Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Music Is Here, Forty Years Late

Sixteen years ago, I found myself vaguely in charge of providing music at one Mass (vigil on Saturday) at my local parish. I had very little notion of what precisely was wrong with the existing music - that something was wrong was very obvious - much less how I could go about fixing it. I only knew the broad outlines and had broad principles of how to get there. Chant was best, I knew because Vatican II said so, but not really viable.

I had a Liber Usualis but no real clue about how to sing from it much less apply it to the ordinary form of Mass. Like most musicians in those days, I worked with what the parish had and tried to improve it on the margin: four decent hymns and a Psalm that I had to write and voice each week because the existing resource struck me as essentially silly.

Where was the source material? What about a decent setting of the Mass ordinary? Is there nothing else besides hymns to sing at these various spots? Why must there be these periodic bursts of music during and after the consecration? What are the controlling documents for dealing with all these problems? Did anyone really know what was going on?

The year was 1995, and the world wide web was just getting off the ground. No one had a copy of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. There were no music downloads. Even getting a copy of the music books pertaining to the Roman Rite was exceedingly difficult in a town without a Catholic book store. As for mailing lists, I guess I wasn’t on the right ones.

My plight was the plight of most Catholic musicians in those days, and so it had been from the mid 1970s, when the last of the well-trained Catholic musicians had been run off from the parishes. Confusion reigned. We did the best we could but we had virtually no tools, musical or intellectual. I got together with some singers and we sang Ubi Caritas after communion and Adoro Te when possible. But apart from these little bits and pieces, there could be no real improvement at the core.

We knew nothing of Mass propers, nothing of the Gregorian Missal, nothing of alternative Psalm settings, nothing of any English or Latin chant dealing with the ordinary of the Mass. I had heard of a tiny movement that was singing chant here and there around the country, but I had no access to training or method or sheet music.

Just thinking about these days - they lasted for some 40 years! - it is mind boggling how far we’ve come. Today, there is no reason for barely competent composers to attempt to write their own Psalms. They are all free for the download. So too with the music. Even the chant books themselves are everything. The GIRM is online. Most importantly, there are vast tutorials, communities, and educational resources available to anyone who looks them up. There are national conferences that attract hundreds. Every few weeks, it seems, there is another training session in Gregorian chant taking place somewhere. You can download all the propers of the Mass in English or Latin, in myriad settings.

It’s been one long upward climb, day by day, week by week. Finding the truth about Catholic music been like discovery a great lost city. We’ve learned where it is we need to be and discovered ways to get from here to there. The forty years in the desert are coming to an end. The evidence might not have hit your local parish but there is not question that it will at some point. Hundreds are undergoing training. The resources are finally there. There is light at the end of this long tunnel.

Just in the last week, three major developments portend a beautiful future. First, the USCCB announced that it is at the discretion of local Bishops as to whether they would like to use the new texts for the Mass starting this fall rather than waiting for Advent. The wonderful thing: the music that is most accessible to parishes is from the forthcoming Missal itself. This music is chant. It is sung by people using the real texts of the Mass. It is unaccompanied. Every parish can use this music as the basis of a solemn and participatory liturgical structure.

The music is free for the download, thanks to the surprising foresight of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy. Many Bishops and pastors have already said that they will use the Missal chants as part of a national push for a standardized Mass setting that all the people can sing. One year ago, this seems like an implausible hope. Today it seems eminently possible.

At the very same time, the first book of chant Mass propers in English for the ordinary form of the Mass has come into print. The author/composer is Adam Bartlett. They are designed to take the place of what is usually the processional, offertory, and communion hymns. They are not some random text and song but rather the real text of the Mass together with appropriate songs. They are chanted in the same mode as the traditional Gregorian. They are accessible for every single parish in this country.

The Simple English Propers are available for free download sharing. Even so, the book is also in print, a 460-page hardback for $17.50. They were available at the Sacred Music Colloquium this year and completely sold out. They were put on sale at Amazon and the sales ranking shot up in 4,000 overnight - demonstrating high demand. There will surely be other Mass propers collections, but this is the first, and already the interest around the English-speaking world is extremely high. Many parishes already use them. At last, there is a book that covers the main parts of Mass and that can be sung by anyone!

A third resource has appeared at the same time. Choral settings of the Mass propers by Richard Rice have been published by the Church Music Association of America. They were on sale at the colloquium and they sold out within one hour. They too are available on Amazon. They are simple, dignified, and beautiful. They can be sung by any choir with four voices. Once again, when they are used, the choir is not only singing at Mass but singing the text of the Mass itself.

So there we have it all, forty years after the promulgation of the ordinary form of the Mass. We are getting a new Missal with chants to sing. We have the propers of the Mass in vernacular chant and in choral settings. And we have Psalms we can download and sing. The hope is that by October, we will also have simple chanted Responsorial Psalms also in print and ready for global distribution.

It makes me sad to think of all the years that have been wasted, but also makes me wild with excitement to know of what faces us in the future. There will be no more wallowing ignorance and musical poverty. We know know what to do, and we have the resources to do it. I’m deeply grateful for all the colleagues and friends I’ve been blessed to have during this long journey from darkness to light.

In the years ahead, I feel sure that people will look back in amazement at all the years in which we wandered in the desert, trying to find a way out. But for now, let’s just look ahead and praise God for what this generation has been given. It is now left to us to go out and make the difference.