Occasionally I find myself at Masses where Gregorian chant makes an appearance as “dress-up music.” It may be tossed in as a prelude or perhaps as an addition to the music at Communion time. Now I’m not talking about singing an introit before a processional hymn or chanting the appropriate Communion antiphon or Eucharistic hymn. I’m all for chant making its way back into the liturgy.
No, instead this is unexplained Latin chant where the congregation has no idea what it means or chant where someone appears at the microphone and solos a lengthy chant, perhaps offering an explanation (for the dullards out there) that this is VERY IMPORTANT MUSIC.
Chants don’t exist in isolation, like random pieces in Carlo Rossini’s Liturgical Organist. And no, they’re not meant to an aesthetic fillip to the liturgy. I once heard “The Swan” from Carnival of the Animals played at Communion by a very fine cello-piano duo. It was lovely but inappropriate. Chant “tidbits,” as I like to think of them, are no better and rarely as well executed.
Why do I care? Because in many places badly placed and poor executed chant only reinforces many churchgoers’ existing prejudices against this music. Yes, things are getting better and better in many churches. However, in other churches, there’s a long road ahead for liturgy. We need to think long about our music and practice very hard lest we damage the very cause we hope to advance in our enthusiasm.
Chant is not background music or an in-church version of Karl Haas’ “Adventures in Great Music.” It deserves to be treated as the treasure it is when performed well and in context.