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The Missa Cantata sine Hymnis – Moving Toward an Ideal

For a time, my former housemates and I established a short-lived endeavour to learn all the Gregorian Ordinary settings, which we dubbed “Ordinary Club.” After singing through the Gloria from Mass II, one of them remarked that this chant, assigned for First Class Feasts, is of such a level of solemnity and beauty that it was causing him to rethink his stance on the use of polyphony only on First Class Feasts. Mass II is incredible, particularly the Gloria, but is sadly neglected. This led me to reconsider my own view on the varied styles of music employed at Sung Mass.

Around the world, the average Sung Mass is a mixture of Gregorian chant, polyphony, and Protestant-style metrical hymnody. Such hymns appear almost always during the processions at the beginning and end of Mass. The Proper chants are typically sung to the full Gregorian melodies, while the Ordinary chants are usually chanted, with polyphonic settings, if sung at all, mostly employed on Solemnities. Any one of these three musical styles may appear following the Offertory and Communion Proper chants, effectively used to fill the silence, but these, like the hymns during the opening and closing processions, are not, liturgically speaking, part of the Mass.

While this is currently the common practice at many Traditional Masses, one may question how well it accords with either the liturgical law of the Church or with the spirit of the liturgy. Gregorian chant is “the only chant [the Church] has inherited from the ancient fathers, which she has jealously guarded for centuries in her liturgical codices.”[1] In the words of French composer-organist Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), “plainsong is the only liturgical music.” The use of such varied musical styles creates an unfortunate schizophrenia in the Mass. In the East, it is much more common to hear only Byzantine chant at a Byzantine Divine Liturgy, although they too will make use of polyphony in larger churches.

In the ideal scenario, I would envision the Missa Cantata sine Hymnis (Sung Mass without Hymns) as:

  • An improvised prelude on the organ accompanying the procession
  • Asperges Me/Vidi Aquam accompanied by the organ
  • All Proper chants sung unaccompanied
  • All Ordinary chants sung accompanied
  • Following the Offertory and Communion chants, the organist would improvise in a meditative manner, ideally using the Proper chants that were just sung as the melodic impetus for these improvisations, or hinting at the next chant
  • The procession following the Last Gospel will be accompanied by an organ postlude, either prepared or improvised

A great seamlessness for the liturgical action is possible with this method, provided that a suitable organist is employed. The use of metrical hymnody while the priest and servers process in often causes a delay, for the strophic nature of hymnody does not allow the music to end when the priest has arrived at the foot of the altar, ready for the Asperges Me. Ideally, the organist would improvise such that the chord which lands just as the priest kneels for the Asperges Me would be the chord that begins the chant, such that the key would already be in the choir’s ears and the priest’s intonation would be prepared-for tonally. Similarly, if the singing of the Introit and Kyrie ends earlier than when the priest is ready to begin the Gloria, the organist could continue playing, improvising using motifs of the Gloria, hinting at it, but also modulating, if need be, to allow the priest and choir to have the correct key internalized before the priest intones it. At the end of Mass, the organist’s postlude would also be much less intrusive than a hymn. It is a frequent occurrence that the priest and the servers have processed out of the nave, yet the hymn drags on for several more verses, with many people kneeling to pray as soon as the priest leaves, and often a minority left standing, although those who remain upright rarely sing the hymn.

A men’s schola would sing all the chant, removing the necessity for women to sing four-part settings, and allowing a greater ability to blend and become one voice. With a strong men’s schola leading the chant, greater congregational participation would be encouraged in the singing of the Ordinary chants, and copies of the Kyriale could be placed in the pews instead of hymnals. Not only is this a more affordable alternative to hymnals, it is firmly in line with perennial Church teaching and the spirit of the liturgy.

The Ordinary would be accompanied, with the organist making use of the pedals, which drives the chant forward in a way which is most effective for leading a congregation and keeping the choir and congregation in sync with one another. In the method I was taught, the pedals and chord changes line up as closely as possible with the natural syllabic stress of the text, therefore giving the text through the music. During Advent and Septuagesimatide the organ would cease solo improvisation, only playing to accompany the singing of the Ordinary chants, while in Lent, the organ would be completely silent. This would create a kind of progressive solemnity and heighten the austerity and penitential character of Lent. The reduction in the use of the organ from Septuagesimatide into Lent would also ease the faithful into that great penitential season and would serve to heighten this change of liturgical season.

I used to be quite enthusiastic about metrical hymnody, and I have composed 48 such hymns, which are self-published in two volumes. Nevertheless, an observation in Martin Mosebach’s The Heresy of Formlessness has changed my attitude on the use of hymns at Mass:

I would like to mention [a] passage in [the Te Deum] that was bound to suffer when translated in German verse and yet is characteristic of the spirit of the whole piece. In the middle of the great hymn of praise we hear these words: “Dignare, Domine, die isto sine peccato nos custodire” [deign, O Lord, to keep us this day without sin]. It would be impossible to sing this cautious, measured plea, with its skeptical view of human nature, to the confident and assertive melody of “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name.” It is a model of moderation, and yet at its heart lies a spiritual claim that far transcends the effect of the Jericho trumpets: it speaks of a day on which, as men praised God in the Te Deum, they were without sin; was this not a day in paradise?

