Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Tradition, Going and Coming

A really strange irony in Catholic liturgical life runs as follows. During and following the Second Vatican Council, there was a brief period of transition from old to new, a time when new resources were pouring out that were leading us out of tradition and toward a new conception of liturgy. These resources included, in the first instance, editions of the Roman Missal that used the vernacular. There were editions of English plainchant coming out. There were books of seasonal propers (I’ve never really understood what this phrase could mean), most famously the Graduale Simplex.

In many ways, these resources were both good and bad. The traditionalists of the time were right to be wary of what was happening. The sudden appearance of the vernacular in 1965 was a reversal of a tradition of more than a millennium. The pace at which the holy tongue was being abandoned was very scary and threatened to unleash unknown confusions.

For one thing, there is a grave danger that something unknown would be lost in a poorly-thought-out transition from a fixed universal language to the disunity that comes with dozens of different languages in which every word is subject to a different interpretation. There was the danger that doctrinal and liturgical unity, carefully fostered through the ages, would suddenly disintegrate.

Something that very few Bishops considered that the musicians did understand concerned the fate of the music of the Roman Rite. The tunes of the ordinary settings of the Mass, which had stabilized for many hundreds of years, were very much tied to the Latin language. This is true with all music, not just ritual music. Try singing Happy Birthday to the English-language tune but substitute a German translation. You have to add and take away notes, and even then the emphasis is all wrong. It is a bad fit. At the very least, there are some puzzles to solve and much to be lost.

For some reason, non-musicians have a hard time getting this point. Many Bishops and reformers just figured that this was no big deal. Just put the English words in, said Annibale Bugnini, or just write new music. As the architect of the reform, his autobiography reveals that he could not figure out what the musicians were so hysterical about. He just didn’t get it.

He never understood that to change the language of ritual music threatens the entire body of work. This is true enough with the ordinary of the Mass (which the 1965 Missal in the U.S. put into English) but especially true of the propers of the Mass. The body of work known as the propers are the very foundation of development of music (in the West) for 1000 years. They are precious works of art, each one of them. Changing the language here is an act of artistic violence, akin to taking a wrecker ball to all the cathedrals of Europe. But when musicians made these points, the liturgists looked at them like they were fanatics who didn’t get the needs of changing times.

Change happened anyway. There were attempts to come up with English translations of the Mass and English propers of the Mass, along with Psalms. How we look at these depends on your point of view. From one perspective, these attempts were exceedingly dangerous to tradition. On the other hand, they had merit in that they were earnest attempts to comply with the vernacular trends without totally throwing out tradition, saving perhaps the baby even if the bath water was being thrown out.

From this second point of view, these resources were conservatizing devices. They attempted to reconcile new reality with what had come before. To be sure, this was a time of great confusion and the arguments were intense and led to wicked personal splits and acrimony.

These transitional materials, appearing between 1963 and about 1968, were very short lived. Many of them are now online, made available by Musicasacra.com and currently being used by many parishes that are working their way back to tradition.

How can this be? Well, by the late 1960s, it had become clear that all kinds of hell had been unleashed. Experimental Masses were taking place all over the country that involved blues, rock, phony folk, and plain old goofy music that bore absolutely no marks of the sacred. By they time that history rolled around to settling on the music of the St. Louis Jesuits, many people were relieved that at least it was religious music and somewhat calm compared to the upheaval they had just gone through.

But in some ways, other sectors were getting worse. There was also the problem of the new translation of 1969/70, which had very little of the dignity of the English we saw in the 1965 edition. The new translation seem to reinforce the impression that the Roman Rite would travel very far from what it had been. An ethos in the liturgical world developed that essentially praised anything new while regarding anything old as regrettable and marked for destruction in time.

So the four-hymn model of music, initiated in the preconcilar low Mass, and then receiving reinformcement from the experimental days of the late 1960s, became the norm, and here is where we have been stuck for all these decades.

With the dawning of a new consciousness concerning the propers of Mass, and the rise of new interesting in what we’ve left being (primarily the very Gregorian chant at the Second Vatican Council gave primary place at Mass), many people have discovered the resources of the early and mid 1960s, and find them to be very valuable for helping us move forward out of the current rut and into a ritual that is artistically and theologically worthy of its aims.

This means that vernacular chant is being rediscovered. The seasonal propers of the Graduale Simplex are being rediscovered. The nobler and dignified English of the 1965 Missal is being rediscovered. And each of them are being implemented in our parishes. The irony is that insted of leading us away from tradition - which might have been their historical function - they are leading us back to tradition. It’s like a car that has driven so far from its path that the only way out is to retrace the path from whence it came.

I’ve written several times that 2011 feels a lot like what I imagine 1965 felt like: a time of transition and change. And the same old factions are at it again, arguing about norms and practical issues. But haven’t we learned from the intervening years? The path forward as mapped out in the early 1970s was a path away from where we need to be. It is path to nowhere.

Cardinal Newman had a conception of the Roman Church has always developing and always moving, and, in this respect, it is different from other faith traditions. This presents both dangers and opportunities. For us today, this is a great opportunity to get back on the right path, rediscover what we left aside, and move forward to embrace truly timeless and universal forms of our beloved ritual.

(Comment moderation is now in effect for this site.)