Friday, May 6, 2011

The Summer of Sacred Music

This summer is going to be huge for the cause of sacred music. There are new resources coming out - pioneering ones that are going to make a massive difference over time - and there are some fantastic events that are designed to train. Above all else is the extremely important event of the preparations for the Third Edition of the Roman Missal. As I've written many times, the significant change with this Missal is not in what people say - though there are difference here - but rather what they hear. The celebrants parts are much closer to reflecting the meaning and cadence of the real Roman Rite. It will be like nothing most Catholics have ever experienced, and the authenticity and solemnity will be obvious on that first glorious day, the First Sunday of Advent.

There are a number of spin-off projects in play right now that are going to complement this Missal change in a beautiful way.

Let us begin with the Simple English Propers that have long been posted in beta form on the and are hosted in permanent form on Defying every expectation that such books take many years to produce, every sign points to a possible final release date this year of July. Even more remarkable, we could have copies ready for local distribution during the Sacred Music Colloquium, which is enough reason to register right now for this event. My own view is that this book stands the single greatest chance of inspiring fundamental change in Catholic liturgy as we know it.

The SEP is not just another reprinting of Gregorian chant in Latin. The resources for that are already available. The Gregorian will always remain the normative ideal, consistent with the words of the Second Vatican Council. However, it should be perfectly obvious, after 40 years of struggle, that the gap between the present praxis and the ideal is too vast. The danger of not have resources to get from here to there is that Gregorian chant, embedded in the propers and ordinary parts of the Mass, takes on the the air of a kind of "Fantasy Island." It is something to respect, something to dream about, something to practice and sing on your own, something to do on your summer vacation, but not something to actually do in your local parish.

This is a serious problem and the problem is reinforced by the complete absence of an in-print resource that can be viably used in the parish as a device for transitioning from the hymn-only Mass to one where there is a pastorally hospitable environment for the authentic chants of the Roman Rite to take root.

The Simple English Propers are that resource - that missing link between the current reality and the dream of a full-blown ordinary form Mass that is linked to the beauties and the solemenity of tradition. Yes, it should have come out many years ago, even as early as 1970 when the new Mass was promulgated. But we have to let bygones be bygones and move forward.

The difference that the SEP can make is very exciting to contemplate. Now we will have one book -- it will be about 425 pages and will be super affordable -- that we can give to musicians: use this instead of all those songs. To sing from it requires very rudimentary knowledge of the four-line staff, so there will be some learning that needs to take place. This is good. Musicians should have to work just a little bit. This teaches valuable lessons. Also the music is unaccompanied, so there is essential vocal training that will go on here. Once those two issues are conquered, the singers will be ready to go for the full liturgical year. And keep in mind: this book has the real texts of the Mass in chant form in English, and enough music to cover the fully liturgical action during entrance, offertory, and communion.

Just to contemplate this - an actual way out of the current cul de sac - is an enormous relief. It will cause millions of people to breath a great sigh of relief.

There is more to say about this collection. The old problem of whether the schola or the people are to sing the propers is bypassed entirely with these chants. Just as with hymns, the main responsibility belongs to the schola. But unlike hymns, the people do not need to be hectored to sing. If the schola alone sings them, great. If people have the desire to sing along on the second or third repetition of the antiphon, it is their right to do so. And you know what? I suspect that they will. It would be a great irony if the SEP actually ends up inspiring more singing from the people than we are used to with the the Ecleasy Listening genre, which clearly has not done what it is supposed to have done.

But let me leave that aside and draw your attention to another book of propers that will be coming out in print. It is the masterful set of choral propers in English by Richard Rice. Again, we might have some in print for distribution at the Colloquium. He wrote these in the 1980s (I think) for local use but they are so good that even limited digital distribution has caused them to be used by many dozens of parishes already. Again, having them in print will put them over the top. They complement the SEP and the new translation beautifully.

A third exciting book are Chanted English Psalms by Arlene Oost-Zinner. We are raising money for this book now. We hope to raise $5,000 by October for this, so that they can be released in time for Advent. These Psalms are the best in English, in my opinion. They come very close to suggesting the sensibility of the old Gradual but they stay with the Responsorial Psalm format. All the verses are pointed and notated, which makes them very easy for any choir to sing along with the people. And again, they are written with a four-line staff and are intended to be sung without instruments.

As regards events, the first full-scale workshop on a fully sung English Mass - I say first because I know of know other in the United States since the promulgation of the ordinary form - takes place in Kalamazoo, Michigan, on June 4. This is an event you will certainly want to attend if possible.

It is highly likely, but not yet confirmed, that we will be using the new texts for the demonstration Mass on the evening of the event. In some ways, what we will be working toward is the Mass that might have been imagined during the closing months of the Second Vatican Council, at least as an option. This kind of solemnity in the vernacular is the third way that was never pushed after the Council and certainly after liturgical music went off the rails. This workshop helps stitch together our past with our future in a way that is consistent with tradition and legislation.

Finally, there is the Sacred Music Colloquium itself. The conducting staff is absolutely dazzling. The music is over-the-top amazing. The attendees this year are from a very interesting demographic. They are mostly people who have never been exposed to the richness of the deep Catholic musical tradition. This is wonderful because it means that 250 singers will be trained in a new way of doing things and be prepared to spread the good news starting in the Fall when they return home to their parishes.

Let me end with an appeal. The Church Music Association of America is the organization that is doing all of this, and doing it on a shoestring budget that barely makes ends meet. It benefits mainly from volunteer efforts. With some funding, amazing things can happen. If you are looking for a way to spend your charitable dollars in a manner that will be a great benefit to Catholic liturgy -- and therefore Catholic life -- this is the way to go. Give generously to this organization that is doing so much to realize the dream of the liturgical movement. instead of just griping about the past or the present, the CMAA is working hard to make change happen in our time.