ALWAYS TRY to be meticulous and thorough in my postings on this blog. Sometimes, my posts represent the fruit of immense study. Today, however, I want to make it clear that I’m not an expert on Belmont Abbey. Moreover, their new “English Gradual” is rather mysterious, since it’s an in-house publication. I’ve attempted to do some “detective work,” but please verify all information.
The Belmont Abbey we’re talking about is located in England. We’re not talking about the Benedictine Monastery in North Carolina also called “Belmont Abbey.” The book appears to have been done in homage to Dom Alan Rees, Gregorian composer and Abbot of Belmont Abbey from 1986 to 1993, who died tragically—due to an accidental fall at the abbey—on 2 October 2005 at the age of 64.
I believe I can give my opinion of this book in a very few words.
IT APPEARS TO BE A SOMEWHAT RANDOM collection of texts. It does not correspond to the Roman Gradual (SUNG PROPERS). Nor does it correspond to the Roman Missal (SPOKEN PROPERS). The antiphons and psalms lack Latin references, so it’s sometimes difficult to understand exactly whence each comes. Perhaps the easiest way to describe it would be a type of “Englished” Graduale Simplex. 1 From time to time, the antiphon matches (in a general way) the assigned Introit. For example, the Introit chosen by Belmont for the Baptism of the Lord is similar to the one in the Roman Missal.
In terms of the compositions, they range from metrical tunes to unmeasured melodies which draw their inspiration from Gregorian chant. In my personal opinion, most of these melodies are not inspired. Some of them are just okay. Only a small percentage are worth writing home about. As you can tell, I was disappointed by the melodies. However, from what I can tell through basic Google searches, Dom Rees was one of the very first to create English “Gregorian” settings. Therefore, perhaps I should cut him some slack!
The book is softcover. In my view, the binding is quite poor. My pages are already falling out, even though the book has received almost no usage whatsoever. The typesetting is of average quality. To my knowledge, there are no organ accompaniments available for any of the chants in this 270+ page book—a fatal flaw. Those of us who have created such collections know that writing the antiphons is the easy part. The difficult part is providing organ accompaniments for the entire collection, including the psalm verses! The Preface says that a CD of some of these chants is in production.
FOR YEARS, WE HAVE NOTED the amazing renaissance of collections being produced which set the MASS PROPERS to music. This process was long overdue, and we have welcomed it. I think the Belmont Gradual is a welcome addition, while not rising to the level of indispensable. At the very least, it can show additional possibilities when it comes to creating “Gregorian” settings in English.
As I mentioned, I was not impressed with most of the settings. The melodies are unworthy of an abbey whose architecture is so sacred and stunningly gorgeous.
I have to admit, this Gradual forced me to think about the whole concept of “Gregorian” compositions in English. I started asking myself, “Why are we doing this, if the results are sometimes so poor? Are we not acting arrogantly and foolishly to replace the ancient & beautiful chants of our liturgy? To what end?” Moreover, in the case of this Belmont Gradual, the texts do not even correspond to the Church’s assigned texts!
Obviously, this is a conversation for another day, but I would note in passing what I’ve said before. Even though the Vatican Council specifically allowed a liturgy with both Latin and vernacular, I find the juxtaposition somewhat jarring. Others will disagree. For myself, I prefer the liturgy entirely in Latin or entirely in the vernacular. Again, others will disagree. In any event, it seems to me that the primary advantage of English “Gregorian” settings is their ability to be used well in those liturgies which—in spite of the decrees by Vatican II—take place entirely in the vernacular.
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 That is to say, Scriptural texts loosely related to the feast in a general way.