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The ‘Simple English Propers’—a Sacred Music Revolution?

A parish music director in Phoenix has recently completed a major project in the renewal of sacred music, one that could have a revolutionary impact upon the celebration of the Ordinary form of the Mass all over the English-speaking world, as the latter prepares for the renewal of sacred language on its way this winter, courtesy of the new translation of the OF Roman Missal.

Adam Bartlett, director of music at St. Joan of Arc parish, is the composer and compiler of the Simple English Propers, an anthology of music for the Mass that is unlike anything else available in English today.  The book, a 500-page hardback, has just been published by the Church Music Association of America (CMAA); in keeping with the radical and principled open-source, creative-commons intellectual-property-libertarianism of the CMAA and its tutelary genius Jeffrey Tucker, the entire “Simple English Propers” corpus is also available for free download.

In order for readers to understand why the Simple English Propers are so important, a brief introduction to some technical aspects of music in the Catholic Mass is in order. 

The experience of most  Sunday massgoers in America has for decades been one of music as something added to the Mass but not integral or essential to it—so while the words of the liturgy itself are prescribed by the Missal, and the psalms and readings for every day of the three-year cycle are dictated by the Lectionary, one generally gets the sense that when it comes to music, the Catholic Mass is a blank canvas, an empty decorative space to be filled up by the wits and talents of the parish music ministry. 

With four such hymn “slots” to be filled each Sunday—from the entrance and offertory, through the communion to the recessional—American Catholics’ experience is that songs at Mass are something freely chosen by the music director.  From choir-and-organ arrangements of “Soul of My Savior” to rockin’ Matt Maher tunes to “Gather Us In” to “God Bless America” or other special numbers on holidays, what we get week in and week out can be, like radio programming, interesting, varied, eclectic, coherent, or not.  This programming model of music as a freely chosen, extraneous addition to worship is nearly universal, and, from what authorities like Thomas Day, author of Why Catholics Can’t Sing, tell us, it is deeply rooted in pre-Vatican II American Catholicism.  We might have a lot more choices now than we did in 1959, but the model is the same—picking tunes off the nickel jukebox, downloading the playlist.

If American Catholics have had any Sunday experience of Gregorian chant, outside of chanted “ordinary” texts like the Sanctus or Agnus Dei, that experience has likely been within the same model of freely chosen music inserted into the liturgy, as one option selected from among others: perhaps one special week out of twenty, the choir chants an unaccompanied Regina coeli for the “meditation” piece after communion; or, if it’s Pentecost, maybe Veni Sancte Spiritus in the same slot.  But not too much chant: back to “Faith of Our Fathers” or something else rousing for the recessional.

While the music-as-choice model is ubiquitous, and technically “allowed” according to the General Instruction for the Roman Missal, a different and much older model of Catholic sacred music is the ideal, described and advocated in all Roman magisterial documents on liturgy in the 20th century, including Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium.  The model is simple: just sing the integral proper chants of the Mass, the prescribed Latin texts and ancient Gregorian melodies contained in the official music book of the Catholic Church, the Graduale Romanum, or “Roman Gradual.”  No choices needed:  4 different Gregorian chants for every single Mass of the entire year, with words and music compiled in a normative Roman liturgical book.

Most lay Catholics, not to mention parish musicians and clergy, are not even aware of the existence of the Roman Gradual—but even if there were two dozen copies of it in every choir loft (or “musicians’ space” at the front of more progressive churches), learning to sing these ancient Latin texts and intricate, exotic melodies would be an extremely daunting task for even the most healthy of parish music programs.  There is simply no living tradition of Gregorian chant to be found anywhere near all but a handful of our parish churches.  Without it, the Roman ideal remains a dream for some and simply inconceivable for most.  Wishing it were otherwise—that there was a culture of Latin chant in our parishes just as vibrant as you’d find in a French Benedictine monastery—isn’t enough to conjure it up.  What, then, is to be done?

This is where the Simple English Propers come in.  This revolutionary anthology, the first of its kind, contains English-language translations of all the ancient Latin liturgical chants of the Roman Gradual, set to simplified melodies adapted from the originals; unlike the daunting, technically complex lines of the Gregorian chants, a week’s worth of these adapted melodies can be easily mastered by a parish choir of average competence in a week’s time, and new ones sung with confidence and clarity in the assembly Sunday after Sunday. 

What is most revolutionary about the Simple English Propers anthology is that it offers a way to a different model of sacred music, one in which there are no “songs”, no extraneous, independent musical compositions stuck into the silent slots in the liturgy, no need for a music director to program the week’s playlist according to his wits or whims.  Instead of our own choices and preferences, the SEP gives us a way to sing the Roman Church’s ancient songs, texts that have been fully integrated into the Roman Mass for centuries--unlike, say, “Amazing Grace,” “Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus,” or “America the Beautiful.” 

As one liturgist recently put it: truly sacred music means not singing “at” Mass, but singing the Mass itself.  The Simple English Propers present a comprehensible and technically feasible way for the average American parish to move off the beaches, where previously there had existed only the sheer cliffs of the Graduale Romanum.  Thanks to Adam Bartlett and the CMAA for making this possible.

7 comments | Add one of your own.

  1. Casey Truelove

    We just started practicing these propers last week. They’re great–and really easy to learn. My only complaint is that I wish they included the Alleluia and the Gradual/Tract Psalm.

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  3. Nataliann

    I’m so happy they’ve reached a happy medium for the Church’s tradition to be continued and but also understood by the congregation as it is being sung. However, I disagree with one point made in this article-namely:
    “learning to sing these ancient Latin texts and intricate, exotic melodies would be an extremely daunting task for even the most healthy of parish music programs.”
    On this point I beg to differ, as my tiny parish (St. Peter in Volo, Illinois) has had a tiny schola (two women, one man) sing the Latin Propers of the Mass every Sunday for the past 2-3 years. Chant is easy to learn; as with anything, all you have to do is start small, and practice. Pick a special feast, and work on one proper for that Mass. Chant gets easier every time you sing it; it is a very natural manner of singing. Don’t underestimate your choir’s abilities!

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  4. Lumi Karu

    This is really great – - maybe American bishops will get on board? I think that singing the propers should be promoted diocese-wide by every diocese, across the country. Is that too much to ask? : )

    It needs to be implemented like a smoking ban, otherwise, many priests might be afraid to implement the propers for fear of losing the “Gather” parishioners. But if all priests implemented at the same time, then individual pastors wouldn’t have to be afraid to lose people to the parish across town. Because they would all be doing the propers, and no one would be rockin’ out, or crooning into the mike.

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  5. a Catholic mom

    YESSSSSSSS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! This is such a blessing. Thank you Adam! I pray the SEP will be welcomed and implemented in the Phoenix diocese soon!

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