The missing voices of Western chant

The universal music of holiness is chant. Nearly every religious system utilises chant in some form, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Jain, Daoist, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian.

For most of these, chant is inseparable from religious practice. Yet for Christianity in the West, chant has been largely rejected or forgotten for a number of historical and cultural reasons.

Why chant?

Chant comes from the Latin cantare meaning “to sing”, and entered the English language via its French derivative, suggesting it may be another relic of the Norman conquest whereby Anglo-Saxon words came to coexist alongside the French vocabulary of the new ruling class.

What the various forms of religious chant have in common is their superfluity. That is, they exhibit excess in duration, or repetition, or tone.

Excess in duration refers to two things: firstly, chants tend to be long in their entirety. Secondly, chants tend to stretch each word, or specific words, far beyond their spoken length. The result is that a simple prayer can, either by repetition or by stretching of each word, last for minutes rather than seconds.

Why repeat the same words over and over? As a Russian Orthodox friend once observed, her church will never say something once when it can be said three times. Likewise a popular Sufi chant “Allahu” repeats that single word several hundred times.

The rationale for repetition is simple: we repeat things because they are important, because we seek familiarity with them, because we do not wish to forget them, and ultimately because once is not enough.

We also stretch and extend and expand something when we wish to emphasise its importance. When we want to reinforce a point with a child: we repeat ourselves slowly and clearly. When it comes to religious chant, we ourselves are the child, and we want to reinforce the religious message of the chant.

Repetition and expansion of a word alters our experience and comprehension of it. We begin to see the word in a new light, to hear and understand it differently. We experience the word from multiple angles and so our experience of it is enriched.

At the same time this expansion of the word can make it seem less solid, less substantial. Have you ever repeated a word so many times you forget how to say it, or you suddenly realise how strange the word is, that you usually take it for granted or gloss over it quickly? In Australia as children we play this game with the word “caterpillar”. Say it over and over and you discover what a strange word it is. You may find yourself thinking of caterpillars with renewed appreciation.

In a religious context this testing of our usual relationship with language is much more significant. Reams of theoretical and practical spiritual guidance have been written on the subject of language and the divine, as exponents of the various religions have grappled with the holiness of specific words on the one hand (such as names for God that should never be written or spoken) and on the other hand the complete failure of language to capture or describe the divine. As the Daodejing states: “I know not its name, so style it ‘the way’.”

Or in a Thomistic mode:

“We cannot know the essence of God in this life, as He really is in Himself; but we know Him accordingly as He is represented in the perfections of creatures; and thus the names imposed by us signify Him in that manner only.”

The one and the many

The most basic chants consist of only one or two tones, but even the most complex chants typically return to a single dominant tone. Within this dominant tone, changes in tone often occur within a single word and a single syllable – not only extending the duration of the word, but also breaking it up and obscuring its meaning.

Known as melismata, these groups of notes sung to a single syllable of text contrast with the dominant tone. Together they represent the tension between unity and multiplicity, the one and the many, a consistent and central theme of these religious traditions.

God, the divine, is a transcendent unity obscured in ordinary human life by the multiplicity of the created world. As the famous Sufi musician Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan sang in his version of “Allahu”:

“Everything begins with you,

Everything ends with you…

Each branch sings of your creation

Each leaf is your being manifest”

The monotony of chant is important because it reinforces this sense of underlying unity behind our varied experience. It signifies a single thread running through all of reality. The deviations in tone are kept in check by the monotone, in the same way that the religious traditions teach us to keep God or the underlying nature of reality in mind despite the variations and multiplicities of daily experience.

Time and eternity

Some forms of chant are rhythmical, while others utilise “free rhythm”, a rhythm dictated by the text itself.

For chants that contain a regular rhythm, the length of the chant in its entirety is key. From the slow pace of a Chinese Buddhist chant to the hypnotic pace of a Sufi Qawwali, if there is a rhythm, then it must go on long enough to establish itself and become firmly rooted in the listener.

