Friday, September 9, 2011

The Brilliance of László Dobszay

The more I understand about the topic of Catholic music, the more it seems that music and liturgy are really inseparable. The mark of a truly mature musician in the Catholic Church is the understanding that it isn't really about the music after all but rather the integral contribution that music makes to the overall ritual.

A goal of the liturgy reform at Vatican II was to achieve this more fully; the effect has been the opposite: to completely shatter the relationship between the loft and the sanctuary. The main objective today is draw them together again. This is more important than any other personal taste in music or parish political agenda.

One man who worked very hard over the last decades to explain the problem and provide solutions was the Hungarian musicologist and chant expert László Dobszay (1934-2011). I was stunned to hear of his death, and I'm sure many others feel the same way. He was a visionary, a genius, a truly innovative and brilliant thinker who understood the Roman Rite like few other living people. He was a mentor to me through his writings and his drive. He was also a very dear man.

The presence of a mind like this in the world makes a person like me absolutely afraid to write anything at all, simply because he possessed universal knowledge of a topic that I can only hope to understand in fragments. But rather than look down on what I wrote or tell me that I should stop until I had mastered what I need to know, he was always incredibly encouraging, enthusiastic, gentle, helpful, and happy to see that so many people in his last years had taken up his cause.

He must have felt like a lone warrior for all those prior decades. A champion of Dobszay's work has been Fr. Robert Skeris, who worked to bring Dobszay's writing to an English audience. When I first read the Skeris-edited book The Bugnini Liturgy and the Reform of the Reform, I was absolutely stunned. It seemed to bring everything together for me. I even recall reading the book while standing in line to pay for groceries!

Here was a severe critic of the structure and rubrics of what is known as the ordinary form today who was by no means an uncritical champion of the older form of Mass. Neither politics nor nostalgia interested Dobszay. He was passionate about the truth above all else. And the two truths that this book drove home were 1) the Roman Rite is intended to be a sung liturgy, and 2) the propers of the Mass are the source text for what is to be sung by the choir.

A reform that he championed was once considered outrageous: he wanted the permission to replace Mass propers with some other text to be completely repealed. The propers must never, under any conditions, be neglected. I've come around to this view. So have many, many others. In fact, it is a rather common view now, and one that even finds growing support in each successive translation of the General Instruction on the Roman Missal.

Of course he was a master in understanding the Gregorian tradition, and a true champion of the universal language of the Roman ritual. However, he was also nearly alone, for many years, in being an advocate of sung vernacular propers in the ordinary form.

For years, I couldn't understand his thinking here. Why vernacular? Well, Dobszay saw that there was a step missing in the achievement of the ideal if we expect to take a leap from the prevailing practice of pop songs with random text to Latin chant from the Graduale Romanum. That step was to sing the Mass texts in the vernacular according to a chant-based idiom drawn from our long musical tradition.

He turns out to be incredibly correct on this point. In fact, he was the true inspiration behind the Simple English Propers, book that has permitted regular parishes to start singing chant for the first time. This book and so many others are part of his legacy that he left in this world. In fact, I would even suggest that the new translation of the Roman Missal that is implemented this Advent owes much to his influence.

Just this week, I had a conversation with a dedicated Church musician who had converted to the chant cause and implemented sung propers in Latin in her parish. This approach was making gains in Mass after Mass for two solid years. Then one day the pastor came to her and said: “I’m not really sure that the introit you are singing really serves its purpose. I think the people are afraid of the Latin, regard the schola as somewhat separate from everything else, and I fear that this approach is alienating people.”

She was stunned and of course bristled. But what the pastor says goes, as we all know. Tragically, progress stopped. Now the parish is back to singing English hymns that are not part of the Mass proper. They are just hymn selections chosen the same week from a check list of possible pieces to sing. The choir was no longer singing the liturgy; it was singing something else.

So what went wrong? It would be perhaps too easy to say that the pastor was a liberal holdover who didn’t get the Roman Rite. His impressions may or may not have been right, but it is crucial to consider that his objection was not to Mass propers but rather to Latin. It was the Latin that the congregation had not really been prepared for. This was the sticking point.

I’m gradually beginning to realize this myself. The vernacularization of the liturgy is something we need to come to terms with as we think about strategies moving forward. It is simply a matter of thinking through, very carefully, the stages of reform. We do not want to leap ahead until the ground is prepared. Perhaps, then, it would be best to begin to English propers and work toward Latin as seems pastorally wise in parts of the Mass such as communion, or perhaps only at selected Mass times.

This was precisely what Dobszay had concluded after years of working with choirs and parishes in Hungary. This is why he spent an equal amount of his time on Latin as Hungarian propers, and why he pioneered so many efforts to restore Mass propers to the rightful place regardless of the language.

The critique of this might be: you are neglecting the greatest masterpieces of music that the Church has to offer in favor of reductions and doing so only for practical reasons! To this I would respond: these masterpieces are not being heard right now. Right now, people are singing pop music that has nothing to do with the Mass. This approach must end before we can really achieve must else. Reductions in the vernacular can still be beautiful and they at least lay the groundwork for future progress. We have to get on the right track before we can get to where we need to be going.

The right track does not include pop music. Sung propers in plainchant integrate with the Christian liturgy so that it can become a seamless whole again. Dobszay understood this. He was very wise, and way ahead of his time. Though he has left this world, his writings and personal inspiration provide a template for the current generation of Catholic musicians to making lasting progress in healing the great division between liturgy and music.