Finally, it behooves us to recall that the Proper chants of the Mass are linked to the liturgical seasons and times, not just in a general fashion, but quite specifically, by virtue of their content. The oldest choir-books of the Roman liturgy eloquently testify that the overwhelming majority of these chants belonged to fixed days, and these assignments remained untouched up until 1968. The same texts were written in the Missals, and if they were not sung, then the priest prayed them. In doing so, the Church clearly expressed her desire that each chant stand in a fixed position, which simply means that on this day, at this liturgical position, this is the chant, and not any other.

Exactly when and how this “properization” of the Mass chants was achieved is an altogether different question. At this point, we are not interested in this question, nor in deciding whether or not the numerous speculations are true concerning the justification of the given position of a chant and its interrelationships with other parts of the daily liturgy through historical facts or spiritual reflections. We simply accept the fact that in the minds, hearts and memories of faithful Catholics there gradually emerged, over a period of 1200 years or more, a network of associations between the experience of a particular liturgical day and the chants “proper” to that day. Such associations were truly “catholic,” in other words universal within the Latin liturgy. All felt a part of it, anyone at will referred to it: the Sundays were named after their Introits (e.g. Laetare, Gaudete, Quasimodo); people dated their private letters by referring to the same chant; composers created music not to texts, but to the Offertory or the Introit of a given day. For a Christian who lived in and with the liturgy of the praying Church, this order of chants coalesced with the full liturgy of the day, and it contributed to the high degree of constancy in the Mass Propers (as opposed to the frequent variations in the Divine Office). So it is by no means an accident that certain chant forms were excluded from this uniformity. In spite of the unchanging stability of Introits, Graduals, Offertories and Communions, the Alleluja and the Sequence presented a wide field of opportunity for the creative forces of various geographic regions (tropes, sacred polyphony).

This universality and continuity in space and time bore rich fruit, and brought great blessings. Over and above the psychological associations, such universality nurtured a feeling of stability and promoted the reverence of which a long tradition is worthy. It radiated, and thus taught, discipline; it made palpable a kind of “impersonal anonymity” which cannot be achieved simply by concealing the authors’ names. My university students were always shocked to open Dom Hesbert’s Antiphonarium Missarum Sextuplex or the 11th-century Gradual of the Roman basilica of St. Cecilia, only to find there, on the same days, the same Proper chants than the ones printed in the Liber Usualis of 1950. And without any coaching from me, their first question after the initial surprise was, “Then why should we sing different ones instead of these?”

Why, indeed…?

Laszlo Dobszay, The Bugnini-Liturgy and the Reform of the Reform (2003)

In the oldest Missals and in the most ancient Graduale (up to 1970) we find the series of Introits to be identical in ninety percent of cases. It is true that the Mass Propers were created independently of the other elements in a given daily formulary; the 20th century meditations or reflections on the “theme” of a given Sunday, for example, with comparable prayers, pericope and chants, is historically incorrect. (In the 7rh-9th centuries the order of pericopes varied somewhat; in many points the Chants follow the numerical order of the psalms – which of course excludes any thematic “selection.”)

The decisive factor in the selection was not so much the individual day and the other parts of its formulary such as the readings and prayers; rather, it was the liturgical season whose influence predominated. However, in spite of this the prayers, readings, and chants of a given day co-existed over the course of centuries and (as the history of religious culture m western Christendom shows) in the mind of the Church and of the individual faithful they became very strongly linked to the particular day and the other elements of its liturgy. We may refer to this as the “psychological or associative coherence” of the parts of a day’s liturgy, and it produced rich fruits both intellectually and emotionally. How frequently it happens that a given Introit becomes attached in our minds and memory to a certain Sunday after Pentecost (for instance) and to its Gospel, collect, etc. This “context” is of high liturgical value, and it should be preserved. But on the other hand, if such an Introit is merely read by the priest (and in the best of cases also by the congregation using its missalettes), then the Introit is in fact changed: it is no longer a chant, but simply one of the readings.