The rhythm reflects the regularity of nature, the rule of time. It becomes the baseline of the worshipper’s chant, just as the regular passage of time underlies the order of creation: hours, minutes, days, seasons, and years, or the regular beat of our own heart.

Modern secular music also features a regular rhythm, but in these instances the duration of the music is typically too short for the rhythm to become ingrained in the listener. Popular music generally runs from three to five minutes. Most rhythmical religious chants would just be getting started by the time a secular song has finished. The Qawwali has a tempo closest to contemporary secular music, yet they typically run from 15 to 30 minutes. In a long, fast paced, rhythmic chant the rhythm itself fades into the background. It gives us a sense of transcending time.

Shorter chants like this Chinese Buddhist chant are of a much slower tempo. Yet the slow pace has the effect of seeming to stretch time. Each beat of the drum or gong or cymbal seems just a little slower than we would expect. They also seem deliberate, and their ponderous tone reinforces the sense of time slowing down during the chant.

Whether speeding time up or slowing it right down, these rhythmic chants alter our usual relationship with time. They offer glimpse of freedom from our normal temporal constraints.

But what about chants without a regular rhythm?

Chants such as Gregorian and Byzantine chant, from the Western and Eastern Churches respectively, are characterised by “free rhythm”. These chants evolved from pre-existing texts, and as such the text forms the basis of the melody.

In the absence of a regular rhythm, the sense of time is left behind. The chants themselves may be short or long, but their flowing, unconstrained pace carries a sense of timelessness or eternity. They arise out of silence, hang in the air and fall away. In the absence of a regular rhythm, these chants eclipse our normal sense of time entirely.

Gregorian chant provides a stark contrast to modern secular music. In a 1974 article in the New York Times, Jonathon Cott noted that:

“most people—inured to and satiated by Western harmony—find it disconcerting to listen comfortably to long stretches of monophonic singing. In its deepest expression, plainsong suggests a world of aloneness, ineluctably insisting on one’s attuning oneself to one’s self. And in order to resurface into this meditative world, the most effective musical decompression chamber would certainly be a quiet retreat to a Benedictine monastery or, next best, a contemplative listening to plainsong recordings.”

The challenge of religious chant in its various forms is to let ourselves be conformed to it, with its time-dilating use of rhythm, duration, tempo and repetition, its play between monotony and melody, and its simultaneous enriching and dissolution of sacred text and language.

The loss of Western chant

The provenance of chant in the Western world is unmistakably Catholic. Yet with few notable exceptions, the regular practice of chant in the Catholic church has fallen away. Historically, chant gave way to the harmonies of polyphony, and the continuing development of Western music saw symphonic and even operatic versions of sacred music, as well as the adoption of hymns in a liturgical context.

By 1903 Gregorian chant had been displaced to such an extent that then Pope Pius X issued a motu proprio calling for a return to chant and early polyphony.

Subsequent popes reiterated the call for Gregorian chant to take “pride of place” in the liturgy, both before and after the Second Vatican Council. But their calls have not been widely heeded, with metrical hymns and increasingly contemporary styles of music remaining popular.

The irony is that while new recordings of Gregorian chant from Benedictine monks in Norcia, Italy, and Dominican nuns in Michigan have made news with their popularity and sales, the same music rightly belongs in the weekly liturgy of every normal Catholic parish throughout the world.

The Anglican church created its own English-language adaptations of the chant, and Lutherans likewise point to the continuity of chant in their own tradition. Nonetheless, in the history of Protestant-Catholic relations Gregorian chant has been largely rejected by Protestant reformers. There’s a reason why chant in the West is associated with cloistered monks and nuns and not with evangelical mega-churches.

A culture without chant

Chant is as universal a religious form as bowing in veneration. It has its own logic, purpose, and significance. Yet sacred music in the West is far more likely to take the form of 18-19th century metrical hymns, “folk” inspired music from the 1960s and 70s, or more contemporary rock and pop inspired songs.

The absence of chant in Western culture means that our culture is deprived of the influences contained and expressed in this musical form. As we continually decry the fast pace of modern life, our endless distractions, our fears and anxieties, perhaps a regular experience of timeless chant is exactly what we need?

