ETWEEN the years 1964 and 1968 I was temporarily professed as a religious brother with the Society of Mary. At the end of 1964 the American bishops gave us the first English texts of the Mass. They were literal translations of the Propers and Ordinaries of the Mass. There were a few musicians, or aspiring musicians, in our novitiate class, so, in the absence of any real training in Gregorian chant, we set to work providing music for the Propers. In time, we began using guitar accompaniment to rhythmic settings of the set text.
After taking vows, we were sent to St. Mary’s University, where the brothers’ choir director was Fr. Charles Dreisoerner, SM, a classically trained musician and chant expert, as well as a professor of classics at the school. He found us young brothers to be unenthusiastic about singing chant, even though he had spent many hours matching the chant to the new English translations. Squeaky wheels got oiled back then, and our rebellion led to his being replaced by a younger musician after the first year. The idea that chant could set the English text, however, never left my mind.
When I had the opportunity to direct a schola for an Anglo-Catholic parish some seventeen years later, I realized that the Anglican missal texts, being very close in meaning to the Latin originals, could be adapted to the authentic chants as found in the Liber Usualis. I had been hired to do some music engraving for a liturgy publication, so I had the tools and some time to take up Fr. Dreisoerner’s work. The result was Chants for the Church Year, which I self-published. It was produced in 8 ½ x 11 loose-leaf fashion, or spiral bound for use with church choirs. Because of the difficulty of the Gradual and Alleluia chants, those were set in simpler styles. I concentrated on the Introit, Offertory and Communion chants, and also engraved some of the chants from Tenebrae in Holy Week. I also wrote a short paper in defense of vernacular chant, which frankly admitted that the ideal was to sing chant in Latin and Greek, but suggested that the best way to preserve and promote it would be to introduce it to choirs in the vernacular.
Economically, Chants for the Church Year was a losing proposition from the beginning. Fr. Francis Schmitt, who was in the early 1980s the choir director at Boys Town in Nebraska, championed the collection, as in a letter to The American Organist. He purchased a large number of copies for the boys choir at Boys Town. His support was heartening, but the project was, I now see, premature. My wife and I attended the 1983 International Symposium on chant in the liturgy at the Catholic University of America, where we heard several speakers denounce the idea of matching chant to the vernacular. Not long afterwards we left our positions as organist and choirmaster with the Anglo-Catholic parish, which had become one of the first parishes in the Anglican Use in the United States.
I still consider Chants for the Church Year to be a kind of homage to Fr. Charles Driesoerner, who patiently tried to teach us chant in the vernacular. He was right fifty years ago, and we were too cheeky to recognize it. It was at least a comfort to know that he was aware of my efforts to set the vernacular to authentic chant before his passing. May he rest in the peace of Christ, where he sings with all the other monks to whom we owe some of the most beautiful music on earth.
We hope you enjoyed this guest article by Deacon W. Patrick Cunningham.