How Catholics Got Their Chant Back

By Peter De Trolio III

Once upon a time as a very young man, I heard Plain Chant.

It was during the 1980s, that period of guitars and pop music erroneously and enthusiastically interjected into the liturgy. My revelation came due to the work of a Monk of St. Anselm´s Abbey in Washington, D.C.

Dom Urban Schnauz sang the Novus Ordo Mass in Latin on Sundays at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.  I had the privilege of being one of his altar boys while studying at Catholic University.  Dom Urban had also organized a Schola at the Abbey; my friends and I would often join the Monks for Mass and Vespers just to listen to them chant. 

What a magnificent sound, we thought. We’d assumed that Chant had fallen into complete disuse, but miraculously there were some, like the dear, holy Dom Urban, who kept it alive.  He taught us the basics of square notes and how to sing the responses appropriate to altar boys. 

Unbeknownst to us, Plain Chant – also known as ‘Gregorian’ Chant – was and is nothing less than the 1400-year old ancient voice of the Church.  Dating from the 6th century, it takes its name from Pope St. Gregory the Great, who instituted it into the liturgy. 

Over the centuries, Chant – like everything in the Church — has seen corruption and reform,  but through the millennia it  remained Catholics’ principal way of praying in music in the Church. This,  until the Second Vatican Council, when other music began to replace chant within the liturgy — despite the Council’s express statement that ‘The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman … All other things being equal, Gregorian chant holds pride of place because it is proper to the Roman Liturgy. 1

Imbued with an enthusiasm known as the ‘spirit’ of Vatican II, in the decades following the Council, liturgists and prelates all but banished chant, until in 1994 something shocking happened. The monks of Silos, a monastery near Burgos, Spain, became internationally famous with their album Chant. Astonishingly, Chant peaked at #3 on the Billboard 200, and was certified as triple platinum, becoming the best-selling album of Gregorian chant ever released.

Suddenly, the monks’ chant reached a huge global audience, and by the mid-1990s a few in the Church had begun to question the status quo. Even more interest was aroused in 2000, when the documents of the Second Vatican Council became globally available on the Vatican website. To the question, ‘Why had this ethereal treasure of the Church been banished?’ there came no official answer. Only the Council Fathers’ own statement resonated through the years, clear as a bell.

As in Silos, Catholic Chant survived to the extent that it was preserved in monasteries and convents throughout the west — out of which it comes back to us today.  It is a numerically-based type of music represented by square notes of specific time value but chant does not need any musical instruments to sustain it, so it can be sung with or without accompaniment.  It is all done through the voice. 

Fast forward three decades and despite every attempt to kill it, Chant today is making an unmistakable global comeback.  Scholas are being organized in universities and parishes throughout the West. Conferences such as those organized in America by the Church Music Association are drawing ever-more participants.

And while most Catholics will have some experience of chant tonality in the haunting music of the Salve Regina or the Tantum Ergo, most have no idea that the entire body of chant is their birthright – an inestimable treasure handed down for centuries from those who came before us.

To better understand this growing phenomenon, Regina Magazine traveled to England, where thanks to the hard work of the Latin Mass Society and others, chant in Catholic churches is once again beginning to be heard.  One Englishman who is experienced and leads chant and is involved in Priest Training is  Michael Forbester. Our other interviewee is a beginner, Michael Durnan. 

REGINA:   How long have you been involved and what has generally been your role?

Mike Forbester: I’ve been involved with the priest training since the first Conference at Ushaw College in 2009. I principally serve as Chant Director, but before we even get to that stage, the work has to be done in preparation for all the scheduled public services, indeed which services (mainly from the Divine office in addition to daily Mass) that we’re going to have. Copies are then prepared for all singers, our Organist and also a spare copy for whoever is Celebrant/Officiant, so we all know what’s going on! I’ve also prepared the Orders of Service for all the participants.

Michael Durnan: At the end of September 2014, the Institute of Christ The Sovereign King took over the pastoral care of St. Walburge’s Catholic Parish Church in Preston at the invitation of the Bishop of Lancaster.   St. Walburge’s was merged with parish church of Sacred Heart a few years ago but I had attended mass frequently at St. Walburge’s, as both churches are quite near to where I live.  I had never sung Gregorian chant or any other Latin liturgical chant before and had not sung in a choir since I was a pupil at school. I enjoy singing and being a former Primary School teacher, I had done singing with the children in music lessons.

REGINA: What changes have you seen over the years?