Why Catholics can’t sing

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Or at least Irish Catholics – the predominant Catholic influence in Australia and apparently in the States as well.

While researching the demise of Gregorian Chant I came across the occasional comment that “of course, as Irish Catholics it was never part of our culture.”

I didn’t quite get it – being of neither Irish nor Catholic heritage myself.  But here it is, put forth at least by one source in writing, with a putative historical rationale:

German Lutherans came to America with two hundred years of hymns in their history and they kept writing new ones. Irish Catholics came with bawdy songs that can’t be sung in mixed company; it was the only music the English let them sing.


The Irish invented the low spoken mass. Catholics singing hymns in public would otherwise have attracted the attention of their English Protestant oppressors. Besides, if they can’t bang a bodhran in church they wouldn’t sing anyway, just on principle.

And again:

The Irish people were persecuted for centuries. Their glory is that they “kept the faith.” There was little opportunity for singing at Masses celebrated behind the hedge rows; one did not have to attract the attention of English soldiers by singing. The silent low Mass was the norm. The American hierarchy is largely Irish in origin, and the lack of a liturgical musical culture among them is easily traced to the historical events of the past four hundred years.

I suppose if you’re struggling to keep the faith under violent oppression you can hardly be blamed for failing to also keep alive the integrity of ancient religious music.

If true, this would help to explain the prominence of the low Mass in Australia, which – free from outright suppression – was embellished with the addition of various hymns in place of the Proper chants.

Still, it isn’t right to say that Gregorian Chant was totally neglected.  Stumble into Benediction and you can hear the older generations chant Tantum Ergo; and many seem to remember the Anglicised chant for the Pater Noster. I’ve heard rumours that two generations ago Catholic school children may have learned the Missa De Angelis, an entire Mass setting in Gregorian Chant.

But these bits and pieces are evidently not enough to give any but the traditionalists a real passion for the Chant, and even the traditionalists would prefer to spice it up with a dash of polyphony. Not that I blame them, but with a wealth of Papal and Concilliar documents praising the heritage and unique merits of Gregorian Chant, you’d think there might be parishes somewhere actually practising it.

We could blame the Irish, but it would be fairer to blame the English, the Reformation, and centuries of bitter Anglo-Irish conflict. It’s late, and I’m tired, so let’s just agree for now that it’s thanks to Henry VIII that we can’t have nice things like this:




Monks with guitars

I’m still working on a follow-up to the previous post on religious music, and in that vein thought I’d offer a comparison point from Chinese Buddhism.

As far as I can ascertain, this is what traditional Chinese Buddhist chant sounds like:


But in searching for Chinese Buddhist chant, the majority of videos are this kind of thing:


The modern musical influences are pretty clear. It’s basically Chinese ballad-pop with a Buddhist twist. They even have a video of Faye Wong singing the Heart Sutra at a concert held in a temple. That’s a bit like a non-skanky version of Madonna singing the Gospel of Mark in a cathedral:


But as promised, here’s a video of monks with a guitar. To their credit they look quite uncomfortable, and I’m fairly sure the whole thing is viewed as an anomaly, kinda like “OMG! Real monks with a guitar!”


My all-time favourite remains this collaboration between Japanese Buddhist monks and a Czech Gregorian Schola:

The rise and fall of religious music

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I was raised Catholic but stopped going to church as a teenager, as soon as my parents would (reluctantly) allow it. I never found the Mass particularly interesting, inspiring, special, momentous, or mysterious – except in the sense that it was a complete mystery to me why these equally bored and unhappy-looking people continued to go to it week after week.

It wasn’t until many years later that I learned at least a part of the reason why a supposedly revolutionary and historically transformative religion could come across as so tedious and banal, seemingly comprised primarily of a set of goodwill gestures such as shaking hands with the people next to you, standing, sitting and kneeling at the same time as everyone else, and taking part in the whole rigmarole of receiving communion; the one-hour show interspersed with a set of slightly embarrassing hymns whose lyrics stood in stark contrast to the reality around me.

