Saturday, July 31, 2010

Another Round of Chant Mania

The news that Decca has signed a recording deal with the cloistered nuns of Abbaye de Notre-Dame de l'Annonciation in France has gone viral (the current phrase meaning spreading wildly through every communication medium). 

The album will consist of 100% Gregorian chant, and I look forward to knowing the selections. Whether chant hymns, ordinary chants, or propers, it is sure to be beautiful. The company in question has backed the biggest recording stars of our times. The last recording of Austrian monks became a top seller all over the world.

Google (as of this writing) reports more than 600 news items about the recording deal. More than 600 blogs have mentioned it or commented on the news. It is not possible to buy this sort of publicity. If anything can be known for sure in this world, this is one of them: this CD will be be huge and important for this current generation of music listeners.

Striking, isn’t it? Here we have music that is organic to the Roman Rite liturgy that was assembled and codified over the first millennium of Christianity, and yet it still retains the ability to be news, to create globally popular collections of music that people listen to in their cars, their homes, on the iPhones and MP3 players - everywhere of course but in the typical Catholic parish. 

The irony is intense. Throughout the Catholic world, the debate is ongoing, every day, on blogs, forums, emails, journals, and everywhere else. The core of the debate is all about whether this music really meets the spiritual needs of the people. Doesn’t unison music from a different millennium and in a dead language alienate people from their faith, and so should not music at Mass be tuneful and rhythmic and provide a link to popular culture? 

More sophisticated advocates of pop music add an additional claim that the new ritual of 1969/70 makes special demands on Catholic musicians that were not present in the preconciliar ritual. The structure of the new Mass asks the people to be deeply involved in the ritual at every point, and the choirs function thus becomes serving as a kind of proxy for the people. For this reason, the music must always be inclusive, accessible, and in the vernacular that people can understand.

The other side says that chant is not a matter of popularity; it is a matter of rubrics, legislation, and the integrity of the ritual: there must be a textual and stylistic tie through the tradition and  between the loft and the sanctuary. That means singing the music of the Church and propers of the ritual, giving primacy to Gregorian chant. There is no musical rupture between the old form and the new, or, should not be in any case. The normative music book of the Roman Rite, applicable to both forms, is the Graduale Romanum. The schola must be there to serve as a proxy for the choirs of angels in the re-creation of the drama of salvation. 

Now, obviously I think that the pro-chant side has the better argument here. Sometimes I wonder if the proponents of pop music in parish life are willing to take an honest look at the catastrophic failure of their plans in mainstream parishes. I’ve seen it so many times that I can predict it with near-perfect accuracy. The people for whom this music is composed and drummed up are enervated and exhausted by it. They do not sing along. The endure it, grumble when asked about it, but are too tired of the great music battles to stand up and demand something else. 

What the people sense is that pop music of all sorts, and for all decades in which these tricks have been tried, does not belong in an environment and ritual that is striving to touch eternity through prayer and ritual. Music with a beat and a pop approach is an interruption in this ritual, an annoyance that is struggling against the raison d’etre of the liturgy. Silence would be better. In fact, silence is beautiful; music must be extremely beautiful and perfectly fitting in order to improve upon silence. The music that qualifies in this sense is precisely the music the Church has recommended since the earliest age.

But I do wonder if the ongoing debate about music at Mass has overlooked an incredibly obvious point that is highlighted by the explosive level of interest in this recording project of these French nuns. The obvious point is that chant is enormously popular! Can we not see this? Why not? If the millions and millions of people who buy these CDs and download these albums really felt “alienated” by the style and language, why would they continue to support what is in fact a massive industry?

And consider this. Most popular music is supported by the karaoke effect. People like to sing along with Lady Gaga and Elton John as they listen to this music. They pretend to be pop stars themselves and affect their musical mannerisms and adopt their wacky pronunciations and strange inflections. It’s all great fun. But does anyone believe that the people who buy these chant CDs are doing so in order to play karaoke? Not a chance. People are not singing along with these recordings. They are listening to them. 

Now there’s a new idea! Listening! This is the crux of the matter that is always hiding in the background in the Catholic music debate. The advocates of pop music have some paranoid view that if the schola alone sings a part of the Mass that pertains to the schola alone (such as the Introit or Gradual), the people will sit and seethe with a feeling that they are being excluded and forced to listen to a performance. This fear stems from a profound misunderstanding of the postconcilar ritual, the belief that the old form was overthrown by some sort of revolutionary uprising by the workers and peasants in the pews against the elites in the sanctuary and loft. 

The view that there has been some sort of profound rupture actually has very little evidence to support it. Pope Paul VI himself attempted desperate measures to restore chant to its primary place in his 1974 collection called Jubilate Deo. He said “those who are trying to improve the quality of congregational singing cannot refuse Gregorian chant the place which is due to it.” It was not his fault that his order was completely ignored. As for the fear that the people of God are insisting on unrelenting opportunities to sing, these fears are wholly unwarranted. As the popular of chant recordings illustrate, there is a huge demand for sitting in quiet reflection and listening. This is a form of participation that people have shown a willingness to pay for! 

Now, one might say: oh I’m sure that people in my parish would listen with delight if we could get these sisters or these monks into my parish, but our own singers are not this good! Well, if this is so, we have changed the terms of the debate, haven’t we? It is no longer about what kind of music is appropriate for Mass; it is about the quality of singing. 

If that is true, there are answers. Psalm tone chants in English are a huge improvement over the piles of pop hymns that stuff the missalletes. And these tones can be sung by anyone with virtually no rehearsal. The single biggest improvement that could come to most any parish is to shovel the whole of the existing repertoire out the door and replace it with Psalm tones performed without accompaniment. For that matter, these can be led by a single cantor. As for the ordinary chants of the Mass, the English settings in the Missal are not brilliant but they are so much better than most anything used in the regular parish environment. 

Too often this debate over music in the Catholic Church overlooks all these more-than obvious points I’ve made above. Chant is popular. People like listening to it. It is music of the Roman Rite. It is timeless and renewed in its freshness every time it is sung, in all times and all places. It is the true popular music of Catholicism. 

One final objection to the points I made above is that people are buying chant because it serves as “mood music” and nothing more. Its popularity therefore means nothing. 

I don’t believe this actually. Chant does indeed impart a “mood” and there is nothing wrong with wanting this since the core of that mood is prayer. The world is frighteningly lacking in spaces and places in which people can find this “mood” so it makes sense that people seek it out in recordings.

The popularity of these recordings might in fact be related to its absence in our parishes. It would be a delight if in the future the recordings of these chants would fall in commercial popularity because people have a sense that they can hear the live version every time they walk into their local parishes. 
That day is coming.
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