Sunday, January 30, 2011

The King's Speech, and Ours

The King’s Speech is a extraordinary movie ostensibly about a stuttering King George VI who overcomes a disability to deliver an important radio address to a nation faced with war. That might sound like the most boring plot ever, but when you consider the broader theme, you can see why this film has penetrated so deeply into the minds and hearts of viewers.

Actually, the film is not really “about” a particular historical case. It is about everyone who has ever found himself or herself thrust into a position that calls on particular talents that he or she does not possess. If you have been there, you know what it is like to stare off into the abyss, that sense that the zone you are about to enter could lead to personal humiliation - which is, in some way, the most terrifying fear that we experience on this earth. To face it requires unusual determination. It calls on work and steadfastness of spirit. It means having to learn new skills and face the difficulties that come with all personal upgrades in life.

If someone has not faced this problem, that person just hasn’t lived long or broadly enough. The time will come. That such a time came for the King of English rivets our minds and imaginations - and brings some measure of comfort too. And his manner in overcoming the problem - seeking help and calling upon every internal resource one can find - is truly an inspiration. No one is born into this world without limitations, and sometimes the greatest thing we can accomplish in this world is achieved not because of our inherent abilities but because we overcame a disability.

There is another similar story like this as found in the body of Gregorian chant. It is the offertory Precatus est Moyses in conspectu Domini Dei sui, which tells of a prayer to God by Moses, who, we will recall, objected to the idea that he could have any real leadership role because he has a stammer. The stammer appears in the chant itself, repeating in music and words the whole line: Precatus est Moyses in conspectu Domini Dei sui et dixit - one of the rare times in all of chant where this happens. Many scholars believe it is to underscore and reveal the stammer that followed him his entire life.

Musicians who sing in parishes at Catholic Mass understand this feeling all too well. Most of us - professionals exempted but not necessarily - have a profound feeling of inadequacy. There is a moment before a chant begins in which the room is completely filled with silence, that most beautiful thing. Our voices must break that silence with a pitch, a pitch we have mostly imagined or perhaps heard on a pipe blown very quietly. Then we must already imagine the intervals we must sing, and we know that if we miss a half step, the entire piece can be blown to bits.

No matter how many times I do this, no matter how well I know the chant, there is that feeling that occurs just as I open my mouth to sing, a feeling of insecurity, a fear that this will be the time when it won’t work and I will fall apart. And at that moment, we fear, it will be obvious to one and all that all we are and all we do is a fraud. And yet we must face up to it and do it, time after time, again and again, and the better job we do at this, the easier it appears to outsiders who can’t even imagine just how tricky, difficult, and angst-inspiring this really is.

Why don’t more people step forward and sing in our choirs? For the same reason the King would rather not have given the speech. For the same reason that Moses would have preferred to remain in the background. For the same reason that most of today’s singers in Gregorian chant choirs sat on the back pew in the parish for years and stayed completely silent. In fact, I would say that this reluctance, this fear, is good and healthy: it shows that the singer is not in it for fame or glory but rather because of an inner sense of a duty to serve and do the right thing.

We all know that there are too many singing groups in parishes today who are there precisely because they enjoy the opportunity to perform. They are using the liturgy for their own purposes. There is a way to change this motivation and turn their egos toward service: give them a real challenge but asking them to sing not pop music but genuine liturgical music that is bound on all sides by the demands of the liturgical text. They will be asked to sing without instruments and sing music of a different sort. This demand will test their devotion to the cause - and one hopes that they will rise to the occasion and feel that sense of caution and awe that chant musicians feel every week.

It is something we are all being challenged to do every week. In some way, actually, the Catholic Church is asking for something truly impossible - impossible in the sense that all miracles are impossible but still realizable. The Church is asking for beautiful, holy, and sacred music to appear at least once every week in every parish in the world. How is this possible? Only by virtue of a widespread acceptance of a mandate, and a widespread overcoming of disability, through hard work and dedication.. We need more people to accept the challenge that Moses accepted, and that the King in the film accepted. Despite our limitations, despite our stammers and fears, we must face the challenge and sing.

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