HROUGHOUT the Church’s history, there have been various schools of thought regarding “breaking” the Sanctus-Benedictus. (When broken, the second half is sung after the Consecration.) Pope Pius XII took a “via media” in his 1958 document, declaring:
(27d) The Sanctus and Benedictus, if chanted in Gregorian, must be sung without a break; otherwise the Benedictus is to be sung after the Consecration.
Certainly many compositions are written in a way that clearly suggests being broken. An extremist might be bothered by this. After all, didn’t Pope Pius X make the following declaration in 1903?
(11c) In the hymns of the Church the traditional form of the hymn is preserved. It is not lawful, therefore, to compose, for instance, a “Tantum ergo” in such wise that the first strophe presents a romanza, a cavatina, an adagio and the “Genitori” an allegro.
We must guard against looking at music the same way we look at speech. Someone who does might exclaim, “When we speak the Sanctus, we don’t break it, so neither should we when singing it.” Such an approach is faulty; for example, some melismas in Gregorian chant have more than 70 notes on a single syllable; that’s because it’s music not speech. To learn more, please read Thoughts on Englishing the Gradual.
Medieval Catholics avoided the SING AS YOU SPEAK error. Often, they would use a chant melody as cantus firmus and “let the chips fall as they may.” In other words, the various sections would not take into consideration individual words, so a word like BENEDICIMUS might be broken in one voice: “BENEDI” for one movement, and “CIMUS” for the next. Some people have suggested those lines were played by instruments, but scholarly opinion differs on whether this was the case.
At the same time, I would never suggest we do something merely because it happened during the Church’s history. After all, some silly medieval Church composers had multiple languages sung simultaneously! 1
Oregon Catholic Press recently sent me a book that tries to revive this custom. It is a book of hymns with Spanish and English lyrics. The editor of the book suggests that those who know Spanish sing the hymn in Spanish, while those who know English sing the hymn in English … at the same time!
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 A secular chanson in French might be placed on top, a Latin religious text in the middle voice, and so forth.