“We are the Church.
We are a people.
We’re called to bring Good News to birth.
We are the peace.
We are the promise of love outpoured
to renew the earth.”

Some promises, as they say, were never meant to be kept. All this emphasis on how great and promising and exemplary we were, only made the reality seem more dull. I’m not sure what inspired these songs, or what, if any, effect they were supposed to have on the congregation.

But people love them. These hymns, written and implemented from the 60s through to the 80s are a staple of the Catholic liturgical diet in the Western world. In 2004, for example, the readers of the English Catholic magazine The Tablet voted Dan Schutte’s ‘Here I am Lord’ as their favourite.


Schutte was one of the founding members of the St Louis Jesuits, described by wikipedia as:

a group of Catholic composers who popularized an Easy Listening/folk music style of church music through their compositions and recordings, mainly from their heyday in the mid `70s through the mid `80s.

It wasn’t until a few years ago that I discovered that Easy Listening/folk music wasn’t the intended musical form for the Catholic liturgy.

The intended musical form was, and still is, something more like this:


That’s an introit or entrance chant from Pentecost, just one of about a dozen components of the Mass that would traditionally be chanted like this. The chant itself has a varied history: beginning with the simpler ‘plainchant’ in the early Church, so-called Gregorian Chant emerged around the 9th Century, with diverse forms of it developing organically in different regions and monasteries.

For example, the simpler melodies of St Ambrose’ hymns from the 4th Century were so popular among the people, that his Arian opponents accused him of working with magic powers; to which Ambrose supposedly replied: “what can be more powerful than the confession of the Trinity, which is daily witnessed by the mouth of the entire people?”


At some point, people began adding a second voice to the Gregorian chant:


The development of multiple voices, or polyphony, eventually gave us the beautiful Renaissance polyphony from the likes of Byrd and Palestrina. Here is Byrd’s take on the introit Spiritus Domini. The countertenor starts with a solo part, the polyphony kicks in at 1:22.


Whole Masses were sung in polyphony, which though beautiful is also extremely difficult. But even beyond polyphony there were further developments, to a point where great composers like Mozart wrote entire Mass settings. Listen to the first couple of minutes of this Mass setting by Mozart:


That’s a lot of music for a simple ‘Kyrie Eleison’ – ‘Lord have mercy’.

As beautiful as it is, I can see why in 1903 Pope Pius X called for a return to Gregorian chant and a move away from theatrical orchestral settings generally:

“These qualities are to be found, in the highest degree, in Gregorian Chant, which is, consequently the Chant proper to the Roman Church, the only chant she has inherited from the ancient fathers, which she has jealously guarded for centuries in her liturgical codices, which she directly proposes to the faithful as her own, which she prescribes exclusively for some parts of the liturgy, and which the most recent studies have so happily restored to their integrity and purity.

On these grounds Gregorian Chant has always been regarded as the supreme model for sacred music, so that it is fully legitimate to lay down the following rule: the more closely a composition for church approaches in its movement, inspiration and savor the Gregorian form, the more sacred and liturgical it becomes; and the more out of harmony it is with that supreme model, the less worthy it is of the temple.

The ancient traditional Gregorian Chant must, therefore, in a large measure be restored to the functions of public worship, and the fact must be accepted by all that an ecclesiastical function loses none of its solemnity when accompanied by this music alone.

Special efforts are to be made to restore the use of the Gregorian Chant by the people, so that the faithful may again take a more active part in the ecclesiastical offices, as was the case in ancient times.”

Not only Pius X, but subsequent popes, Vatican II documents, and the new Mass itself called for Gregorian chant to take pride of place in the liturgy. As late as 1974 Pope Paul VI was calling for a minimum repertoire of Gregorian chant to be sung in parishes, including the Ordinaries of the Mass in Latin.

Why didn’t this happen? Why have we ended up with Easy Listening/folk/pop-inspired liturgical music? Why are parishes so hostile to Gregorian chant, to Latin, to the musical heritage of the Church? These questions and more will be answered in my next post….