Thursday, August 26, 2010

Toward the Singing of Propers

We are at the beginnings of moment for music at Mass that many have hoped and prayed for over many decades since the close of the Second Vatican Council. Many people at many levels of the Church have begun a new push for singing the Mass rather than just singing at Mass. That means revisiting the propers of the Mass that are intimately bound up with the liturgical calender. In particular, the most neglected of the Mass propers are the entrance, offertory, and communion chants. In most all parishes, the prevailing practice is to replace these chants with hymns.


Hymns are what the publishers publish. Whether the supply follows demand or the demand follows the supply is not entirely clear. But in any case, the promulgation of the new Missal translation also invites all musicians and publishers to rethink this prevailing mode, toward the goal of singing the actual texts of the Mass. As always Gregorian chant is the ideal. However, that ideal is not a very viable starting place for most parishes right now. This is going to require new resources for a new era.

In general, I detect two very different groups of musicians now working at the parish level. The first group knows what the propers are. They understand that chant is the ideal. They are familiar with plainsong and its sensibility. They vaguely glimpse the ideals and hope to achieve them someday. They want to improve. They are making progress toward the goal. But they are limited by their pastors, their resources, and pastoral issues concerning what the people except out of music at Mass. These musicians know what they want to do but have no real way of getting there. They must watch carefully and be extremely wise as they proceed.

The second group is far more like what we find in the conventional parish. The members of this group know nothing of the structure of the Roman Rite. They have never heard of propers. The word "ordinary chants" means nothing to them. They had never sung anything without groovy accompaniments. They have never wrapped their mouths around Latin. They've been fed a steady diet of made-to-order mush for decades and they know of nothing else.

They had no idea of their own ignorance, for they might have attended national conventions for several years and consider themselves to be educated in some measure. Of course they are unsatisfied with what they are doing but have no idea that there might be something better and they aren't very keen on working hard to get it if they did know.

The first group is excited about the new translation. The second group is very scared about the new translation. These people fear change. The kind of change that I would suggest -- a huge leap to Gregorian chant -- is absolutely unthinkable.

You know what both groups need? They need a resource for getting started on singing the real propers of the Church. I began to dig around the other day for books that are available. Most all are online and not offline. There is Flowing Waters by Paul Ford that is in print, but I think that is probably the only thing out there and they are seasonal propers, not weekly propers. Online, there is Fr. Kelly but that lacks offertory propers and, actually, these are too difficult for the second group. There are other resources like the Anglican Use Gradual (language is antiquated in ways I like but others do not), Fr. Arbogasts’s book from 1966 (follows old calendar and it is incomplete), Bruce Ford’s American Gradual (fantastic but too difficult for many right now), the Palmer-Burgess Gradual (if you can sing this, you can sing the Graduale), and others along the same lines.

So far as I know, there is not a single book out there of Sunday propers in English for the Ordinary Form that regular musicians can sing, with their existing skill sets, that would connect with our history and provide a bridge to chant. In other words, we are missing the one resource to get people going on singing the propers of the Mass, right now. Whether we are talking about group one or group two, there is nothing out there that one can grab off the shelf on Sunday morning that allows for the singing of propers in the way that ICEL is currently suggesting.

That is a remarkable fact in its own right. One would think that there would be dozens of in-print options, but there are not. The dream of Vatican II remains elusive. The lack of resources is one major problem. What it means is that the entire English-speaking Church lacks the readily accessible rope to enable musicians to crawl out of the mess they've found themselves in.

However, the realization of problems, and the demand for answers, are the first steps toward a solution. I expect that this will be forthcoming, sooner rather than later. The important fact is that the consciousness has dawned, that the ship has started to turn, that we are on the road toward progress here.

I don’t think the significance of the new translation and the new emphassi by ICEL can be overstated. In fact, I’m slightly amazed that there hasn’t been more attention in the Catholic press on this whole matter, and my only explanation is that liturgical questions are just off the charts in ways they should not be. But no matter: as the saying goes, how we pray determines how we believe and live. In this sense, we have more reason for hope now than in half a century.
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