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The art of the advent chant

Wednesday 18 December 2019

Jason McFarland 
 
Advent is the time in the liturgical year of ‘devout and expectant delight’. But Advent is also a period of liturgical moderation. We anticipate the joy of the Incarnation and Christ’s Second Coming, but we want to keep our joy bridled, so that we can properly prepare ourselves for our encounter with these great aspects of the Paschal Mystery. How then, can we bring about this liturgical moderation in practice, other than by refraining from singing the Gloria during Mass? I would suggest that adding the chants of the Roman Missal to your musical repertoire is a fitting way to celebrate both moderately and joyfully.
 
Recommending any sort of chant for use in the liturgy is always a delicate matter. Some might respond with an enthusiastic ‘amen! Let’s use chants all of the time.’ Others would rightly point out that we have a huge repertoire of other, more contemporary and perhaps more accessible types of music for liturgy. The ensuing discussion about music choices is often passionate and often fails to convince either side. Perhaps this is because both perspectives are correct. Any type of music—if it passes the liturgical, pastoral, and musical muster—can be good music for worship.
 
The point of recommending the Missal chants here has nothing to do with a preference for or prioritization of chant in general. Rather, it has everything to do with the chants’ pastoral efficacy, musical quality, and liturgical suitability—especially for Advent. So why exactly should we use them for worship?
 
Firstly, their simple melodies make them easy to sing (even for school children) and appropriate to the moderation of the Advent season. They require no instrumental accompaniment, which helps to meet the liturgical recommendation for Advent that ‘instruments should be used with moderation’, and they are consistent with the season’s character.
 
Missal chants also have the potential to form a common liturgical-musical repertoire for Roman Catholics who worship in the English language. They connect worshippers to an ancient musical tradition, but in a way that is accessible and fresh.
 
Further, they can be a tool of instruction. The goal of the composers was to write chants not for their own sake, but to make the chants pastorally useful.
  
With some preparation and practice, the assembly’s singing can become automatic, even instinctive. The chants make it easy to sing those parts of the Mass that are most importantly sung, even when there is no cantor, choir, or instrumental accompanist available. Most importantly, they can bring more singing to our liturgical celebrations with fewer resources.
 
The Missal contains a huge collection of chants adapted to the English language. Assemblies don’t need to learn them all, but only those few chants that are most important. In addition to the Gospel Acclamation (for which the Missal does not provide music), liturgical norms suggest priority be given to: the Holy, Holy, Holy (Sanctus), the Memorial Acclamation (preceded by the presider’s intonation of ‘The Mystery of Faith’), and the Great Amen (preceded by the presider’s singing of the Doxology to the Eucharistic Prayer). The Lamb of God (Agnus Dei) is also important and easy to learn. With more time, and if people are eager to learn more of the chants, the presider and assembly might also learn to sing the Preface Dialogue, the Lord, Have Mercy (Kyrie, eleison), and the other forms of the Penitential Act.
 
For more information on the English-language Missal chants, I highly recommend Chants of the Roman Missal: Study Edition. The chants are laid out in large format, and the principles for singing them are explained well. Learning how to use the notation is essential if the chants are going to be a successful addition to your assembly’s musical repertoire.
 

Dr Jason J. McFarland is the Assistant Director of the Centre for Liturgy and Lecturer in Liturgical Studies and Sacramental Theology at Australian Catholic University. 
 
This article originally appeared in Melbourne Catholic.  
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