For centuries, Gregorian chant was the official music of the Roman Catholic Church.
Popes Piux X, Pius XII and the documents of Vatican II have all emphasized that Gregorian chant should have “pride of place” in the Roman liturgy.
And yet in the years since Vatican II, chant has all but disappeared from Catholic parishes around the world.
Now, however, through the efforts of dedicated and passionate musicians, churches are once again discovering the beauty of this ancient music and it is becoming central to the worship of many parishes, including some in the Kansas City area.
Scholars once speculated that Gregorian chant grew out of the Hebrew cantillation of the synagogue. More recent research indicates that Gregorian chant has its roots in the early 4th century, when desert monks would chant all 150 psalms. The practice of chanting scripture and liturgical texts then began to spread to other churches.
In the 9th century, Pope Gregory I’s biographer, John the Deacon, gathered examples of chants from various local churches to create a uniform standard for the universal church. Chant eventually took Gregory’s name, with many legends surrounding his supposed connection to chant.
Gregorian chant is monophonic and lacks rhythmic meters, but its very simplicity is what is appealing to a modern world desperately in need of serenity.
In 1994, “Chant,” a CD recorded by the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos, peaked at number three on the Billboard 200 chart and was certified double platinum.
More recently, the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles based in Gower, north of Kansas City, had a hit with “Advent at Ephesus.” The chant CD hit number three on the Billboard chart and the nuns were named Billboard’s Classical Traditional Artist in 2012 and 2013.
Chant has obviously not lost its relevance.
Mario Pearson, director of music and principal organist for the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, believes that chant has disappeared from parishes due to misunderstanding the documents of Vatican II.
“After Vatican II, when the Liturgy was in the vernacular, I think well-meaning bishops, pastors and musicians scrambled to find music in the language of the people,” Pearson said. “As a child I remember singing religious texts to the melody ‘Blowing in the Wind’ and ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone.’ I realized when I became older those were Peter Paul and Mary folk songs. Nothing prevents us from preferring one form of music to another, but ‘sacred’ means it is not intended to be ordinary.”
In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI issued his “Summorum Pontificum,” which allowed a much wider usage of the Tridentine Mass. Catholics soon began to discover the beauty of the pre-Vatican II liturgy and Gregorian chant.
At St. Philippine Duchesne in Westwood, which is dedicated to the Tridentine liturgy, it’s standing-room only for its weekly high mass on Sunday. The church has two outstanding choirs conducted by Ivan Csanaky.
Csanaky grew up in Hungary where he studied music and medicine. He came to Kansas City in 2005 for post-doctoral work at the University of Kansas Medical Center and, after meeting his wife here, he decided to stay. He was able to pursue his passion for music when he became music director of St. Philippine Duchesne in 2007.
Csanaky studied church music under some of the finest teachers in Hungary and sung in the choir at the University of Pécs. He is steeped in the theories of Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály and finds a quote by the composer especially inspiring:
“Music is a manifestation of the human spirit, similar to language. Its greatest practitioners have conveyed to mankind things not possible to say in any other language. If we do not want these things to remain dead treasures, we must do our utmost to make the greatest possible number of people understand their idiom.”
Csanaky has taken Kodály’s words to heart.
“Fewer and fewer people are singing today and that is causing more and more psychological problems,” Csanaky said. “It used to be that people sang when they were happy or sad, and expressed themselves. But nowadays everything stays inside of people because they do not know how to sing.”
Vatican II emphasized the participation of the congregation in the liturgy, and Csanaky agrees that chant should be sung by everyone and not just the choir. He’s made a special effort to engage his congregation in the chant.
As diocesan music coordinator for Kansas City, Pearson says that an increasing number of parishes are making chant a part of their repertoire, a trend he heartily approves.
“Personally, I have always loved chant,” he said. “Gregorian chant is a regular feature on my radio dial. Chant is transcendent and transports me to a place of great beauty and wonder. It is also a calming presence whenever I listen to it.”
You can reach Patrick Neas at email@example.com and follow his Facebook page, KC Arts Beat, at www.facebook.com/kcartsbeat.