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Cabrol F. Chapter XII-2. The Chants of the Mass


By the Right Reverend Dom Fernand Cabrol




At the Synaxis, or primitive gathering, psalms and canticles were sung (cf. Chap. I). The Christians inherited the custom of singing after reading from the Jews. St. Paul himself alludes to these chants in many passages of his Epistles (Eph. v. 19; Col. iii. 16). The lessons themselves, as well as the prayers, were also probably sung, or declaimed, in a melodic tone.

The actual practice is as follows: at the Pontifical or Solemn High Mass certain parts are sung, or ought to be sung, by the people: "Kyrie," "Gloria in Excelsis," "Credo;" while others are reserved to the cantors, or to the schola, and others again are said in a low voice. These points must be studied more in detail so as to establish the necessary distinctions:

1. Parts sung by the cantors, the "schola," or the people.

2. Parts sung or recited aloud by the Priest, and parts said in a low voice. (The Secret of the Mysteries.)

3. The Gregorian chant.

I. PARTS SUNG BY THE CANTORS, THE "Schola," OR THE PEOPLE. — Another distinction must be made between the chants belonging to this category. The Introit, Offertory, and Communion have an almost identical origin; they are sung during a procession, or during movement to and from the altar; they were instituted in the fourth and fifth centuries, and are composed for the same end and in the same way- they are Psalms with an anthem. To-day they have been abridged and reduced to almost a single verse. But their origin must not be forgotten, and Mgr. Batiffol has very clearly shown by the example of the Introit for the Epiphany that the choice of Psalm lxx. can only be explained by the verses which are now omitted.[1] The same procedure may be applied to many of the verses of the Offertory and Communion. The singing of these pieces must necessarily have had special characteristics, and resemble the psalmodic style.

But this was generally rare, and it would seem that the music which was wedded to the words dates from a period when these distinctions were hardly known; it is not always easy to distinguish an Introit and an Offertory from a Gradual and an Alleluia by the chant which belongs to it. The Communions, however, especially those for Lent, often have a purely syllabic melody, which betrays a more ancient origin. This psalmodic chant has been better preserved at Vespers and the other Offices. But if there is to-day hardly any difference between the different chants of the Mass, such was not the case formerly. Originally the anthem, or Psalm with antiphon, was the Psalm sung by two choirs, each in its turn repeating an alternate verse until the end was reached. The "Responsory," or "Responsorial Psalm," is sung by one or more cantors; the choir or the faithful taking up one of the verses as a refrain. Probably to simplify matters and to allow even those who did not know the Psalm to take part in the singing, a single verse was chosen as anthem, and this served for a refrain. This is the case with certain anthems of the Roman Vespers, which must represent an ancient custom. Certain Psalms, cxxxv. in particular, with its refrain "Quoniam in aeternum misericordia ejus," point out that this practice originated in the most distant past.

The "Gradual" (cf. Chap. IV) is quite distinct from the chants with antiphons of the Introit, Offertory, and Communion. It is a Responsory, or Responsorial Psalm, and is thus sung by one or several cantors, the people answering by a refrain which is one of the verses of the Psalm. That for Matins (Psalm xciv.) preserves one of the most perfect examples of this practice, probably borrowed, like that of the Lessons, from the services of the synagogues. In any case, it belongs to the same category as the Responsories which follow the Lessons at Matins, and which St. Benedict at the end of the fifth century apparently borrowed from the Roman Church. The Gradual chant is ornate, often difficult, and we can understand why it was reserved to experienced cantors. It also has a special dignity; it is sung from the ambone, or from the steps of the sanctuary. At one time, until the days of St. Gregory, it was reserved for Deacons alone, like the Gospel.

The "Alleluia" is a case apart. At least originally, it is in reality neither anthem nor responsory. The existing custom of incorporating it with the Gradual is not primitive. It is an acclamation, like "Amen," "Hosanna," "Deo Gratias," "Benedicamus Domino;" and Cardinal Pitra has said that its history is a long poem.[2] As such it was sung frequently, and in various circumstances. This no doubt is the reason why its place in the Mass is not always the same in the different liturgies. There were variations even at Rome (cf. Chap. IV). At present it follows the Gradual, and is usually attached to a Psalm, of which a single verse has been preserved. The "Alleluia" is followed by a "Jubilus," that is to say, by a somewhat prolonged melody on the final "a."[3]

When it is suppressed under circumstances already stated it is replaced by the Tract, whose origin is not less obscure. Yet the words "Tractus," "Tractim" were familiar to St. Benedict in the fifth century, and used to denote a Psalm sung without refrain or repetition but consecutively, and as a whole (Fr., "trait"). It is indeed still executed in this form, the only difference being that it is sung by two choirs in alternate verses, so that now it resembles the chant with antiphons. The Tract, in the Gregorian Antiphonary, has preserved its psalmodic appearance better than the other chants of the Mass.