Hence there would seem to be three tasks here: 1) to maintain the given Introit sung to its Gregorian melody whenever possible; 2) to create a series of Introits, worthy of the liturgical heritage but capable of being chanted by a schola or the congregation even in the smallest country parish church (Cf. e.g., Graduale Simplex); 3) to invent a combination that recalls the “proper” Introit of the day while allowing the schola and congregation to sing a seasonal Introit on a fine but simple tone, instead of singing alius cantus aptus. Or, more correctly: to create a series of liturgical alius

Laszlo Dobszay, The Bugnini-Liturgy and the Reform of the Reform (2003)

The failures of the Tridentine movement…

8. Pars pro toto, this example also serves to demonstrate another problem. Taking for granted that the Introit is meant to be chanted and only in extraordinary cases be read, the first question is: given today’s conditions what are the obstacles to the regular chanting of the Roman (or “Tridentine”) Introit? The answer is twofold: the first obstacle is the fact that except for the priest, the Mass is celebrated with the assistance of volunteers. In most places this is also true of the singers, and even more true if the liturgical chant is based only upon the actual diminishing memory and knowledge of the congregation. The remedy, of an organizational rather than liturgical nature, would be to establish a system to recruit liturgical assistants from amongst the layfolk, not as haphazard volunteers, but for a regular and obligatory service. The ancient traditional organization of chapters (capitula) could be revived and adapted to the contemporary situation, in a more modest form, even at the smallest parish church. This would be very much a “reform” achievement.

The second obstacle is that as far as the singers are concerned, only professionals are able to learn the Introit and other items of the Proper for every week, or every day. Congregations are surely unable to do that. The last Council tried to provide a more limited collection of liturgical chants for the smaller churches (Graduate Simplex). But how can the full set of Introits of the Roman liturgy then survive? The combination of a seasonal and a daily Introit is a musical task, just as it is a musical task to place easier liturgical tunes alongside the Gregorian ones. If we examine the musical questions, it is clear that we need variant solutions for one and the same liturgy, possibilities which can be selected according to the conditions. ‘”Variant,” I say, but not “anything appropriate”! The fixed order of the “Tridentine” liturgy has great value as a powerful stabilizing factor. But how can this advantage be combined with a kind of flexibility that preserves rather than renounces the liturgical heritage? The question is discussed in Chapter 4; for now, it suffices to stress that a Roman liturgy reformed in the good sense of the word, should offer solutions for choice within its sphere, and not ‘in general’ (“anything appropriate”).

9. At this point it will be useful to return to the example of the Office. The last (“Pastoral”) Council regarded the praying of the Roman Office – even after the reduction of St. Pius X — as too burdensome. Therefore the post-conciliar Commission constructed a new Office, adapted to the lowest standard. Quite the contrary, the Eastern Church preserves her traditional Office unchanged in its entirety, though it is, celebrated in this fullness only by some monasteries, while the parish churches pray parts of the Office, arranged according to customary practice. The principal Hours are retained, but there are also obligatory and optional parts within an Hour; “We omit this or that part,” reports one of the faithful. A similar distinction can also be observed in the West. The Roman liturgy is the liturgy of the Church, and yet in its full traditional form, contained in the editio typica, it is celebrated in certain cathedrals, in many monasteries, and in some assigned churches. These celebrations should be carried out according to certain well-regulated concessions or reductions according to the circumstances. In one place the full Office is prayed, in another only some Hours, or they sing the Vigils (Matins) on fixed solemnities of the year, or Lauds are celebrated with three psalms instead of five, or a priest with pastoral commitments prays only one Sunday Nocturn of the three, or seasonal items are sung instead of those from the day’s liturgy, etc. If all this occurs not out of arbitrariness or because of laziness, but according to general rules adapted by the individual churches or persons with ecclesiastical approval, then the integrity of the Roman liturgy can be preserved. Participation in its entirety demands effort, but it should be a realistic obligation even under varying conditions. The rite of the universal Church lives in a regulated way in the customs of this Church.

10. This kind of genuine reform of the Ordo Antiquus is justified by the survival of the Roman tradition. But it is justified also by recalling that this is the only chance for long-term survival today alongside the Novus Ordo. 

Laszlo Dobszay, The Bugnini-Liturgy and the Reform of the Reform (2003)

The failures of the Tridentine movement…

6. Thus far we have scrutinized the 1962 form of the “Tridentine” liturgy and its permitted use as related to its past. This did not reflect an archeological or antiquarian approach, but rather an effort to preserve and restore the liturgical values. This is not to say that a reform of the liturgy was inappropriate at the time of the last Council. And yet I do not wish to exclude the possibility that a true fidelity to the Roman Office demanded reforms going even farther than did the Council’s reforms. I fear that if we confine ourselves exclusively to fighting for the use of the unchanged 1962 Missal, the results would only contribute to the satisfaction of a narrow, standoffish circle, while the life of the Church as a whole would simply go on without deriving much useful benefit. The conciliar reforms surely contain legitimate points warranted by the Church’s life and by the liturgy itself, and no adherent of the “Tridentine” liturgy can be insensible to them. The essential difference is that the adherents of the “traditional Roman liturgy” would have preferred, or would now promote, a reform in the true sense of the word without producing a completely new liturgy. The Council’s will was that “there must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them; and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing” (SC 23). Applying this principle to the traditional Roman liturgy, we ought to think of a reform that aims at increasing its efficacy instead of altering the liturgy itself. In what follows, I wish to point out only a few possible features of such a reform.

