Monday, January 21, 2008

Accompanied Gregorian Chant

Yes, I am biased for accompanied chant.

It is what I grew up with – in the Rev. Carlo Rosinni vein. His is by far NOT the worst an organist can stumble onto. I have heard accompanied chant in many places. Much of it really is quite distracting, and even harsh sounding.

I have yet to meet Jeff Ostrowski, but we have been in touch for some years now. He provided me with a copy of “Nova Organi Harmonia”. ( It is a truly remarkable book, and is to a great extent mirrored in his “Chabanel Psalms” accompaniment. ( While I occasionally use some of the Rosinni accompaniments, as well as a few of the LaPierre, the NOH has become my staple for accompaniment. My continuing to comment that it is strictly “modal” in its harmonic approach simply cannot present to you the beauty that it creates. In my ear it sounds like angel choirs singing along with me. Other historic examples of organ accompaniments have shown up on the internet recently, and I have down-loaded them to try them out. Frankly, the Rossini versions sound better in many cases. But they are still no match for the NOH.

The history of Gregorian chant, and our use of it, seems to me to be akin to the Jesuits – they’re in, they’re out, they make changes, they get away with it, and it all becomes history. It had fallen into almost complete disuse by the time St. Pope Pius X began moving to reform the Liturgy. It was at that point that most of the accompaniments we are speaking of began. I believe that these recent generations of organist/composers did their honest best to enhance the art form, especially for the use in parishes without experienced scholas. And further, that the NOH was the ultimate, the pinnacle of these generations’ work. It is at least in this aspect that it deserves the title of “tradition” (yes, with a small ‘t’).

What was the pipe organ used for when it became the instrument of the western Church? It was centuries before Buxtehude, Bach, Mozart, etc. The Office was only celebrated in Cathedrals and Monasteries – and that was the only place for hymnody. The Mass had only Propers and Ordinaries, most of which had already been established melodically for centuries. It is only logical to assume that it was used to aid the singing of whatever was being sung – almost assuredly Gregorian chant. What did they do, and how did they do it. And why don’t we know anything about it.

Here is my logical, non-academic suggestion: Any organist given the task of accompanying chant already knew the chant in depth. In the earliest of times, the “grand staff” was still experimental, if it existed at all. I’m convinced that the organist improvised whatever was needed, given the chant, the voices, and the building. Then why did he not write it down?

I think the question is why should he have? He knew what he had done. It would take hours to write it out. And what would he do with it? He could certainly do it again, even making changes from the first time. He had no need of a printed copy. And there were no printing presses. And all of his fellow organists were doing the same thing, in the their own ways. And they weren’t writing anything down either! Nor were they looking around for hand-written copies from other organists.

Now, I’m not saying that Gregorian chant was accompanied from the beginning. It wasn’t even “Gregorian” from the beginning! All I’m suggesting is that it IS a tradition, going back earlier that the 1950s, and even earlier than the 1850s. And that it is NOT an abuse, either of the music or of the Liturgy. As my mother told me when I first started learning to play an instrument: Music is not just the black ink on the white paper. It’s what we make of it when performing it.

It is our job to do the best we can to make beautiful music to the glory of God, and to the listeners to take away from their experience of worship whatever they are capable of or interesting in taking from it.

One last argument!

Much of our ‘modern’ Liturgy, we have been told, is from the earliest forms of the Liturgy. Modern ‘liturgists’ have been beating us over the head with that argument for 40 years. Everything done long before the Council of Trent was to be adopted (and adapted), and everything since that time was to be shunned. The whole of Liturgy and music has been evolving all along, as has our culture and civilization. Most of us here in this area of the blogosphere think/feel that the experimental Liturgies post Vat. II are, at least partly, failures. Are we to let some people now rule that true Gregorian chant must reflect only the earliest possible performance practices, and shun any and all development over the last 1,000 years? Is that what Jubil├Žum 2000 was all about?

Christus heri! Christus hodie! Christus semper!