic formulas. For those still new to chant, this makes them easier and easier to sing over time as the formulas become familiar, and choirs will find that they soon come quickly and naturally. Those more comfortable with chant and the use of propers might look to Adam Bartlett’s new offerings through Illuminare Publications such as the Lumen Christi Missal, with its own set of accompaniments being produced. For those who are still in a time of transition, using only some propers and/or finding stability in the formulaic settings of the SEP, the volumes above will prove useful in implementing the chanted propers at your parish.

AS TO THE SINGING OF THE PROPERS, vocalists and organists alike are encouraged to reference the introduction to the SEP by Jeffrey Tucker, which explains the nuances of chant rhythm and notation. Vocalists are of course encouraged to read from the neumes of the original.

[Editor’s Note: Ryan’s collections present the Simple English Propers in modern notation. This might help Catholics who are afraid of the traditional “square” notation.]

Fans of the SEP organ collection may look forward to another developing project: Organ accompaniments to the Parish Book of Psalms. Like the SEP, the PBP provides simple chant settings in English (and in Gregorian notation) for the entire liturgical year, and like the SEP accompaniments, they are being shared freely on the MusicaSacra forum as they are created. Visit the forum for free downloads, and stay tuned for a published product in future months.

We hope you enjoyed this guest article by Ryan Dingess.