7. Though 1 despise slogans of this kind, it cannot be denied that the admirable richness of the Roman liturgy was the function of a clerical celebration. The problem is not sociological but purely practical. The well-developed Roman liturgy was celebrated by the bishop surrounded by priests, lower ranking clerics, lectors, psalmists, etc. The available personnel made it possible to celebrate the liturgy in its entirety day after day; schools and theologians labored to understand it, to assimilate it, and to apply it to the spiritual life. Financial resources were at hand to keep the whole system alive and maintain it without interruption. This liturgical “network” was very important, efficient, and its beneficial effects also reached the congregation both directly and indirectly. As these conditions began to diminish, the very celebration of the Opus Dei began to shrink as well. Supplementary partial solutions were offered in order to maintain the spiritual values of the liturgy, but these proved insufficient to sustain its radiant solemnity or to manifest its true inner nature. The final stage of this evolution is the “Tridentine” silent Low Mass and the priest’s personal obligation to the private reading of the Breviary.

I will demonstrate this process of erosion by one single case. A decisive element of the daily liturgy is the Introit, a chant identical in the earliest sources, which even if it was not originally coordinated with the other parts of the Mass, gradually became inseparable from the daily liturgy.

Nothing prevented the chanting of the Introit since a solo psalmist, a “choir”, i.e. a well-trained ensemble of clerics and school-boys, or later, paid musicians, were provided for that purpose. When such singers were not present for at least some of the Masses, the Introit was transformed into the silent prayer of the priest, whilst the congregation in some parts of Europe sang vernacular hymns not directly related to the liturgy. Where parish choirs existed, only a few of them were able to sing week after week the proper Introit of the Mass on its Gregorian melody. True, the singers could perhaps be taught to sing the words of the liturgy on simpler tunes, even if not a different one for each Sunday of the year. This, however, was not permitted. And so the chanting of the Introit ceased, except at the High Mass of some larger churches.

Thus the memory of the Introit was maintained until the 1962/65 Council only in the prayer of the priest quietly recited while the congregation occupied itself with the singing of vernacular hymns. The damage was somewhat mitigated by the use of bilingual or vernacular congregational Missals, transmitting the spiritual message of the Introit; the liturgical chant, however, was omitted. The postconciliar rubrics offered three remedies: a) the Introit remained in principle a part of the Proper; b) but in actual practice it is most often replaced by alius cantus aptus, “some other appropriate song” (during which the Introit itself is not even prayed by the priest anymore); c) and the mere reading of the Introit — as a kind of pious epigraph — in Masses without any singing. A true reform must and can find a solution to this situation, the more so since literacy today is not restricted to the clergy.


Laszlo Dobszay, The Bugnini-Liturgy and the Reform of the Reform (2003)

The return to chant based on biblical and liturgical texts will be fruitful only if the liturgical meaning of the words is fully understood by both the singers and congregation. Moreover, it is not enough to understand them: they must penetrate the spiritual and mystical sphere of the individual souls, as well as catechesis, preaching, and church life outside the liturgy. The sung words and tunes built into the memory of communities and individuals will deeply influence their way of thinking. Such church music will be able to contribute to the re-sacralization of our view of the Church. In other words, church music will not be able to fulfill its task, if its position is separated from the other activities of the Church. The ideal relationship is that the life of the praying Church governs church music. But the direction is sometimes reversed: church music may influence the Church’s life. Remember that the renewal of the liturgy in the 19th century began with the Gregorian reform of Solesmes!

In order to carry out the program I have discussed here, church musicians will have need of the four “cardinal virtues.”

  • They need stability in principles rejecting any compromise on the most important points.
  • They need continued learning and workshop activity in order to be able to realize the great principles in the smallest of details.
  • They need collaboration, for today there is no chance of surmounting the crisis except by a unanimous stance and common strategy concerning the main points.
  • And finally they need a great deal of individual and common prayer, because they themselves may plant and water, but God alone gives the growth.

