A Heritage Lost? Jean Langlais and Post-Conciliar Sacred Music

Catholics have sung our praise to God for the entirety of the Church’s history. For at least a thousand years, Gregorian chant formed the basis of a Catholic musical patrimony and identity, with a revival of the art form occurring in the late 19th century and onward, as a result of the work of the Benedictine monks of Solesmes. Within the first three months of his pontificate, Pope Pius X (r. 1903–1914) wrote a motu proprio titled Tra le Sollecitudini, which promoted a return to Gregorian chant, which was, at that time, somewhat neglected. It is within this world of the resurgent interest of plainchant that organist-composer Jean Langlais was steeped in.

Langlais (1907–1991) was born in La Fontenelle, which is in the northeastern part of the French province of Brittany. His father was a stone mason, and his mother was a seamstress. The family lived in a small room with a packed dirt floor adjoining the house of Jean’s maternal grandparents. At two years of age, the young boy began to lose his sight, due to infantile glaucoma. A devout Catholic all his life, Langlais would credit his blindness to his vocation as a musician, saying, “If I had been sighted like everyone else, I would have inevitably followed my father as stonemason. One has to believe that the Virgin Mary had other plans for me, which included blindness. May her wishes be fulfilled.” It was through the intervention of his uncle, Jules Langlais, a military captain, that the young Jean was able to study music at the Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles (National Institute for Blind Children) in Paris. Jules not only arranged a scholarship for his nephew, but also paid 270 francs annually for other fees such as housing. At ten years old, Langlais went to study music, despite having little experience with the art from up to this point. The pipe organ in the nearest church was known to have terrified him as a boy, and yet, he would go on to become one of the greatest organist-composers of the 20th century.


While at the Institut, he learned to play the pipe organ, as well as the violin and the art of composition, where he won numerous prizes. Despite success as a violinist, he abandoned it, focusing ever more on organ and composition. He went on to study organ with the formidable virtuoso Marcel Dupré at the Paris Conservatoire, improvisation privately with Charles Tournemire, as well as composition from Paul Dukas. Teaching at the Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles, Langlais would go on to succeed Tournemire as the titular organist of the Basilica of Sainte-Clotilde in 1945, a position he held until 1988. In addition to his teaching, composing, and work as a church musician, he also gave hundreds of organ recitals, particularly in the United States. It would have seemed that things were continually improving for Langlais, but as the 1960s approached, he found himself fighting for the future of Catholic sacred music.

Despite his unusual upbringing, the traditional music of the Church was still very close to Langlais’ heart. He did not grow up as a boy chorister at a great abbey church, as was the case for fellow organist-composer Maurice Duruflé (1902–1986), but Langlais would still become an expert on Catholic sacred music. He taught at the Schola Cantorum in Paris, where part of the curriculum was based on Gregorian chant, and many of Langlais’ compositions feature plainsong melodies in some way. Indeed, chant often forms a integral component in a large swath of his oeuvre. Composed in 1954, the Messe Salve Regina, based on that ancient solemn tone chant, proved to be a popular work. Scored for men’s chorus, unison choir, two organs, three trumpets, and five trombones, it is a glorious piece, with the chant melody intricately woven throughout the composition. As his catalogue clearly illustrates, Langlais was indebted to the Church’s musical heritage, and a strong proponent of it.

It is in this context as a liturgical musician and noted composer that Langlais found himself in conflict. In the 1950s, he composed some so-called “religious songs,” featuring simpler melodic lines, vernacular texts, and straightforward accompaniments, which perhaps brought him to the attention of the self-styled “reformers” of the 1960s. Even though Langlais initially expressed interest in this movement of religious song, more and more, he found himself struggling to keep Gregorian chant from falling into obscurity. He was invited to participate in several liturgical music committees in France, wherein he could oversee the new forms of church music that were intended for introduction in the parishes. Other noted composers, such as Maurice Duruflé, were also on these committees, but relations between those advocating for tradition and those pushing for modernization soon deteriorated. Langlais wrote many scathing letters on the matter, including one to Joseph Gélineau, SJ, which reads,

