Tuesday, October 5, 2010

False Choices in Catholic Music

Recent experience has brought to light, in my own mind, some false choices that many of us in the Catholic music world carry around. As we make our way toward a musical framework of the Roman Rite that is more in keeping with what the Council Fathers of Vatican might have imagined, we need to think about some of these issues. Clearing away false choices is a crucial step toward realizing that there are solemn options out there that stand somewhere between the schlock that we’ve lived with for far too long and the all-Gregorian Mass that we all know is the ideal native to the Mass in all its forms.

As regards the entrance, offertory, and communion, the usual choice is a hymn of some sort, perhaps one thematically tied to the season. The other option that I and many others have promoted is the ideal, that is the Gregorian antiphon: introit, offertory, and communion chant. The problem here is that there is a world apart between them. One is metric with a beat, and the other is free rhythm. One rhymes, and one does not. One is in modern notes, the other in neumes. One is in English, and the other is in Latin.

Many people have a very difficult time going from one to the other. The distance is great indeed.
The switch is a big undertaking from a pastoral angle. People worry about the response from the people in the pews. Even good pastors who “get” the music issue can be squeamish. Hardly any schola is prepared to work up three large-scale chants every week unless they are ready to rehearse several hours during a week. Young scholas are not competent enough to handle this. The ideal can be so remote that it is never even tried.

So what is the fallback position? To do a hymn. But this can be very disappointing once you understand the role of propers, which are part of the structure of Mass, both in the textual and musical content. Once we understand that, the world of chant can appear almost like an unreachable Valhalla. It is something we might long for and dream of but we are unwilling to die in combat to get there.

Why is it that we carry around this idea that we must choose one or the other? It must be a leftover from preconcilar times, when high Mass meant the Liber Usualis and low Mass meant pulling material from the St. Gregory hymnal, since it was believe that it is not permitted to sing the propers for low Mass. Hymns were the suitable replacement.

I do wonder if many of us still believe this as a holdover from the old days. In any case, there are not too many examples of other options out there. Between 1969 or so and very recently, parishes nearly universally sang hymns; the few that did not (and there are famous and heroic cases!) were using full Gregorian propers. Models of anything in between were non-existent.

Plenty of folks extant, many of whom are associated with Catholic publishing houses, want Catholics to believe that we must make a choice now and forever between 1) sprightly, jazzy, go-get-’em, pop songs, or 2) dusty, dreary, dreadful music of the inquisition. If that is the choice, there is no question of the results. I hope that the image of chant is beginning to change with great exposure. But what we still lack is the trigger to make the switch from music that does not really belong at Mass to music is that is native to the Mass.

Today, there are in fact many options for the English propers. Most recently, Adam Barlett has been posting Simple English Propers that are highly successful for parish use. They can be sung pretty much on the spot or with a quick rehearsal before Mass. They sound thoroughly Catholic, and thoroughly accessible. You can add as many Psalms to them as necessary. They adapt to different singing styles and really do well in bringing out the text of the proper of the Mass. They are far preferred to singing a hymn with a text from from an outside source. Or they can be used in conjunction with a hymn. Pastors should be pointing their musicians to them. They are a fantastic bridge from one world to the next.

In addition, there are many settings of propers now available mostly online, some composed in the 1960s but others being worked on right now, by, for example, Frs. Samuel Weber and Columba Kelly. There are alternative traditions that are well developed in the form of the Anglican Use Gradual. Others are in preparation. These strikes me as the most viable method forward. And what’s great about all of them is not only their inherent textual integrity but their relationship to the chant. They all point the way forward toward the Gregorian ideal.

The objection to all schola-sung propers is immediately raised: what about the people and their expectation of singing at the entrance, offertory, and communion? I’ve come to realize that the belief that either the people sing or the schola sings might in fact be another example of a false choice.

We should know by now that by Protestant standards the singing of the Catholic people, even under the best of conditions (one of the four hymns that Catholics tend to sing; can you name them?), the singing is still comparatively tepid. It is nearly always the case that the cantor or schola is driving forward the production of music, while the people’s voices, among those who choose to sing, are a shadow of a reflection of the primary voice of the cantor or schola.

Now, when I say things like this, I always receive communications from people who tell me of some congregation somewhere that has hugely loud and robust singing, crowds of people in the pews who are giving it their all at full volume. I’m not in a position to dispute this but I’ve been to regular parishes in most parts of the country, and I’ve never once been taken aback at the incredible singing (except at the extraordinary form recessional when the choice is Salve Regina).

Most of the time, the congregation is divided between those who refuse to pick up a hymnal, those who pick up a hymnal and vaguely mouth the words, and those who make slight attempts to produce something resembling a melody. In every case I’ve ever been part of as a person in the pew, my own singing can pretty much dominate an entire congregation, eliciting looks of shock and awe in every direction, as if people are thinking: “what the heck is with this guy? Doesn’t he know that Catholics don’t do that?”

In any case, my point is that these propers I am speaking about are all structured to highlight the text, using melodies that are largely formulaic and repeated. Those who want to join in the singing have every possibility of doing so, as robustly or more so than they would be singing the hymns in the first place. For those who would rather just speak the words as the cantor sings, that is possible, because not as fine a line divides speaking from singing when it comes to this kind of music.

In the Catholic ideal, to sing the entrance, offertory, and communion chants is the job of the schola and not the people, while the people are later called upon to sing the ordinary chants of the Mass that are repeated every week. This reflects the great wisdom of liturgical tradition and the division of labor: it makes sense that non-specialists would sing what is familiar but not be called upon to sing what is unfamiliar. In this way, these English antiphons begin to socialize the congregation into a greater degree of liturgical comportment during these periods of the Mass, so that they can watch the processions or prepare for communion or otherwise be mercifully left alone.
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