Quod Deus bene vertat!

Laszlo Dobszay, The Bugnini-Liturgy and the Reform of the Reform (2003)

The second misunderstanding is that Gregorian chant is bound to the Latin language. We could discuss this theme for hours, presenting one example after another — but for now it suffices to say that Gregorian pieces lived (unchanged or with slight modification) in different languages during the historical past. In fact, some of these repertories are still in use today, even outside the realm of Catholic liturgy. (For example, I personally conducted Gregorian pieces sung in English as found in Anglican collections, and these concerts were very successful.) Bad experiments do not discredit the possibility of adaptation, but rather underscore the need for respectable work and adequate talent in this field. In earlier times, the melody was regarded more as an elastic musical thought to be adapted to the text, rather than an invariable opus perfectum. Similarly, in the case of vernacular chant the task is not to force the text under the single notes of a stable melody, but to perform the text using a given melodic type.

The third misunderstanding is to think that the problem is already solved by publishing some devotional Latin pieces in the congregational hymnals. Some church musicians regard it as a great success to include the Adoro te devote, Salve Regina, Ave verum corpus or other “hits” in the hymnal. These insertions have nothing to do with the solution of the main problem. The task is solved if the main parts of the Mass, the Introit, Communion etc. included can be sung in the proper musical language of the liturgy. This task can be accomplished in musical terms, and it can also be accomplished in the pastoral sense provided that one is really determined to bring it about. It is essential, however, that the task be regarded as important as it really is; the chant has to be included in the regular course of catechism and other forms of instructions, and in addition, a psalmist (or schola) should be positioned in each case at the head of the congregation.

Once such a firm ground has been established, the polyphonic music and the vernacular hymns will also find their place. There are points within the Mass where either of them works well without any break in the liturgy, although not without a distinction. The first rank belongs to those settings that take their words from liturgical texts or are their paraphrase. Then come pieces borrowed from the repertory of the day or season (e.g. translations of the hymn, polyphonic settings of a liturgical text). In the third place are pieces equally worthy in content and music to strictly liturgical material. There can be no fourth grade, for the church musician must reject what is below this standard on the grounds of his professional conscience and moral obligation.

Laszlo Dobszay, The Bugnini-Liturgy and the Reform of the Reform (2003)

Is there any solution at all? Is it not the case that church music was imbued for over a thousand years by an idea untenable in our own age, and church musician cannot do more than to keep the memory of these one-time values in “Museum Masses”? The question is not quite unwarranted. It seems clear that an 18th-century orchestral Mass composition is inseparably linked with such a special form of celebration and religious mentality that today it can only be recalled in exceptional cases. It is enough to think of how much longer a polyphonic Gloria or Agnus is, than the time allowed for it in a Mass today. An Offertory of Palestrina exactly fits the time of an offertorial rite if the celebration is done at a dignified pace with suitable care, complete with incensation – but this exceeds the one or two minutes in which the Offertory is commonly executed today. Of course, musicians can ask politely: is the ceremonial action of the “offertory” worth only a minute or two?

The question then becomes not merely whether the liturgy today is suitable for preserving the treasures of church music; but also whether the liturgy today is suitable to its own dignity? And yet the task is not simply to fight for the restoration of a liturgy more hospitable to church music. It is the original balance of the liturgy which must be recovered, along with the organic relationship of the three kinds of noble church music mentioned earlier. Of course, this question involves not only musical technicalities, but also spiritual and financial dimensions.

But let us speak briefly about actual practice.

No other music corresponds so perfectly to the inner structure and dramatic form of the liturgy as Gregorian chant (or possibly a new setting of the liturgical texts patterned after it). Only such music offers appropriate language for the dialogues, the alternating chant of the celebrant, singer and congregation. Only this medium is able to adapt itself to the characteristics of the liturgical parts; allows the liturgical words themselves to be sung (instead of substitutions), while faithfully preserving the peculiarities of the words instead of compelling the biblical prose into a network of alien measures, bars and rhythms. If Gregorian chant, or similar vernacular chant, appeared at the structural points of the service, the will of the Council would also be fulfilled, and the cantus Gngorianus would in fact reclaim its “pride of place.”

Laszlo Dobszay, The Bugnini-Liturgy and the Reform of the Reform (2003)