Gregorian Chant: how and why it was strangled in its own cradle
Sandro Magister

 (From the Sandro Magister’s site )

The prior of the Roman monastery of Pope Gregory the Great enriches, with new details, the record of the musical disaster following the Second Vatican Council. And the Vatican still does nothing to correct the situation

by Sandro Magister                              

ROME – On November 22, the Feast of Saint Cecilia, patroness of music, John Paul II attended a concert given in his honor. And the next day, at the midday Angelus, he extended a special greeting to the Wiener Philharmoniker, who came to Rome to perform for him the oratorio “The Creation” by Franz Joseph Haydn in the basilica of St Paul’s Outside the Walls.

The pope thanked “those who put their talents and musical skills at the service of the liturgy. And he recalled that on November 22, 2003, precisely one hundred years had passed since the publication of the motu proprio “Inter Sollicitudines” of St. Pius X: the document with which that pontiff marked Western sacred music with a movement toward reform, purified it from the theatrical corruptions in vogue at the time, and restored the centrality and splendor of Gregorian chant, polyphonic singing, and the organ.

It’s been precisely one hundred years. In the middle of this period, there was a council, Vatican II, which fully reconfirmed the primacy of Gregorian chant, polyphony, and the organ. But there was also a new decadence in the field of Church music. Its scale and gravity are such that it demands a new reform, one no less energetic than the one desired by Pius X.

The centenary of “Inter Sollicitudines” was awaited by some, both within and outside of the Vatican, as the fitting day for a new papal document calling for the renewal of liturgical music.

In particular, some were expecting the constitution of a pontifical body endowed with authority in this field.

But the Feast of Saint Cecilia came and went, and nothing of this has materialized.

It is known that the Vatican is dominated by a current hostile to the primacy of Gregorian chant and polyphonic singing. Off the highest figures among the central government of the Church, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger is the only one to have gone against the grain.

On many occasions, Ratzinger has associated the decadence of sacred music with the destructive means by which the liturgical reform decided by the Second Vatican Council was realized.

Music and liturgy are connected, for good or for ill. There can be no flowering of one without the other; just as with decadence, which ravages both of them.

The earthquake that produced the near disappearance of Gregorian chant during the 1960’s was the repercussion of a distorted implementation of the council’s liturgical reform – above all, by the élites of the Church.

The text reproduced below is a fascinating witness to this earthquake.

The author, a Benedictine monk, recounts how his monastery abandoned Gregorian chant in the mid-1960’s, and suddenly embraced new, improvised musical forms.

The transformation was lightning-quick, taking place practically overnight.

And this wasn’t just any monastery. It was the Camaldolese Benedictine monastery of San Gregorio al Celio, in Rome, which houses the marble throne of Pope Gregory the Great, the father of the liturgical chant typical of the Western Church, the one called “Gregorian.” One couldn’t have found a more strongly symbolic place.

The change was almost unanimously desired, and was approved by the prior at the time, Fr. Benedetto Calati, a distinguished personality of mid-20th century Italian Catholicism.

The author of the account, Fr. Guido Innocenzo Gargano, is his successor. He is the current prior of the monastery of San Gregorio, and is a distinguished spiritual master in his own right.

He includes an account of this musical and liturgical earthquake in a book he published in 2001, on “The Camaldolese in 20th Century Italian Spirituality.” A few pages later, the author acknowledges that he and the other monks “had not had even the slightest technical musical training,” and yet felt themselves obliged to “make themselves into poets and musicians” in order to substitute fashionable new songs for Gregorian chant.

Forty years have gone by, and there have been a few adjustments. But Gregorian chant has never returned to the liturgies of the Roman monastery founded by Pope Gregory.

Here is the account of how it was chased into exile during the tumultuous years of the Second Vatican Council:

That Night, at San Gregorio...

by Guido Innocenzo Gargano

[...] The adoption of the vernacular in the celebration of the Divine Office came to the community like an explosion.

The chanting of the Divine Office in the vernacular signified an irreperable break with one of our most sacred traditions, observed for centuries by all of Western Latin monasticism: Gregorian chant. [...]

It was all insinuated into the Camaldolese community by the intense debate in the council hall between the defenders of Latin and the proponents of the vernacular. [...] The youngest monks had not only openly campaigned for the introduction of Italian into the liturgy; they were so impatient that they didn’t even want to wait until the new permissions, which had already been approved in the council hall, were confirmed through official publication. Once it was recognized that Latin was absurd, it was time to change! [...]