“Across the centuries of our history it should be obvious that the Church has elevated the arts to a very high level. For some years now, alas, the opposite has been occurring. The causes of these regrettable errors are numerous and obvious… Personally, and I take full responsibility for my opinions, I don’t hesitate to incriminate a large number of clergy whose artistic formation is far from assured in the majority of seminaries. A man can be an excellent priest and not have a sense of Art. One too often forgets that artists who consecrate their lives to serve the liturgy – and thus the Church – undergo a very long period of study. For several years now these true composers of sacred music are being replaced by persons of good will who are the only ones to believe in their talent…The most surprising aspect of this sad evolution is that no one seems to take into account the fact that a church service addresses God before all else and above all else, for whom nothing is beautiful enough…The Church was a place in which one was accustomed to enter with respect, with emotion, in order to reflect at will. The big word “communicator” is now the only one present-day clergy use when planning their religious activities, denying every Christian the freedom of his own mysticism. There is no denying a malaise among Christian people. Gregorian chant, “that eternal child of Art,” has its enemies. A priest actually told me that he was unable to celebrate mass when there was plainchant because that required him to wait…May the day return when Sacred Art manifests itself freely in our churches, for the good of the faithful and for the glory of God.” (Jean Langlais Remembered, pg. 228-229)

Langlais raises numerous points in this letter which illustrate the rapidly shifting sphere of music in the Church, for this letter is dated January 12th, 1963. Vatican II only began under Pope John XXIII on October 11th, 1962, and would not be complete until December 8th, 1965 under Paul VI. It should be pointed out that Joseph Gélineau, SJ, is the father of the “responsorial psalm,” as it is typically used in the Ordinary Form of the Mass, wherein there is a metrical refrain that the people are expected to sing, and then a cantor recites the rest of the psalm text to unmetered blocks of chords with simple melodic formulas in between these refrains. Gélineau was active in creating this form in the 1950s, before Vatican II, but it would be under Paul VI’s subsequent reforms, where it was hoisted to new heights.

Perhaps the most unfortunate part of this whole affair is that musicians such as Langlais agreed with that which Vatican II actually called for, and yet he and others found themselves fighting for true sacred music all the same in the Council’s aftermath. For it is clear from the documents that little was to change, and that there was to be a continuation in the use of Gregorian chant and the organ, as well as Latin at Mass. Article 120 of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, states “In the Latin Church 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.” Likewise, article 116 reads, “The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as especially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services. Other kinds of sacred music, especially polyphony, are by no means excluded from liturgical celebrations, so long as they accord with the spirit of the liturgical action.” Earlier, a call is given for the laity to be able to sing the Ordinary of the Mass in Latin, and article 114 states, “The treasure of sacred music is to be preserved and fostered with great care. Choirs must be diligently promoted.”

It is no secret that things have been turned upside down since in the wake of the Council. It is unfortunately rare to hear Gregorian chant in the average parish or even in cathedrals, if ever, let alone a choir of even moderate ability. Many things went awry following Vatican II, and yet, it makes one wonder how the efforts of people such as Langlais, Duruflé, and others went completely ignored. As a Church, we have been handed down a precious gift of a great and venerable musical heritage, one that not only inspires those already within the Church, but also has the capacity to move even hardened non-believers. Gregorian chant is slowly returning, particularly through the expansion of the Extraordinary Form, but this is the birthright of every Catholic. As Pius X was known to say, “pray upon beauty,” for transcendent beauty has a special way of drawing us upwards, toward God. Ultimately, we need to encourage the renewal and revival of our sacred music in every way we can, for the glory of God, and the sanctification and edification of the people.


Langlais, Marie-Louise. “Jean Langlais Remembered.” American Guild of Organists. Accessed January 25, 2021. https://www.agohq.org/jean-langlais-remembered-by-marie-louise-langlais/

Pope Pius X. “Tra Le Sollecitudini Instruction on Sacred Music.” Adoremus, December 22, 2020. Accessed January 25, 2021. https://adoremus.org/1903/11/tra-le-sollecitudini/


Additional Listening:

Incantation pour un jour Saint – for organ – Based on chants from the Easter Vigil https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bVhVKR5LGhE

Paraphrase sur “Salve Regina” – for organ – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ledIJ9II08M

Psaume solennel: No. 3 – “Laudate Dominum de caelis” (Ps. n° 148) – for choir, brass, and organ –  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fww95MXkd-Y