Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Issue Is Not High or Low Church

Inmates attend Mass in a Florida prison
I found myself on the phone yesterday with a reporter from a national news outlet. Assigned a story on the rise of chant, he was trying to come to terms with the Catholic music situation today. As the conversation proceeded, I began to get an inkling of his own understandings and biases that need to be addressed.

In this case, I think he hit on a confusion that might be more common than we think. He had an idea that the current struggle for the future of Catholic music could be divided into the camps of high and low church.

This is emphatically not the case.

The traditional distinction between “high church” and “low church” approaches to worship has long been a feature of debates within protestantism -- or, more specifically, debates within Anglicanism.

In the broadest terms - and there are many permutations of this - the group that is “high church’ favors classical music, formality in dress and posture, strict poses and sermons, lots of accouterments, and a throne-and-altar approach to politics.

The “low church” group de-emphasizes finery and postures, embraces a more common aesthetic, employs simpler and more accessible musical styles, has a more open attitude toward other denominations, and favors a democratic and egalitarian approach to politics.

So far as I can tell, this division has absolutely nothing to do with the current Catholic situation. Or rather, to the extent that this does describe the current division over Catholic liturgy, it is yet another demonstration that something has gone profoundly wrong.

Class differences in worship styles are inevitable and normal but they need not be a fixed part of the Catholic landscape. They are certainly not intrinsic features of the ritual. There is one Roman Rite in two forms and these are suitable for all peoples of all classes. And the same is true of the music and of liturgical aesthetics generally.

Picture a lone priest saying Mass in a small hut in missionary territory on a remote mountain in Ecuador. There are only a few people there. The hut has a dirt floor and a grass roof that leaks. Bugs are everywhere. There is no electricity. He says Mass quietly Latin, ad orientem. The sound you hear mostly is from the outside. Otherwise it is quiet.

Now try to evaluate with the Anglican-style categories. Is this “high church” or “low church?” The divisions don’t make any sense really. If the celebrant follows the Missal, it doesn’t matter where it is or who is there. It is the same Mass whether it is said in a prison cell or in Chartes. Most Catholics thoroughly understand this point.

Now let’s just consider the chants in the forthcoming Roman Missal, because that seems to be the main topic of musical discussion these days. Many Cathedral music programs with full-time choirs and even orchestras could vastly improve their music programs (by “improve” I mean sound more Catholic and be more true to the Roman Rite) by simply adopting these chants as the primary music of the church.

High or low, pop music remains pop music even after it is gussied up with tympani, brass, and an 80-voice choir. It is still unsatisfying. It is still not liturgical music. It does not improve the ritual.

And yet that is precisely what we encounter in many Cathedrals and large parishes. I’ve sat through many of these displays and rather than come across as majestic and mighty, the liturgy simply seems extravagant and even profligate. These occasions are no more true to the Roman Rite than the country parish outside of town that has three volunteer singers singing chant and nothing else.

At once recent Cathedral event I attended -- the sounds and pageantry were over the top -- I was thinking this in my head: “after spending some $20,000 on this one event, they still couldn’t mange to sing one proper in English or Latin from the actual liturgical books!”

In a similar way, there is nothing to prevent the smallest parish with no resources from singing all the chants of the Roman Gradual - and spend no money doing it. The results that could be obtained in this liturgical environment would be far better than any misguided Cathedral program no matter how much money it spent. In the Roman Rite, there really are no class distinctions. The only differences come down to whether the liturgy is being true to itself or not.

Liturgical music or non-liturgical music: this is the great divide. Liturgical music is neither high nor low. It either is or it isn’t.

The reporter then asked me to define what I meant by liturgical music. Now, keep in mind that it is hard to keep a reporter’s attention and too much theory is going to land on the cutting-room floor in any case. So I have to boil this down in a way that the reporter can follow but also accurately makes sense of the current debate and the current situation.

So here is what I said.

Theological considerations aside, liturgical music has three very practical and easily recognizable signs.

First, liturgical music uses the liturgical text. The official books provide the text to take up the entire liturgical action from the entrance to the offertory to the communion. These texts change week to week and are called the propers of the Mass. The same is true for the texts that remain in place week to week. This is called the ordinary of the Mass. If you are singing these, you are singing the liturgy. If you are not, you are doing something else.

Second, liturgical music is primarily vocal music. This means that the singing itself is the core of the musical activity. That doesn’t rule out accompaniment but other instruments must always be the servant of the voice in liturgical actions such as processions. Instrumental solos are fine and even wonderful but they are not technically part of the liturgical framework. Nor are they necessary at all. What is necessary and sufficient for liturgical music is the human voice.

Third, liturgical music is primarily and at its root plainsong and not strictly metered. This is because plainsong is the musical structure that best accommodates the word as it appears in prose in the liturgy. The Psalms have no strict meter. The Gospels have no strict meter. The word of the Missal have no strict meter. Plainsong is the vessel that best permits these texts to be declaimed. That doesn’t mean that strict musical meters are ruled out but the foundational music will also be un-metered plainsong. This can be unison or choral but it must be flexible, so that the music serves the word rather than the other way around.

I think back fondly to when I used to attend Mass at the National Shrine in Washington, D.C. Back then, there was the upper church where the big choirs sang and the orchestras did their thing, which was mostly to perform super-souped up versions of conventional parish fare. (This is no longer true, thanks to wonderful musical leadership at the Shrine.)

Then there was the lower crypt with Mass in Latin sung by the priest and the single cantor, attended mostly by non-English speakers from all over the world, some of whom entered the nave on their knees saying the Rosary.

In the crypt Mass, the entire Mass was sung in chant and everyone sang. In the upper church, there was no chant, propers were replaced by hymns, and hardly anyone sang. Which is high and which is low? Which constitutes the fullest expression of the Roman Rite?

You see how the Catholic experience defies conventional categories? The point made by the chants of the new Missal is that you don’t need social status, lots of money, the right clothes, and conservatory-trained musicians to achieve the ideal. The Roman Rite belongs to everyone. We only need the will and desire to let it speak and sing for itself.