Because of Guido D’Arezzo

Guest Post by Allison Salerno
I grew up in the years immediately following the Second Vatican Council. Nothing in my religious training at Mass or in our parish’s CCD program taught me about the treasure chest of Catholic worship, devotions, or music. My fondest Catholic memory from those years was sitting on the floor in a darkened classroom with my teenaged peers for Tuesday night youth group. A few times, we listened to a recording of whale songs. (This was to teach us that just as whales had a language to communicate with one another, God wanted us to communicate with others.)

I did understand that music was an important part of the Catholic liturgy. I took to heart the message of one of the felt banners in the converted gym that was my church growing up: “Singing is Praying Twice.”

As a product of the well-intentioned, but often misguided reforms that came in the wake of Vatican II, however, my childhood was robbed of my Church’s musical traditions. Polyphony? Antiphons?  The Graduale? Never heard of any of this until about a year ago.

The folksy religious songs of my Catholic childhood, most of them culled from the still-ubiquitous Oregon Catholic Press songbooks, were sweet. They made me feel good. But they didn’t illuminate Catholic beliefs; in fact, some of them misrepresented Catholic doctrine. Consider this Eucharistic tune from my childhood.

Bread, blessed and broken for us all
Symbol of your love, from the grain so tall
(Michael Lynch, “Bread, Blessed and Broken,” text © 1978, 1979 Raven Music, published in OCP Publications)

The Eucharist isn’t a symbol; it is the Real Presence of Christ.

When it came time for our sons to begin their religious instruction, my husband and I switched from a church affiliated with the nearby university to our neighborhood parish. We liked the idea that the boys would attend CCD classes with neighbors, and we hoped to meet more couples in our town who shared our faith. What we didn’t realize was that the pastor is a man with a passion for reviving the Church’s rich musical traditions. My family of four began singing hymns and occasionally a song in Latin in church. When I joined the church choir earlier this year, my education began in earnest.

My perspective is more than a matter of personal taste. It turns out Vatican II is with me on this one. The council names chant and polyphony—not folk tunes and ballads—as the two forms of sacred music specifically appropriate to the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church.

In Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC), the Council’s document on the liturgy, the Council said, Gregorian chant should have a “pride of place” and “sacred polyphony was by no means to be disdained.” Vatican II did not promote the use of guitars during Masses. The SC states, “The pipe organ is to be held in high esteem, for it is the traditional musical instrument which adds a wonderful splendor to the Church’s ceremonies and powerfully lifts up man’s mind to God and to higher things.”

This leads me to Guido. Last month, at a meeting of our parish’s fledgling Chant Club, I learned about Guido D’Arrezzo, a medieval choirmaster and Benedictine monk, born outside Paris about 991. He invented modern musical notation by creating the four-line staff.  He did so because he noticed his fellow monks were having trouble learning Gregorian Chants. His system of staff-notation only used four lines instead of the five we now use because they fit the range of Gregorian Chant melody. He also invented the solfege system, which in English-speaking countries we know as do-re-mi. Before Guido’s inventions, monks had to rely on their memory and oral transmission to learn the dozens of chants they sang daily as part of the Divine Office and also as part of the liturgy.

The chants we are singing, in addition to being beautiful and easy to learn, also are instructive.

Ave, verum corpus
natum de Maria Virgine,
Vere passum immolatum
in Cruce pro homine,
Cujus latus perforatum
Unda fluxit (et) sanguine,
Esto nobis praegustatum
in mortis examine.

Hail, true body
born of the Virgin Mary,
Who truly suffered, sacrificed
on the Cross for man,
Whose pierced side overflowed
with water and blood,
Be for us a foretaste
In the test of death.

What do these lyrics tell us? We’re all going to die. Christ, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered and sacrificed his own life so that we might have the possibility of eternal life. In the Eucharist is the Real Presence of his body and blood, and a foretaste of heaven.

Our boys love the music. Gabriel, 13, joined the Chant Club without any prodding from us. He loves learning the chants and the history and theology behind them. Recently, we attended Mass at our former parish for the Sunday night student Mass. My husband and I thought it would be good for our boys to see hundreds of college students worshipping. And I figured they’d find the music, contemporary Catholic tunes played on guitars and drums and tambourines, cool. Instead, our teenager was dismayed. “Where’s the organ?” Gabriel asked.

So it turns out that we are raising, as a friend in the choir puts it, “an authentic son of the Second Vatican Council.” Whether anyone knows it or not.

  • Sandy C.

    Allison, another great post. My son is in RCIA at Our Savior in Manhattan. The parish uses a lot of Latin hymns and chant in mass. We attended with him on Thanksgiving Sunday and I am so excited for his upcoming confirmation at Easter Vigil!I told several Evangelical friends the other night that my son was joining the Catholic Church and one of them said, "that's so weird." When I asked why she thought it was weird, she talked about how much my son loved music (he played several instruments in Evangelical worship bands), as if the Catholic Church has no musical variety. My son was amused when I told him about the conversation since he attended his first Catholic Underground service last weekend and said the Franciscan monks in the band "rocked the place." What a blessing to worship in so many different ways through music: from chant to rock. (By the way, I think my son now prefers the organ to the electric guitars and drums. ;))


    Alison: This is a testimony that there IS hope after the 'felt-banners' and 'whale wailings' of tha 1970s youth group. I attended a similar CCD group where the dark room and lit candle in the center of the group of teenagers felt more like a seance than any Catholic formation! I thank God for the Newman Center at my university and my many college friends who had been educated by the Christian Brothers and the Sisters of Charity. These college friends introduced me to the Rosary, the Hail Holy Queen prayer, the Liturgy of the Hours — amongst other devotionals. We even formed a Catholic prayer group in our dorm. The Holy Spirit just would not let go. I wonder how the young people of this generation are being catechized? Thanks for a wonderful post today.

  • Anonymous

    Alison,I'm a "bit" older than you, so I was able to experience the Mass in Latin for ten years, with a full complement of Gregorian Chant. My Parochial grammar school was more like a small campus, as there were 8 grades with 150 students in each. We received instruction in G.C. from Berj Zamkochian, who later became the organist for the BSO and played around the world for Presidents and Popes. It was quite a wonderful experience! On Sunday, each grade was responsible for leading the congregation in Chant at one of the many Masses. We happened to move to a small town in NH just about the time of Vatican II, so I didn't feel the loss as much as if we had stayed put. I went from 150 classmates to five (in a 2 room schoolhouse!) and sang in a small choir of 10. About 8 years later, I was attending BC and noticed Berj's name in the course listings for Music. I so enjoyed this new experience with him – and the field trip to Symphony Hall where he played privately for the class. Thank you for this post and bringing back a great memory. It's wonderful that your family is making up for what you missed! I enjoyed your other post as well. Sweet images..Sheila

  • Anonymous

    Dear Allison, many thanks for introducing me to your blog and to Guido. You have a beautiful voice and I am thrilled you are sharing it with your fellow parishoners. Roberto in Florida

  • Allison

    @Roberto: Thanks for reading this blog!