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Gregorian Chant Propers in English

by sean.daenzer ~ August 27th, 2008

“Music is next to theology.” It is because of this that the Church has always had its own unique music, as it has its own language, art, and culture. Martin Luther especially understood the importance of music, and wrote this in his preface to a collection of funeral hymns and Latin Responsories:

“We have collected the fine music and songs which under the papacy were used [to carry false teaching]…. but we have adapted other texts to the music so that they may adorn [true doctrine instead]. The melodies and notes are precious. It would be a pity to let them perish…. We have put this music on the living and holy Word of God in order to sing, praise, and honor it… We are concerned with changing the text, not the music.”

There are certain opinions in Church music, which are even now gaining ground, that suggest notes and tunes may be changed, swapped, or discarded at will- so long as the texts remain. This is a vastly different view of Church music from that of the Fathers and our Lutheran heritage. Unlike the Reformed sects, the Lutherans retained the Church music that they had received, especially the body of music known as gregorian chant. Even many of the first Lutheran vernacular hymns were based upon these chant melodies. Great tomes of chant were compiled and edited by Lutheran theologians and musicians for use in our churches. To these treasures composers of every generation have continued to add choral motets, new hymns and chorales, cantatas and preludes, always looking back to the Church’s hymnody and chant for inspiration and adorning them with beautiful polyphony.

In recent times, certainly most of American Lutheran history, the precious melodies and notes of our heritage are no longer held in such high esteem. The gregorian melodies for the Church Year’s propers have been utterly lost. They do not appear in any form in our hymnals, service books and choir catalogs. They do not play in the ears of our laity, nor our pastors, nor even our most esteemed kantors. It may even be that our Lutheran chorales are on course to suffer a similar fate. This is nothing short of a tragedy, and one that has impact on much more than artistic nostalgia. It is hard to say which came first- the loss of the Church’s lectionary, or the loss of her propers; the sure thing is that these situations are connected.

The Church has a rich musical heritage. The uniquely Lutheran heritage is, in my opinion, far richer than any other. We affirm Luther’s holding of music and theology “most tightly connected”. Music is not only something we have promoted, but something we confess as essential to the work of the Church. It is the bearer of the Gospel, and “he who sings, prays twice.” It is the gift of God to men: the handmaid chosen to bear up His Holy and powerful Word. For this reason we cannot permit the treasures of the Church catholic to be discarded or fall into disuse; we cannot abide their loss.

To this end, I have begun the project of transcribing the gregorian propers for present-day use. The originals were in Latin and used various medieval notations. Those are still the best and most historic, especially because they affirm the Lutheran tradition of Latin chant. These transcriptions are different in a few ways:

  1. These use modern notation instead of square notation (neumes). This decision has been made to facilitate use in modern America. Modern 5-line staff notation is not well suited to chant, and is not a “good” substitute for square notation; yet, in the interest of restoring the tunes to use in the Church, modern notation seems to be necessary in making such chant accessible to American church choirs.
  2. The text is English. The translations come from the common service, which uses the Authorized (King James) Version translation. This choice is twofold. Firstly, the common service offers consistency. While it may not be in common use everywhere today, it still has been the most consistently used translation in American Lutheranism. Secondly, the KJV is in the public domain, allowing for ease of distribution. The continuing presence of both archaic and modern English in the contemporary Church cannot be avoided, and ought not be viewed as an obstacle.
  3. The notes for the introits are based upon those found in Lucas Lossius’ two-volume work “Psalmodia: hoc est cantica sacra”. Other Lutheran chant collections will serve as the model for graduals, alleluias and sequences in the future. Much care is being taken to use only authentically Lutheran sources and to avoid using modern Roman sources where possible. This decision is twofold. Firstly, to remain true to our authentic Lutheran heritage over and against that of both the Tridentine and Vatican II Roman church. Secondly, to preserve the chant dialect of the German region, which is contained in sources such as “Psalmodia”. Each region of the Church had its own musical idioms which come out in the melodies. Despite these small occasional differences, most chants are recognizably similar to those contained in modern Roman sources.
  4. The text is fit to the original notes as best as this transcriber can, an imperfect and difficult art. A number of principles are used in accomplishing this, principles which often conflict with one another. They include: matching words or phrases to the corresponding words or phrases in the original Latin, adding or subtracting notes to accommodate varied syllabic differences, adding notes where necessary, avoiding excessive repeated notes which are confusing to both modern musicologists and performers, matching accented syllables in the English to the corresponding syllables in the Latin, changing English word order to reflect the Latin word order (only when the result is a viable English sentence), and preserving the theological significance given to certain words by the notes that bear them. The goal is a chant that is singable, understandable, and comfortable while preserving the melody in a recognizable way.

