Mission Basilica’s new Gregorian chant CD echoes the Gospel

By Larry Urish     2/20/2018

Music has been a subjective art form ever since a branch was first banged against a rock in some sort of caveman cadence. Heavy metal, for example, can be energizing and inspiring to one person or amplified nails on a chalkboard to another. It’s all in the ears of the auditor.

Gregorian chant is the exception to the rule. If given enough truth serum, even the most hardcore metal-head, someone who wouldn’t recognize Latin from Klingon, would admit that Gregorian chant, simply by its nature, is holy. It’s reverent; it’s deeply moving. And it’s also on CD.

Actually, Gregorian chant has been on CD ever since it went through a renaissance of sorts in the 1990s. Until now, however, no collection has ever focused on “Communio,” a type of chant sung during a time of divine intimacy: Holy Communion. Recorded by the Men of the Basilica Mixed Ensemble, “Chant – Communion Chants from the Liturgical Year” is composed of 20 such selections. The Mission Basilica group is assisted by Chant Master David Koch, who fell in love with the style while living as a monk.

“Many monasteries in recent decades have switched to the vernacular liturgy,” Koch says, “but I was lucky enough to spend time in those that used traditional Latin chant. I learned a great deal.”

Gregorian chant serves as a core musical guide for the faithful. “It’s where the music of the Church started,” says Matthew Gray, director of Music Ministries at Mission Basilica. “Although Chant is very simple musically, each one has its own beautiful, unique character. It’s always great to let people know how beautiful it is.”

“All sacred music, and especially Gregorian Chant, touches at the heart of faith ‘affectively,’” says Msgr. Arthur Holquin, pastor emeritus of Mission San Juan Capistrano and the Diocese’s Vicar for Divine Worship. “Our belief is not just a matter of intellect; it’s also a matter of the heart. Chant has a way of touching that aspect.

“The first musical forms that were used in the Sacred Liturgy here in the mother church of our Diocese was Gregorian Chant,” Msgr. Holquin says. “The Franciscan fathers who founded Mission San Juan were schooled in the chant tradition and undoubtedly shared that tradition with others. … When I became pastor in 2003 and began to build upon the pre-existing musical tradition here at the mission – and particularly at the Basilica – I encouraged the retention of elements of this ancient chant tradition.”

This tradition received a boost with the creation of Men of the Ensemble. “Matt [Gray] first had us perform English versions of the chants,” Koch says. “I later asked him if we could work up to the Latin versions. We started with the Latin about four years ago, though we still do English versions.”

The CD came from an epiphany: For several years, the Men of the Basilica received wonderful feedback from the congregation. “One day I invited the Ensemble to sing Latin chants for Good Friday in 2016,” Gray says. “As I listened that day, I realized that they were transforming the chant into a sublime prayer that was lifting everyone up. I wanted to share this musical gift of our Basilica Parish with a greater audience.”

“Chant” was recorded in the Basilica, an acoustically stunning venue designed in a way that gathers and focuses sound. “Because of the monumental height of the Basilica with the added dome, the architects were aware of the incredible acoustical resonance of the building,” says Msgr. Holquin.

“The Basilica is beautiful, both acoustically and visually,” says Gray. “It was made in the tradition of the classic European church, with a cruciform layout, a big dome and a lot of hard, reflective surfaces. The sounds here reverberate from six to eight seconds, depending on what is being sung. It’s actually a physical experience; the sound kind of embraces you.”

Mission Basilica is one of the few venues in the Diocese that offers Gregorian chanting every week, during 11 a.m. Mass, says Gray. (St. John the Baptist and St. Michael’s Abbey are the others.) The CD can be purchased there after that late-morning Mass, and it will be available on iTunes and at missionbasilicamusic.org in March.

“I don’t know of any other collection that focuses primarily on the Communio chants, sung as the priest and the congregation receives the Lord in Communion,” Koch says. “That’s a privileged moment in the Eucharistic Liturgy.”

Koch has no favorite selection. “They’re all gorgeous chants,” he says. “They’re all a part of me. I love them so deeply.”

“Saying that I have a favorite CD selection is like trying to say which child is your favorite,” Gray says. “Each chant is beautiful and unique, and each echoes what’s happening in the Gospel, bringing that Gospel message out and highlighting and reinforcing that message.”

“I find that all of [the CD’s selections] resonate with love and faith,” Msgr. Holquin says. “They’re all beautiful, and I never tire of hearing them!”