The Proses do not go back to an earlier date than the tenth century. Composed to complete the "Jubilus" of the "Alleluia," they multiplied prodigiously in the Middle Ages, and hundreds may be counted in the collections which have been made of them. While much in these poems is mediocre, some of them are real masterpieces, like those which the Church of Rome ended by adopting. They form a literature which it would be a mistake to neglect, and the Proses of Hugo de Saint-Victor, to take but one example, are finished models, complete with technical knowledge, and of the loftiest theological teaching.

Even in the seventeenth century a few true humanists set to work to compose hymns for the neo-Gallican breviaries; and the Abbe Bremond, in his tenth volume ("Du sentiment religieux") has made war on their adversaries. Happily for us this subject is outside our present scope, since the hymns in question were written for the Office and not for the Mass.

The "Kyrie," "Gloria in Excelsis," "Credo," "Sanctus," "Agnus Dei," "Dominus vobiscum," "Ite, Missa est," and "Benedicamus Domino" are not taken from the Psalms, like the other chants of the Mass, and thus do not form part of the psalmody, properly so called. They are sung in various ways, and the rules to which they are submitted are much broader. This explains the numerous melodies with which they have been adorned, examples of which may be found in liturgical MSS. from the ninth-fifteenth centuries. They have also often served as themes for polyphonic compositions.

2. PARTS SUNG OR RECITED ALOUD BY THE PRIEST AND PARTS SAID IN A LOW VOICE. — At present, and since the tenth century at least, the Priest must recite all the prayers of the Mass, including (at High Mass) the parts sung by the people or the ministers, Epistle, Gospel, Kyrie, Gloria in Excelsis, etc. The rules for LOW Mass prescribe what has to be said aloud. At High Masses the Priest sings the prayers, Preface, and Pater; the Gospel and Ite, Missa est are sung by the Deacon; the Epistle by the sub-Deacon; while the Priest also intones the "Gloria in Excelsis" and "Credo." But the Canon is said in a low voice, even at High Mass, with the exceptions of the Preface, the "Pater," and of "Nobis quoque" peccatoribus, which the Pope always said aloud, as the signal for the prostrate sub-Deacons to rise.

But why should the Canon be said in a low voice? It is a question which seems to-day of secondary importance; and we can scarcely explain why there was formerly so much discussion about it. But the Secret of the Mysteries was the subject of a celebrated controversy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and we can see, in the ninth volume of the Abbe Bremond, with what skill and talent he fights against those who with Dom Gueranger, made a question of orthodoxy of this rubric.

It is clear that primitively, according to the description given in Chapter I, the Eucharistic prayer properly so called (from the dialogue of the Preface to the final doxology to which the faithful responded Amen) was said in an audible voice, and very probably was declaimed on a melopoeia doubtless resembling that of the Preface or the Pater. That at least is what the terms of this prayer would appear to indicate, based as they are on a lyric tone which seems to call for a chant. Ancient texts which corroborate this hypothesis are not wanting. In any case there is nothing mysterious in the words; nothing that calls for concealment. The author of De Sacramentis quotes them in a work not specially addressed to the initiated; another example is that of Melanie of Jerusalem, who was able to hear every word of this prayer; and there are many others of the same sort.[4] But it is none the less true that this was otherwise at another period, and that the Secret of the Mysteries, of the Eucharistic Mysteries, is not an empty word. Pope Innocent I (in 416) speaks of this part of the Mass as falling under the law of the Arcana, Arcana agenda, something which must not be written about. St. Augustine when he speaks of the Eucharist uses great reticence in his language, and speaks of those things only known to the initiated, the baptized. The discipline of the Arcana is no myth; it was observed for centuries, though not everywhere, nor always in the same way.[5]

On this point it is curious to observe the variations of Catholic devotion in different periods and countries. Edmund Bishop has already pointed out the opposition between East and West; the latter erecting its altar upon steps in the midst of the sanctuary, as if to expose it to the eyes of all; the former, on the contrary, hiding it behind a screen (iconostasis), and concealing with a curtain the Priest who accomplishes the great Mysteries. In any case, a law prescribes that the Canon, especially the words of the Institution, shall be said in a low voice.

"This mysticism is more Eastern than Roman," says Mgr. Batiffol (p. 21). And yet, at a given moment, doubtless under the influence of Byzantium, Rome became inspired with the same ideas. The Popes hung curtains which hid them from the view of the faithful around the altar. An "Ordo" (II) prescribed the saying of the Canon in a low voice. We can but indicate the question here, since it is only indirectly related to our subject; moreover, we have treated of it elsewhere.[6] We must not be too much astonished at these fluctuations in Catholic piety. The "Mysterium Fidei" may be envisaged under many different aspects. At one time veneration, respect, and — let us say the word — a kind of fear surrounds this Sacrament, and prostrates the faithful before It in adoration. To-day they are carried away by Its mercy and Its love. At one time the law of the Eucharistic fast, so strict at present, scarcely existed; at another, devotion constrained the Priest to celebrate Mass several times a day; at yet another, on the contrary, exclusive of all Jansenist influence, there were those who deprived themselves of Holy Communion out of respect for the great Mystery.

