HIS past summer, I finally got around to giving a class on Gregorian chant at the parish where I’m music director. And I have a confession to make – I ‘under’ advertised it, and thus wasn’t expecting a big turnout. I announced a mere week before the actual class was to begin (it was a class to be held on Monday night for the next four Mondays), and I made this announcement at only one Mass (out of the nine we have each weekend) during the summer (when lots of parishioners are vacationing). I then placed flyers in the back of the church (which can be a black hole of pamphlets, flyers and holy cards on the best of days). Despite these obstacles, 65 – 70 people showed up to each of the classes. It ended up that word of mouth was a better advertising agent!
I will get to the structure of the class in a minute – but I wanted to share first who showed up to the class.
We had people from our local diocese, Orange County, but also from Los Angeles: we had young children, teens, elderly, married men and women, single young adults, entire families – there was even an expecting mother who came! Not everyone was interested in singing in the choir, but they all wanted to know about the music at the heart of the patrimony of the Church. What was more: they wanted to sing it, not just listen to it. It was also beautiful to see that not everyone came from a parish where the Extraordinary Form or even a Latin Novus Ordo is celebrated. During the Q and A time, many wanted to know how to start singing chant at their parish. After the class, a young boy let me know that he and his Dad sang the Ave Maria before he went to bed each night; and he wanted to learn more prayers to sing. In every attendee, I found a burning desire to learn chant. Yet, even after this response, I sometimes find my myself thinking, “Yes, but surely they will want [here fill in most recent song from local Christian radio station] instead of just the chant – right?” Just the chant: as if!
Why did I see chant having such a broad appeal to people coming from such diverse backgrounds and states in life? I firmly believe in studying, learning and singing the chants, we learn our Catholic faith, we learn the words of Sacred Scripture, and we tap into the communion of saints. In my summer chant class, I mentioned how once I had been to the J. Paul Getty Museum, and seen a 12th century Missal from the Premonstratensian (Norbertine) Abbey of St. Mary and Potentius of Steinfeld (this one). We were fortunate enough to be given a private showing of the book, and the curator was flipping through the ancient pages when we saw a very ornately illuminated “V”.
Here is the image:
We knew immediately that it was the preface tone from the Feast of the Holy Trinity… and began to read the notation and sing it from the nearly 850 year old book. (Try it yourself!) What was even more amazing – O Quam Admirabile! – the dating of the book almost certainly meant that St. Herman Joseph would have said Mass using this very same Missal. When we sing this music, it’s not simply the music of the historical Church. It’s the music of the saints – the living saints. By singing Gregorian chant, we pick up the same music that those dwellers in heaven once sang, and perhaps still sing at the throne of the Lamb.
Here is the outline I used for the 4 sessions of the “Summer Chant Class”: (I should mention as well, we were interested in practical learning, not the theoretical.)
Day 1: Introduction to Chant (and where to find chant FREE)
- Handout including resources for Chant: Chant Tools (web version), Corpus Christi Watershed – Rene Goupil Gradual and the Parish Book of Chant (pdf here)
- Singing is easy! Learn Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do and why that’s important
- Handout showing some of the basics of Gregorian notation
- Taught Antiphon: “Ave Maria”
Day 2: How much Gregorian chant does the Magisterium say Catholics ought to know?
- Read sections from St. Paul VI’s “Jubilate Deo” and his letter “Voluntati Obsequens”
- Handout with list of “minimum” chants that every Catholic should know (I added a few, like the Ave Maria and Vexilla Regis)
- Handout included main types of chant (Mass parts, Antiphons, etc) and a very concise pronunciation guide
- Taught Hymn: “Jesu Dulcis Memoria”
Day 3: The Modes and Psalm Tones
- Used Guido of Arezzo’s Poem “The Eight Modes” as help to describe the “flavor” of each mode
- Used Psalm tone samples to illustrate each mode (and parts of the tone: incipit, flex, tenor, terminations…)
- Taught “Gloria Patri” in each Psalm Tone (and used as closing prayer)
Day 4: LOTS of singing
- Passed out packet with 18 chants* that every Roman Catholic should know
- Sang samples from each with the class
*(Creator Alme Siderum, Parce Domine, Attende Domine, Vexilla Regis, Pange Lingua Gloriosi (Tantum Ergo), Ubi Caritas, Veni Creator Spiritus, Adoro Te Devote, O Salutaris Hostia, Ave Verum Corpus, Jesu Dulcis Memoria, Ave Maria, Ave Maris Stella, Alma Redemptoris Mater, Ave Regina Caelorum, Regina Caeli, Salve Regina, Te Deum)**
**Many would disagree with my list from the standpoint that there are other chants a Catholic should know, but none would argue that these are not all masterpieces of the repertoire (also, I purposefully avoided the Ordinary and Propers from the Mass, since many already are familiar with the “Jubilate Deo” selections of the Mass parts). Plus, it was only an hour long class!