Thursday, December 29, 2011

Top Ten Things I’ve Learned about Sacred Music

Ten years ago, I knew next to nothing about Catholic music. I knew that something was not right in the parish music program. I had some sense that the fix for the problem was somewhere in our history and tradition, somewhere in some dusty books somewhere, and the answer surely had something to do with preconciliar practice. I intuited this just because the Second Vatican Council represented something like a gigantic shift, and older people reinforced this to me with harrowing stories of living through the turbulent times.

Beyond that, I knew very little.

What follows are the top ten things I’ve learned in the course of ten years of reading, singing, listening, and exploring. I offer them in roughly the order in which I discovered them for myself and in conjunction with working with others who pointed me in the right direction The point here is not only to share the lesson with readers but to admit to the existence of deep ignorance out there as regards Catholic music - and I know this because it was not long ago when I could be counted among the deeply ignorant. There is no shame in that. Admitting it is the first step toward shaping up.

In a lifetime of study, we could never know what we need to know, and relative to knowledge embedded in tradition itself, we are all hopelessly ignorant. This is also what makes Catholic music so exciting. There is always more to discover, always more to do. If you find a “know it all,” you can be pretty sure that he or she is a faker. We are all in the process of discovery. Here is my brief accounting of the high points I’ve gained from ten years in this process.

1. The Roman Rite comes with its own built-in music. This discovery came for me when I took at a look at the Gregorian Missal, which is a reduce and English-language version of the Sunday and feast day chants from the Graduale Romanum, which is the music book of the Roman Rite. I further discover that this book was not just old, though it is old; it is also new, with the latest edition having been produced in 1974 specifically for what is known at the ordinary form of the Roman Rite. This was an amazing revelation. It turns out that the Church does provide. The burden to cobble together music each week does not actually fall to us. In the same way that the books of the Bible are given to us, as is stable doctrine and moral teaching, the music is provided already in a perfect form for every single liturgical task. Our main task is to defer and master the ability to render it properly.

2. What we call hymns cannot be the main ritual music of the Roman Rite. Hymns play an integral role in the sung version of the Divine Office, but they are not part of the Mass. When they are used in Mass, they are more like medieval tropes, texts with music that elaborate on a theme. There is room for hymnody at Mass in particular places, but not as replacements for the real music of the Mass, except in extremely unusual situations. In general, all else equal, the chants proper to the ritual are to be sung. This is a great relief because I never liked the “hymn wars.” They are unnecessarily divisive and extremely subjective. It is best to bypass this problem altogether and sing the Mass itself.

3. The musical structure of the Roman Rite is both clear and stable. The main parts for the congregation are chants of the Mass ordinary: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus Agnus. The congregation and schola are to sing the dialogues with the priest: greeting, memorial acclamation, and the like. The main job of the schola is to lead or sing alone the propers of the Mass: introit, Psalm and Alleluia, offertory, and communion. Beyond that, there are sequences. Until we can get this framework pounded in our heads, we will be lost and confused.

4. Nostalgia only gets you so far. The preconciliar past does not offer much in the way of a model to restore. A close looks shows that the propers at high Mass were sung to Psalm tones only but mostly people experienced low Mass with four hymns -- just as we experience today. Hence many of the core problems we have today are inherited from the preconciliar practice. They had their “praise music” and we have ours; the main difference is the style of the times.

5. There was nothing wrong with the goals of Vatican II. A careful reading of the history shows that the fathers of this Council sought to fix the problem of the ubiquity of vernacular hymnody of Mass and sought to change some aspects of the liturgy in the hope of inspiring a fully sung Mass with Gregorian chant taking its proper place. Mistakes were made that unleashed the problem in way that no one even imagined before the Council.

6. It doesn’t take a big choir to do the music right. