Plainchant is for every Catholic, not just elite

The 1908 Graduale Romanum became so popular that it soon became the only textus receptus of Gregorian chant—and it was certainly not elitist since on the contrary, it allowed any average singer to master the liturgical year's repertoire of chant in about 2 years, whereas in the Middle Ages, it took a monk about 10 years...

Jeffrey Tucker, a scholar and editor of Musica Sacra (Sacred Music: Church Music Association of America), recently explained to CNA/EWTN concerning Gregorian Chant that "You can listen to it, download perfect editions, you can make your own editions, it's freely shared with the world," and is "distributed on an open source platform."[1]

He also wrote a paper on the "free culture" aspect of chant, wherein he blames its copyrighting for inhibiting a wider availability to the faithful. While leaving this central issue for last, we can certainly agree with his wonderful summary of the influence of Gregorian Chant on the history of music.

You went through essentially 1900 years of Christianity with the chant being an open source framework, an open source form of music that flourished in the first millennium through the oral tradition of copying, imitation, and free use.

Chant was then built upon during the second millennium with organum, polyphony, the great works of the Renaissance, and then further inspired the Classical composers. By the 20th century, however, chant had fallen into disuse in most parishes. In 1903 Pius X, who sought 'to restore all things in Christ ', issued a document by which he wanted a big push for chant to become truly universalized throughout the Catholic world."

But he has an axe to grind with the copyrighted Graduale Romanum published in 1908 by the Solesmes monastery (Abbaye St-Pierre located near Sarthe, France), which he qualifies of "catastrophic change" in chant’s status. For next 50 years, it became "a kind of proprietary product, held by one institution" with an elite controlling it. "It was all kind of stifling, really," and by the mid-60s Catholic musicians were "fed up."

So, the history of chant as viewed by Tucker is that plainchant suffered in the early 20th century when it was copyrighted, and it has experienced a resurgence in recent years thanks to entering the commons.

Yet, this thesis does not stand against the facts of the reform of St. Pius X who promoted chant and wished it to be sung by the faithful. For example, when at his instigation an entire assembly congregated in St. Peter’s Square sung the Creed, it was a revelation of something unheard of before. In other words, plainchant was at that time a lost thing, and it was only the work of the monks and Rome which could raise the skeleton back to life.

Moreover, the Solesmes copyright was strictly given to their rendition of the propers of the Mass which were published under the title of the Graduale Romanum—but what was really the monks’ work were the Solesmes’ signs added to the plain square notes and absent from the Roman editions of chant books. The 1908 Graduale [PDF] was also most valuable because it gave uniformity to the melodies themselves which had been heavily corrupted and virtually impossible to sing except for virtuosos.

Because of these qualities, this edition of the Graduale Romanum became so popular that it soon became the only textus receptus of Gregorian chant, thus quickly supplanting the Pustet editions from Ratisbonne (Germany) for obvious reasons. It was certainly not elitist since on the contrary, it allowed any average singer to master the liturgical year's repertoire of chant in about 2 years, whereas in the Middle Ages, it took a monk about 10 years.

Tucker’s thesis would prove that, being liberated from the copyright in the 60’s, plainchant grew to fantastic scales and was enjoyed by the entire Church. Yet, it was precisely at that very moment that the rich tradition of chant was discarded with Latin as the New Mass in the vernacular was forced on the powerless faithful.

Thank God, today, the Solesmes work is still available to anyone who wishes to plunge into the beauty of the plainchant, which is otherworldly, as Benedict XVI suggested. It deserves our full efforts to be revived in all our parishes. This is what the SSPX has strenuously endeavored to promote, encouraging all the attending faithful to sing the common part of the Mass (the Kyriale and the Credo) following the wish of St. Pius X in his motu proprio, Tra le Sollicitudini.

In conclusion, we are happy to let our readers know that Angelus Press will be publishing anew the Traditional Hymnal and this time with the addition of many more hymns. As St. Augustine expressed it, "To sing well is to pray twice."


Footnote

1 Catholic News Agency, "Music scholar says chant is for everyone, not just elite," May 9, 2013.