Back to the future with Gregorian Chant

21 Jan 2009

By The Record

Gregorian chant is making a comeback, especially amongst Catholic youth. 


By Anthony Barich

Successive Popes throughout the Church’s 2000-year history have believed that there’s something special about liturgy.
Gregorian Chant – established in the Middle Ages – is a way of singing parts of the Mass in a way that elevates it to a more contemplative, peaceful experience and adds a spiritual dimension to otherwise simple words.
Named after Pope Gregory the Great – who presided over the Church during the Middle Ages and mandated music standardisation, including rules for composers and musicians for performing and writing music – it is considered the Church’s crème-de-la-crème as a method of worship.
Pope Benedict XVI himself encouraged lovers of such treasures of the Church in his Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis (Sacrament of Charity), which was based on the 2005 Synod on the Eucharist:
“I desire, in accordance with the request advanced by the Synod Fathers, that Gregorian chant be suitably esteemed and employed as the chant proper to the Roman liturgy,” said Pope Benedict, who’s not too shabby on the piano himself.
By saying so, Benedict was not mandating an old rite but encouraging a return to a form of worship that not only draws participants closer to God in prayer but to each other in community.
“Hence it is that those who are trying to improve the quality of congregational singing cannot refuse to Gregorian chant the place which is due to it,” Paul VI said when he issued Jubilate Deo, a minimum repertoire of Gregorian Chant to “make it easier for Christians to achieve unity and spiritual harmony with their brothers and with the living traditions of the past”.
By issuing Jubilate Deo, Paul VI’s aim was liturgical renewal, to help fix Catholics’ minds on the mystery of Christ in the Mass in a more contemplative way.
Today, it has found a young audience. A Gregorian chant course run during World Youth Day at St Augustine’s Church in Balmain last year drew so many pilgrims – over 200 – that they had to use the Protestant church down the road to cater for them all.
Jeremy Fletcher, a 37-year-old graduate of music at the Australian Catholic University, helped run the course, as well as one during Melbourne’s Days in the Diocese.
 “If you present something to young people when you’re passionate about it and they can see you know what you’re talking about, they respond to it,” he said.
He was only two years old when Paul VI issued Jubilate Deo “as a gift” to the bishops of the world, but ever since learning the organ from an Anglican as a teen growing up in Grafton, NSW, he has been passionate about promoting music of good quality.
“I’ve always been dismayed that many Catholics have been unfamiliar with things like Paul VI’s letter to Catholics,” he said.
So he started the Sacred Music Centre in West Melbourne in 2006 and last month released the Jubilus Chant Course – based on Paul VI’s Jubilate Deo – to make ordinary Catholics more familiar with their heritage in an easily accessible way.
It is the first multi-media course in Gregorian Chant, incorporating a DVD, a chantbook, an audio CD and internet services.
Initially transferred from generation to generation by oral tradition, the need to transcribe the chant onto paper arose in the 10th century.
It was only a matter of time, Jeremy says, before chant became available through digital media.
Gregorian chant is difficult to produce, he admits, as it has its own form of notation. Compared to conventional music, the stave uses four lines instead of five, and the notes are square instead of round. Singers must also be able to sing without the accompaniment of an organ or piano.
Initially transferred from generation to generation by oral tradition, the need to transcribe the chant onto paper arose in the 10th
Jubilate Deo contains simple chant settings in Latin of the parts of the Ordinary of the Mass: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Memorial Acclamation and the Agnus Dei. It also provides musical settings for the dialogues between priest and people, such as before the Preface, and the Ite Missa est, the response to the Prayer of the Faithful, and others.
An expanded edition of Jubilate Deo was later issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship in 1987. Yet most Catholics still haven’t heard of it. Jeremy plans to change that.
He says that if Catholics took on Paul VI’s and Benedict XVI’s encouragement to learn the chant, “It would nourish the personal faith of everyone who is involved in sacred music – which is basically singing, which means everyone in the congregation would benefit”.
“I don’t mean big fancy Masses with organs and choirs, just the most basic responses between the priest and the people,” he says.
Over the past three years the Sacred Music Centre has run five chant courses – with admittedly “only modest success” – similar to what University of WA music student Andrew Cichy is doing with parishes in Perth.
Jeremy was especially inspired by his work as New Norcia organist from 2003-05. “I was greatly encouraged by what I was doing there as I was able to see first hand at how people came to New Norcia as a retreat experience, and they found the music easy to join in, and enriching, even doing very simple chats in English. I saw how people loved it as it added an extra spiritual dimension to the words of the Mass,” Jeremy said.
“It’s about teaching the faith,” Jeremy says, “because as the Church’s documents says, the music is more holy the closer it is to the text itself – the words of the liturgy. It’s meant to heighten the words we have to a higher spiritutal level, which is what we want when we go to a liturgy.
“And personally, when I look back on the history of sacred music I can’t help but be excited about that as it’s such an inspiring story down through the ages, as think of al the wonderful choirs, the great numbers of composers that have been formed by the Church, from Mozart to Palestrina…
“So many groups associated with sacred music that it’s all-encompassing – choirs from the very young to the elderly – it’s an expression of the whole Church.”

For more information about the
Sacred Music Centre call 03 9005 8344 or visit