HIS IS ONE OF THE hottest topics in the field of sacred music: should chant be accompanied by the organ? While I am not on either side, I know people on the both sides of this discussion and I have heard their reasons. I am very blessed to have worked with many choral ensembles: professional and amateur choirs, monastic scholae and parish choirs, congregations that favor the traditional music and people who know nothing about the Church’s music. After working with Church music in so many contexts and with such diverse people, I have come to the conclusion that chant can be done effectively both ways.
Every choir (singers who sing and practice as a group) ought to be able to chant without organ accompaniment. The Church has always taught that the human voice is the primary instrument in the liturgy. No other instruments can sing like our voices which are created by God “in His image”. Nor can musical instruments express the text the way human voice can. That is why every choir, ideally, should be able to chant a capella without the accompaniment of any secondary instruments. I understand some choirs may be in the process of developing the skill of chant and they need the assistance of the organ. However, they should still make chanting a capella their goal and work on their skills in rehearsals.
While this advice applies to choirs chanting the propers and hymns alone, without congregational participation, I think the same goal can be set for congregational singing of the ordinaries, psalms and hymns. In a parish setting, the organ can help the faithful to learn the melodies of the chants and stay in tune. Some organists also like to accompany chants so that they can maintain the pace. That is a valid reason; however, it leads to competition between the organist and the singers, because the organ’s strong and loud registrations tend to lead by anticipating the sung melodies. The most effective way to maintain good pace of the chants is to have a confident choir leading the singing.
I really enjoy the simplicity and purity of plainsong without accompaniment. On the other hand, I do think good organ accompaniment adds color and solemnity to chant. Organ accompaniment is appropriate on special feast days, and during the Christmas and Easter seasons. Whether it is the glorious accompaniment of the French tradition or the expressive registrations of the English tradition, the pipe organ can help us express the text in a very special way. But of course, chant should remain unaccompanied during the penitential seasons. Here are two examples of good chant accompaniment by a former Cistercian monk. The first video is the Cistercian Salve Regina and the second one is Psalm 2 in English accompanied by the organ.
If you are interested in chant accompaniment, this former monk organist uploaded a series of tutorial videos on Youtube.