In that book of the Abbe Bremond already quoted the quarrels of Gallicans, Jansenists, and Ultramontanes on this subject can be studied. To-day, thank God, men's minds are pacified. If the Church formerly made a law regarding the "Secret of the Mysteries," she is no longer so severe, and the compilers of the best authorized prayerbooks for the faithful can translate the whole of the Mass without the least uneasiness. Still, there remains that ancient rubric which prescribes that the Priest shall recite the Canon in a low voice, while he must sing, or say aloud, the Preface and the "Pater."

3. THE GREGORIAN CHANT. — We need not here study the question of the chant, since this has been done in another volume.[7] We shall only say what seems to be strictly necessary in order to understand the part played by this chant in the Roman Mass.

The Gregorian chant, the origin of which is obscure, is revealed in many MSS. from the ninth century onwards under the form of neumes, or musical signs which it has been possible to decipher by comparing them with other MSS. of a later age, in which these signs are written in such a way as to indicate their tonality. But even in the most ancient manuscript which contains these neumes, that is, of the ninth century, it is possible to see that there is nothing new in this chant. It is indeed in the second stage of its evolution. It has its rules, its laws, a well-established program, and a learned technique. The attribution of this chant to St. Gregory was attacked in the nineteenth century by those who believed it should rather be traced to Gregory II (d. 731); but their arguments are more specious than solid. It is true that the MSS. in which this system of notation is found go back no farther than the ninth century, and that from thence to the time of St. Gregory there is a gap of two hundred years — truly, a very long time. But these objections have been answered. The single fact that the MSS. of the chant of the ninth and tenth centuries are unanimous upon so many different points would alone be a strong argument that this tradition comes from the same source: the tradition dating back to the eighth century, which has never hesitated as to the Roman and Gregorian origin of this chant. It might even be said that it was anterior to this Pontiff, and that St. Gregory only did for the Antiphonary what he did for the Sacramentary which bears his name: he made rules and orders for it, and, no doubt, simplified it. He reorganized a schola existing before his day, and gave it new life. Some have even thought that the Ambrosian chant, so closely related to the Gregorian, often betrays this earlier state. What must be noticed is the excellence of the Gregorian chant during the first period of its history, its golden age, from the sixth-ninth century. The schola became a school of masters, among whom came those who wished to study the true principles of the Gregorian chant: the disciples thus formed spread later through other Latin countries. This explains why the annotated MSS. from the ninth-twelfth centuries present as a whole the same musical system in which variants are very rare. This has been most rigorously proved in the collection "Paleographie Musicale" published by the monks of "Solesmes."[8] Still more recently an Anglican Bishop, famous for his liturgical prowess, recognizes that the Roman Church has supplanted all other Latin liturgies by her Cantilena rather than by her liturgical compositions.[9]


1. "Lecons sur la Messe," p. 115.
2. We have summed this up in our article, "Alleluia," in DACL.
3. Cf. "Jubilus" in DACL. On the Gradual and "Alleluia" cf. DACL J. de  Puniet, "La liturgie de la Messe," p. 126 seq.
4. Mgr. Batiffol, loc. cit., p. 206 seq.
5. We need scarcely recall Mgr. Batiffol's dissertation on the "Arcane:" though he is careful to restrain its scope, he is yet obliged to admit its  existence. We may add that another author, Pere le Brun of the Oratory,  whose scholarship none will deny, is not afraid to devote a treatise of 350  pages to pointing out the genuineness of this practice in his great work on  the Mass, "Du silence des prieres de la Messe" (Vol. IV).
6. Cf. the article "Amen" in DACL.
7. Cf. Aigrain, "Religious Music" (Sands, 3s. 6d.).
8. To furnish documents for this publication the Fathers of Solesmes  brought together a unique collection of photographs of annotated MSS. of  the ninth-fifteenth centuries, from Italy France, Germany, Spain, England,  etc.
9. W. H. Frere, "Studies in Early Roman Liturgy," I, The Kalendar Oxford,  1930.


See "Religious Music" (Sands 3S. 6d.), by ABBE: R. AIGRAIN and "Liturgia, The Gregorian Chant," by Dom. M. SABLAYROLLES, PP. 440-478. In the bibliography of the last-named the works of WAGNER, GASTOUE, Dom POTHIER, etc., are cited., Cf. also more recently: TH. GEROLD, "Les Peres de l'Eglise et la musique" (1932).

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