Instruction and suggestions for the practice of singing these chants will be forthcoming. The chants themselves will be released here as they are ready and may be released elsewhere when the project is complete. ***Please note that these propers are copyright of the transcriber. Permission is granted for use within a church and school setting including printing, copying, performing and recording. No alterations or recording/compiling for commercial use or profit is permitted without prior consent of the transcriber.*** This project seems long overdue- something that should have been accomplished years ago by a much more accomplished and qualified kantor. It is dedicated to Johann Walther the first Lutheran kantor, whose comparable collection of chant is no longer extant. May his work yet be discovered; may the Church yet rediscover her forgotten treasures.

+Feast of St. Bartholomew+
Rev. Sem. Sean Daenzer

7 Responses to Gregorian Chant Propers in English

  1. Ed Steeh

    May the Lord strengthen you for this worthy task! I look forward to its completion and hope to implement its use here at St. John!

  2. cjbirdsong

    Thank you for your work to return these gifts to the church and her musicians. While I would never consider myself ‘esteemed’ I am indeed one of the kantors who has not known these melodies until recently. An understanding of these as the foundation of our sacred music makes a significant impact on my vocation. I look forward to using the introits with my cantors and choirs, especially the children, so that the music they make is always informed by this – their own rich heritage.

    On a very practical note: I have seen and sung several of the introits the Reverend Vicar-Kantor-Seminarist Daenzer has completed. The layout is simple to understand and intuitive. The result is a fluid melody that remains faithful to the practice of gregorian chant. And while I will do a fair amount of modeling to teach the performance practice to my adult choir I am confident that the children are immediately capable of singing these without stumbling blocks.

  3. Brian Westgate

    Sean, good to hear you’re doing this. Just remember, and I’m sure you do, you can’t use the KJV slavishly. Our propers are slightly different, because the Itala is used for the Propers. Sometimes, such as on St. Lawrence, the propers may lose the reason for which they were chosen. Oh, and don’t forget about the Offertories and Communions (or whatever they are in Latin plural nominative.) Just more stuff we need to recover (and at least the Offertory has not been gone so long, plus we use both at Zion Detroit, so I kinda need them.)
    Thank you, and
    Benedicamus Domino.
    Deo gratias.

  4. Rev. Benjamin T. G. Mayes

    Seminarist Daenzer, I welcome this resource, and I’m especially happy to see that you will be drawing on genuine Lutheran books from the 16th century as the source of the music. The choice of the texts of the Common Service (e.g. TLH liturgical texts) are also a good choice, since they present the most ecumenical and catholic set of liturgical texts that English-speaking Lutheranism possesses. Some congregations may use these musical settings with their choirs on a regular basis, others less frequently. But either way, it will be a great benefit to have them available. The Lord strengthen you for this great work.

  5. sean.daenzer

    Thank you for your support.

    Brian: Yes, you’re right about the differences between the Latin and the English. I’m more concerned with the original texts and notes than whatever our modern sources say, however I wouldn’t consider myself a strong translator of Latin. Given its continued use in English-speaking Lutheranism, the Common Service remains the best option for pre-existing English texts in our tradition. I’ll offer this as a good compromise: If there’s a day that’s extremely lacking in your opinion, let me know and I’ll do an optional second set of propers to more adequately reflect the intentions of the Latin.

    Yes! Offertories and Communion chants should be recovered also. First I’m working on the introits, because those are consistently represented in the Lossius, my model. The graduals and verses are not so. The offertories and communions are entirely absent from all early Lutheran sources I presently have access to. If you can find a Lutheran source with the melodies, I’d be very excited to see it! Same with better graduals/verses

  6. Brian Westgate

    Sean, It’s rather obvious when the Latin has a different translation from the KJV. Oftentimes those different translations are the reason such and such a verse was chosen to be chanted on a saint’s day (such as the Roman Introit for Apostle’s days. “Thy thoughts . . .” in Psalm 139 becomes “Thy friends . . .”) There’s also some funny things in Psalm 45 and differences in at least one other Psalm used for Offertoria on martyr’s days.

    The Common Service texts actually do follow the Latin. I’ve found that out recently. Kantor Kerkes thinks they might use the Coverdale version, but I need to get my hands on a Coverdale. Strodach might write about this somewhere.

    You are right to focus on Lossius. As nice as the Liber might be, it is a modern interpretation. Deacon Muehlenbruch has a book that includes the Offertoria (with melodies), and Webber’s “Studies in the Liturgy” mentions some of the old Offertories. Unfortunately we may be stuck with Roman or when necessary, Sarum books for some things. I know that at least the ELFK (and I presume then SELK) have beautiful melodies at least for the Introit.

    I have a good feeling we’ll be talking about this a lot in the next few months!

  7. Christopher Esget

    Thanks for making these available. My parish will be using them for Lent starting this Sunday.

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