Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Liturgy Sings Itself

A few days ago, a composer sent a set of Mass propers that struck me as absolutely beautiful. They had thick choral writing in the antiphon, and beautiful set Psalms in parts too, using a fresh-sounding Psalm tone on top. It is a great example of what the new consciousness about Mass propers has done for liturgical composition. Fulfilling a hope first expressed in modern times by Aristotle Esguerra, we are now seeing some of the best artistic and compositional talents turned to service of the Roman Rite.

At the same time, I’ve been thinking about this model and its parish viability. This is a concern that has been central to my thinking for some time and increasingly important to strategizing going forward. The stunning success of the Simple English Propers demonstrates just how crucial it is to think about the resources available in the average parish and to have music made available to work within this framework.

Here is the reality we are dealing with. Most parishes, by which I mean probably 4 out of 5, do not have a single choir available that can consistently sing in four parts. This fact shocks musicians when they first hear it. It seems pathetic in some way. There is plenty of blame to go around to account for this. But I’m not sure there is much point is continuing to express horror at this.

We must work with the resources we have, and at this late date in the postconciliar church - after a time when children’s choirs were disbanded, music education in parish schools was defunded, and the very existence of serious choirs was questioned and put down, and when knowledge of the musical framework of the Roman rite has fallen to new lows - we just do not have them.

Nor are organists plentiful. Many are just pianists who are doing the best they can for $50 per week, at best. They bear a huge burden to somehow make the music happen in parish after parish. But even in the lucky parish that has enough singers for four-part writing or even complex polyphonic composition, it can’t usually happen at every Mass. It appears perhaps once on Sunday, but there are two, three, or four additional Masses to be covered, not to speak of feast days during the week where there is a desire for music.

What it comes down to is this. Given the liturgical demands of the Roman rite, most Catholic music must be prepared with the expectation that it can be handled by a single cantor. That is the reality and the usual experience of liturgy. Music that is most marketable, viable, and appropriate at this point in history has to be rendered by a single voice.

There is where we are right now. Perhaps in another ten years, matters could be different. But we must remember that right now, we are really in a rebuilding stage. The foundation has to be laid on what is really something of a wasteland. From there, wonderful things can happen, and even already I can think of many examples where fabulous and well-developed programs are already emerging. But the process will be slow, and we need a good beginning.

The question is whether it is possible for a parish to have beautiful liturgy with cantor-led Masses without support singers or even instruments. I believe the answer is: absolutely yes. It is completely possible that every Mass in a parish feature a single voice and nothing else. If you choose the music well and adhere closely to the demands of the Roman Rite as it is given to us - without being distracted by all the whiz bang being dished out by the big publishers - you can have a thoroughly Catholic program that does everything that Catholic music is supposed to do.

The starting point here are the chants of the new Roman Missal. They are simple but elegant in just how fitting they are for liturgy. When you sing them off the page and out of context, you wonder if they are really suitable. But once you sing them in Mass, even without any accompaniment, you are struck by how seamlessly they integrate into the overall fabric of the rite. The words and music flow into each other so that the entire Mass becomes one prayer.

The new language of the Missal helps to make the music seem better than it otherwise would be because here you find a similar simple elegance. It is not chatty and popular but heightened and solemn. One suspects that this is made possible by the overarching theory of the composers who chose these particular settings of the text. For them, it was clearly the case that they believed in the primacy of the word. The word is the driving force behind the melody and not the reverse. If the word is already musical in its cadence, the additional of notes brings about an elevation of the overall structure. This is what happens with the Missal chants.

Don’t judge them harshly until you have tried them in a live liturgical setting! The dialogues from the Missal are truly inspired. They should be used in ever Mass, even if you are using a more complex setting of the ordinary chants of the Mass. They do not need accompaniment. They should be standard practice everywhere.

That leaves only the sung propers of the Mass: entrance, Psalm, Alleluia, offertory, and communion. These can all be sung by a cantor alone. Even an inexperience cantor can sing the Simple English Propers. More experienced singers can move to more complex chants in English, and gradually introduce the authentic Gregorian chant from the Roman Gradual. It is true that Gregorian chant is intended to be sung by a group, but again let’s think about current resources and what is possible. A lone cantor can in fact sing all the music that is assigned to the ritual within its official books.

That leaves additional hymns if you are using them. They are not necessary. A silent recessional can be a beautiful thing to observe. The only music becomes the footsteps. This can be great drama and leave people with a profound sense of prayer. Even if you don’t do this everywhere at Sunday Mass, it is certainly something to consider on Advent or Lent or other special occasions. A Marian antiphon in Latin is also a great choice. Or you can do an English hymn led by a cantor alone and without instruments, so that the people’s voices really do become the only source of sound.

It is sometimes said that instruments are necessary to support the singing. I don’t believe this actually. Voices alone can support hymns. Try it out sometime and see.

Pastors, do not despair. There is no reason to panic about your lack of resources. A few cantors alone, assigned to different Mass times, are actually enough to be the foundation of an excellent music program. If you choose the right music, you can even have a better program than the well-funded parish across town that dozens involved in making all the wrong choices.

In the end, it really is all about letting the Roman ritual speak for itself - without fuss, without artificial attempts to inflate things, without the attempt to turn the Mass into something that it really does not want to be. Let the mystery and majesty speak for itself. The liturgy sings itself.