The young monks began to feel themselves entitled to take the first steps in the monastery’s attic, like conspirators. It was not just a matter of translating the liturgical prayers from Latin into Italian, but also of experimenting with different musical forms. And given the intimate connection between Latin and Gregorian chant, the young monks decided, without asking anyone, that the sublime Gregorian chant must also be set aside, at least for the moment.

So, unknown to the superiors, a veritable orchestra was soon installed in the attic of the monastery of San Gregorio al Celio. The musical instruments were poorly chosen, but they were good enough for the task at hand.

After testing and retesting, among endless explosions of anger from the directors of a completely improvised choir, it was decided that, by Quinquagesima Sunday, the group would be prepared to make its debut in a semi-official liturgy complete with guitars, drums, and new songs written in Italian.

The chosen venue was the Salviati chapel, on the left side of the church. The celebrant was to be a priest studying at the Anselmianum liturgical institute, who was staying at the adjoining Hospitum Gregorianum.

It all took place with the greatest seriousness and to the satisfaction of all. But no one noticed that, during the celebration that Sunday, a man came into the chapel on a tourist visit, and came out again in a state of shock. This stranger ran straight to the vicariate and denounced the scandal.

[Angelo] Cardinal Dell’Acqua, His Holiness’ vicar for the diocese of Rome at the time, moved into action. To the unknowing [prior general] Fr. Benedetto [Calati], it came like lightning from the blue: in a single moment, he discovered both what his young monks had done and what were the consequences to be feared.

Fully riled, Fr. Benedetto convened the conventual chapter. [...] The monks received the reprimand in silence, their eyes lowered, but not at all convinced of having committed some vile misdeed. And when Fr. Benedetto compelled each of them, one by one, to take a public position on the crime committed, he was jolted in place by the determination, of each and of all, to defend the group of “scapigliati” [“bohemians”] – that’s what the rascals secretly called themselves – insinuating their fear of the lassitude that held their superiors immobile in their chairs, preventing them from following the path already clearly signalled by the wonderful debates of the conciliar assemblies.

At this point, Fr. Benedetto abandoned everyone and holed himself up in his cell. No one moved. We were all embarrassed, silent.

That evening, not seeing him at the table, nor at Compline, they sent me as a scout to see what mediation could be made.

The response was so unexpected it didn’t seem real.

“All right,” replied Fr. Benedetto, “we will do everything as you have said. Starting tomorrow, we will celebrate the Mass and the entire Office in Italian.”

Then we went from words to actions. One monk suddenly discovered he was a poet, another a translator; all of us became matchless connoisseurs of songs and musical scores.

Fr. Benedetto, for his part, wanted to show everyone a great sign of his courage by permitting the altar to be removed and another constructed, facing the people. The die had been cast. [...]

[From Guido Innocenzo Gargano, “The Camaldolese in 20th Century Italian Spirituality,” volume II, Edizioni Dehoniane, Bologna, 2001, pages 112-115]


The English translation of the motu proprio “Inter Sollicitudines” of Pius X:

> "Inter Sollicitudines"

The liturgical constitution “Sacrosanctum Concilium” of the Second Vatican Council, released in 1963, whose sixth chapter is dedicated to sacred music:

> "Sacrosanctum Concilium"

On this website, on the present state of sacred music and on expectations for reform:

> Liturgical Music: “Here Is the Reform that the Church Needs” (6.8.2003)

Other pages on this theme:

> Great Music in the Churches – And Why the Church Should Listen (12.11.2003)

> New Liturgies. Bishop Piero Marini doesn’t like TV (21.7.2003)

> Great Sacred Music in Milan. Six Centuries of the Cathedral Choir (28.5.2003)

> Polyphonic and Gregorian Chant. The Last Bastion at Rome’s Basilica of St. Mary Major (20.5.2003)

> Caso Bartolucci. Maestro, qua si cambia musica (3.6.2002)

> La protesta di Ratzinger: “Questa messa è uno spettacolo” (1.3.2001)

Go to the home page of >, to access the latest articles and links to other resources.

Sandro Magister’s e-mail address is

English translation by Matthew Sherry: >

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Online, 09/12/2023 às 14:40:49h