Mike Forbester: As more and more priests have been attending (I think it’s well over 100 now) the emphasis has changed, certainly over the last three years from not just training clergy, but also beginning to train servers at the same time. This has usually been done in separate classes, but occasionally can take place simultaneously with the priest training.

REGINA: What brought you to Chant in the first place?

Michael Durnan: I had heard of Gregorian chant and I already owned some CDs of church choirs singing chant. I also had some CDs of The Byzantine Rite Liturgy sung by the Russian Orthodox choir of the Cathedral in London.   In my younger days as an undergraduate at University of Bristol, I had come across Taize chants such as Adoremus te Domine, Veni Sancte Spiritus and Ubi Caritias et Amore whilst attending The University Catholic Chaplaincy. I had also comes across the use of Taize chants in some Ordinary Form parish masses after leaving university and one friend in a Catholic Social group I’m involved with, used to organise a prayer group which featured the use of Taize chants.

REGINA: How did you come to find Chant near where you live?

Michael Durnan: The Rector of The Shrine, Canon Altiere, had put up posters and made leaflets available at the back of church inviting people to become involved in the liturgical and social life of The Shrine. They were looking for volunteers for a polyphonic plain chant choir and so I put my name forward.  When I started in the choir at St. Walburge’s, I found I was the only complete novice as most of the others had experience of singing chant at the TLM. Many of the choir members had been singing together at the Lancaster Diocese Cathedral – St. Walburge’s in the in the diocese. Many of the more experienced choir members already had their own copies of The Parish Book of Chant and some had their own copies of Libera Usualis.

REGINAWhat kinds of questions and concerns do priests new to the TLM generally have?

Mike Forbester: Oh Lord, I’m not sure I’m the right person to answer this! One thing though that can definitely be emphasised to dissuade any apprehension is that priests do NOT have to know and understand the Latin language, they just have to be reasonably proficient in saying it. Tuition in this, is of course offered, so if any clergy reading this who would love to learn the Traditional Mass but thought they couldn’t because of lack of knowledge of the language, please don’t let that put you off attending!

REGINAWhat have been your main joys and challenges?

Mike Forbester: My first & biggest challenge, was certainly preparing services from the Divine Office, that I’d never even been to, never mind having to actually prepare editions for both singers and congregation! At the time of the first Ushaw Conference, I only had in my possession, a Liber Usualis, which of course is fine for most Masses & occasional services from the Divine Office, but it doesn’t give you everything, particularly Lauds, so I had to learn very quickly. I would go so far as to say the learning curve was so steep that it felt like I was bending over backwards! These days, I’m in possession, thanks to various online sources, of virtually everything I could wish for, so preparation for all the public services is nothing like as stressful!

The reward for all this hard work though, is to bring to fruition, a week’s services that had their origin on my humble desktop PC (although the original liturgical books are much older than that!) and to be able to take my own part in striving to ensure they are the best we can offer in the worship of almighty God. It’s the reason my schola and choir exists. There are several who record CD’s and perform concerts, but very few of these actually attempt to put such music back where it belongs, in the heart of the Sacred Liturgy. 

Michael Durnan: For myself, it’s been a steep learning curve as I have to come Latin chant as a complete novice, but having more experienced and proficient choir members around me and with the leadership of Abbe Chaptal, I have gradually become more confident with, and competent at, my singing. Whilst I can sing in tune and have a reasonably powerful voice, there have been many challenges along the way.  I have found singing chant to be very rewarding and spiritually uplifting. The singing of chant enhances the liturgy and adds to its beauty.

It’s lovely to hear from people, both clergy and laity, that our efforts have been appreciated, particularly as some of them may never have experienced chant & polyphony as it was meant to be performed until attending one of the Training Conferences.” – Mike Forbester

One of the things I often found very disappointing and discouraging at times when attending the Ordinary Form Mass, was the choice of the music at mass. Generally, the Mass itself isn’t sung, but instead four hymns from the entrance to the recessional hymn with an offertory hymn and communion hymn in between. The hymns themselves I often found uninspiring, banal and even cringe-worthy.

“Singing chant has certainly enhanced my experience of The Mass and its significance. Chant adds great beauty and depth to The Mass and makes it an even more profound spiritual experience. Singing the Traditional Latin Mass using chant makes it longer in duration, but I don’t begrudge spending 90 minutes in church each Sunday because the whole experience has such as great beauty and depth. “ — Michael Durnan 


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