Such a jarring mismatch between text and music is avoided in chant, wherein the music serves the text, which is essentially the opposite of metrical hymnody, wherein texts can be effortlessly swapped onto different melodies. A favourite example is how “The Church’s One Foundation” and “O Sacred Head Surrounded” can be sung to each other’s melodies without any difficulty or modification. Gregorian strophic hymns from the Divine Office do have this feature as well, although less obvious, but such hymns, and hymns in general, are proper to the Office, not the Mass.

Polyphony would continue to be used but not regularly, being reserved for high feasts such as Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, which could have polyphonic Ordinaries. Polyphony grew organically out of chant and is a form of music which is not only approved by the Church but is conducive to prayer, something which Protestant-style hymns lack. Polyphony is beautiful and edifying, and belongs to the musical patrimony of the Church, and counts as one of her greatest artistic achievements. I advocate for occasional use of polyphony not because I dislike it but in order to avoid the occurrence of the aforementioned musical schizophrenia, as well as to avoid the concert-like atmosphere that I’ve experienced when polyphony is given a more frequent usage than chant. Professional singers, few of whom are Catholic or care to pay attention to the Consecration instead of their phones, are often necessary for this level of a music program to exist. I would never want such a regular use of polyphony that the music overshadows the liturgy. Unlike chant, polyphony can veer toward a concert-like quality and become music at Mass, not the music of the Mass. Polyphonic settings of Offertory or Communion Proper texts would also work nicely within this overall model. On a first-class feast, Mass II could be the Ordinary setting, with a motet from William Byrd’s Gradualia at Communion, as an example.

Concerning the use of the organ following the Offertory and Communion chants, I have experienced many Masses where one or two pieces are sung following the Offertory chant, and two or—more often—three pieces are sung following the Communion chant. This cycling through of different hymns and chants while the people receive Holy Communion risks creating a concert-like atmosphere which is not appropriate at Mass.

Let us not forget that silence is always a good option in the Traditional Mass. This is what most profoundly struck me about the Traditional Mass when I first discovered it; I was at Mass, and I was praying, which is something I’d never truly experienced previously in the intense noise of the New Mass. I personally find the customary use of Protestant-style metrical hymnody to be highly distracting during Mass. Hymns set with Latin texts sung at Offertory are often drawn out, with the verses repeated to “kill time,” as I’ve heard it described. I can hardly follow in my hand Missal, let alone pray, in times like this. To have silence following the Offertory or Communion chants, or to have the organist softly improvise a meditation following these chants, would be the best options for fostering prayer during Mass.

In The Heresy of Formlessness, Martin Mosebach refers on a few occasions to how the Traditional Rite of the Mass envelops the priest’s personality, causing him to become invisible and making Christ visible. This is a familiar notion, and one that I’ve witnessed again and again. As a composer-organist who has been musically involved in the Traditional Mass, I’ve had a close relationship with the liturgy, and am accustomed to praying the Mass in a quasi-priestly way. Your focus cannot rest solely on your hand Missal; you’re always a step ahead of the priest, flipping to the next accompaniment and watching or listening for cues to start the next chant or to end an improvised interlude. Leading music for the Mass is a kind of ministry and should be taken very seriously. The way in which the priest’s personality disappears into the liturgy should, ideally, also be the case for the Director of Music as much as possible. Discarding hymnody and the extra-liturgical choral pieces would help the Director of Music to become a hidden servant of the Mass, much like the priest.

I have, lastly, heard it argued that hymns should be allowed to continue for pastoral reasons. This is a disingenuous argument, for there are virtually no Catholics who have grown up in a generations-old tradition of vernacular hymns at Mass. Following the liturgical rupture ushered in by the Novus Ordo Missae, the use of Protestant-style metrical hymnody that was occurring prior to the Second Vatican Council suddenly pivoted to a near-universal use of so-called “folk-hymns” in the vernacular, composed by now-laicized Jesuits and accompanied with the guitar. Even though the practice of the four-hymn sandwich had occurred for some time (particularly at Low Mass) before the Council, that abuse did not survive intact until the present time.

I would argue that hymn-singing at the Mass is not a real tradition nor can be claimed as such. At best, the use of Protestant-style metrical hymnody is seen as the “better music” at the New Mass in opposition to folk-style hymns, but the reality remains that these are not authentically of the Church’s tradition and are still far inferior to both chant and polyphony. It must not be forgotten that the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is worship above all else. This is often neglected in debates regarding liturgy and sacred music; the Mass is not about us, it is the worship of Almighty God. Our emotions and attachments cannot be the primary deciding factor as to which music is appropriate for the Mass; we must desire what God asks of us (and has given us in our tradition), not what we happen to like or want to offer to God.

Moving toward the Missa Cantata sine Hymnis would be ideal, both musically and spiritually. I am not aware of this being aspired to in any consistent way, but I strongly believe that sacred music should aim toward this. It would be a tremendous opportunity for further renewal of the Church’s musical patrimony and liturgical praxis. As the Church continues to shake off the dust of the post-Conciliar upheaval, there is a sense in which practices lost even in the century before the Second Vatican Council are being rediscovered, and the Missa Cantata sine Hymnis stands as a seemingly untried return to a more authentic musical practice that should be sought out and implemented.


Photo by Regina Jelski for G Photography and Films.

[1] St. Pius X, Tra Le Sollecitudini.

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