The Liber Usualis is more than a service book. The Liber is the synthesis of the plainsong heritage of the Roman Catholic Church. It is through the Liber that the Roman Church preserves the musical settings for the propers of the Mass that is necessary for understanding the Mass while not overpowering the liturgy which is the core of worship.

The modern Liber Usualis is a reconstruction of chants that have been used since the "Dark Age" of European culture. Previous to the mid 19th century chants were contained in monastic graduals and scattered volumes. the Solemses community decided that in order to preserve the canon of important liturgical works a comprehensive volume was needed.

Note also that the musical notation within the Liber is not an exact replica of medieval notation. The Solemses alongside contemporaries created an academic reconstruction of medieval notation, differentiating chant from the notation of polyphony and modern works. Liber notation is an exhaustive topic within itself.

Chant differs from sacred polyphony in the structure of the choir, or schola. Men and women are segregated, and do not chant within the same composition. While female religious (nuns) frequently chanted behind cloister grilles, only men have been traditionally encouraged to chant at public liturgies. There are no soloists in chant. All participants must weld their voices together as if one emphatic voice were continuously chanting. It looks easy on TV, but my schola is nowhere near the perfection of the men with that Chant CD record deal.

While all western Christian plainsongs are commercially lumped under the category "Gregorian Chant", understand that the Liber contains chants from other liturgies. The chants of the city of Rome can be characterized as "Gregorian" from the early sponsor of liturgical plainsong, Pope St. Gregory I. Most notable among the alternate chants are the Ambrosian chants of Milanese churches. With the advent of the Tridentine era in Catholicism most chants not of the Roman city liturgy were considered not as important. Recent attention has been paid to these alternate forms of plainsong.

All chants of the Roman Church are in Latin, the (still) official language of Catholic liturgy. Attempts have been made recently to translate the most common chants into vernacular languages, but these attempts are few and feeble, unable to capture the meter of compositions and frequently resorting to choral works. Chants are organized in chronological order according to their position in the church year. To aid the chanter, glosses in the beginning and end of the book explain the use of modes and abbreviations used for the most common prayers (the Gloria Patri, for example.) It is important to note that modes, analagous to major and minor scales in modern musical notation, are thematic and influence the outcome of various compositions. For example, a mode III introit will share modal components with a credo mode III. Modal similarities help with familiarization and give a sense of coherence throughout the work.

With the completion of the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council, the Liber Usualis has been sidelined in favor of congregational hymns that are of a simple melody for ease of participation. Most frequently these works are renditions of popular melodies or are simplistic transcriptions of choral works established in the Protestant traditions. Chants are considered unsuitable because they cannot be translated to the vernacular. The resurgence of Tridentine liturgy (the Latin Mass) and interest in liturgical plainsong have brought the Liber back in the spotlight. Positive developments would include a new edition of the Liber, an update from the last typical edition of 1962. Until then, it is important to note the significance chant has in Catholic liturgy, with the hope that the Liber will again merge into mainstream Catholic consciousness.

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