Saturday, August 13, 2011

An Integrated Trio of Propers

Choirs that are just starting to sing the propers of the Mass, whether in Latin or English chant, usually begin with the communion chant. This is for a number of reasons, all justified. The next step is the offertory, usually sung in English and not the original Latin chant. The last of the propers to be sung with its correct purpose in mind is the entrance, and the delay is mainly because of the (faulty) perception that it would be a trauma to end the practice of singing a rousing hymn at the opening of Mass.

In any case, any progress on any of these chants of the Mass is great. As William Mahrt has emphasized, the chant is not just a pretty piece of music. Each serves a liturgical function that is reflected in the music and text.

The communion action is more elevated with the proper communion chant. So too for the offertory, which, when the chant is sung, becomes a liturgical action of importance rather than just a time to sit and sing. The entrance strikes me as enormously important in this respect. It makes a clear statement about where we are and what we are doing, establishing the aesthetic and theological tone for all that follows.

Well, in my own parish, we’ve been fussy about singing the propers for years, but we’ve tended to mix and match styles and language within each Mass, based on the availability of singers and rehearsal time. The piece from the Latin chant in the Graduale Romanum that we have tended to keep on the shelf is the offertory, choosing rather to sing an English setting.

For the first time this past weekend, our schola managed to do all three from the Graduale Romanum. This was a revelation to me. The effect was very striking. It was no longer the case that each of the propers appeared in isolation part of a time-bound liturgical action. Instead, they were integrated more in the sense of a musical suite. The offertory seemed to recall the entrance, and, in retrospect, the memory of the entrance seems like a foreshadowing of what happened later. It was the same with the communion, which seemed to recall the entrance and offertory and tie the entire liturgical experience together in a balanced and beautiful way from start to finish.

To be sure, I’ve sung in many Masses that used all three. At the colloquium each year, we do this every day. I sang for the extraordinary form for years at a parish. We’ve had workshops where this happened. But, I tell you, there is nothing quite like a regular Sunday parish Mass - your own parish -  to test a theory and observe the results. The special occasion Masses are always special but the proof of a musical and liturgical idea is in its regular, routine use in a normal setting.

I found the unity of the trio of Gregorian propers to be nothing short of perfect in every way. It was remarkably balanced. No longer did a Latin piece seem like the strange outlier in an otherwise English liturgy. The consistent use of the Latin seemed to “normalize” the textual and musical language throughout. This was the notable thing, the added advantage of singing all three. It was not merely a matter of piling on more of a good thing. There was a sense in which all three in the proper use and place became a single piece of music.

Of course there are practical advantages and even aesthetic ones from the addition of variety in the propers: some English, some Latin, some choral. There is nothing wrong with that and this will continue to be our normal way, as it is in growing numbers of parishes. I’m only drawing attention to what I found unexpected, that there are notable advantages to unifying a theme when and if this is possible. This suggests to me that this consideration is worth adding as an aspiration going forward.

These observations really do raise a more fundamental point and it concerns how we go about evaluating liturgical music. Right now, all choirs, pastors, and directors of music are busying themselves shopping for new music for the third edition of the Roman Missal. We have three months to do this, and the way people go about doing this is listening to MP3 samples online, watching youtubes, sight-reading scores, and perhaps getting a group together in the choir room to sing through the choices.

This is unavoidable of course but it is fraught with problems. A Gloria heard from your laptop is going to be a different piece of music with a different effect than the same Gloria sung in your parish Mass. A sanctus setting heard on a youtube is very different from the same piece that occurs in the liturgy at the crucial time during the Eucharistic prayer. Nor can we just stare at a page with black notes and gain a sense of precisely what it will be like in the space and time in which is serves a liturgical function. In is different piece of music when embedded in its intended home and place.

Of course we can judge its musical merit in some sense, but even here, there is reason to be careful. Something can look ridiculously simple on a page. But when used in liturgy, it can emerge as beautiful, elegant, quiet prayer, something beautifully suited for its purpose. Just look at a Psalm tone for example. On the page, it is only a few notes with the same not repeated again and again. In liturgy, it becomes nothing short of angelic.

This is why it is just a profound error to judge liturgical music the same way that we would judge a song on the radio or something selected for us by the “genius” setting on the iTunes software.

There is a real danger to the presumption that we can really make that final judgement on our own, outside the spiritual and theological environment of the real liturgy. I’ve heard this time and again with regard to the Simple English Propers, for example. On paper, they might seem uneventful. In real life, they are just thrilling. This is because our voices and the text are no longer isolated things but rather mix into the mysteries of the liturgical action. The melodies take flight under these conditions.

It was real-life liturgy that illustrated for me the point of integrated styles on the use of sung propers. This is really the only context in which we can presume to use our own judgement to evaluate. Once again - and inevitably - the only music truly perfect for the Roman Rite is the music of the Roman Rite itself.
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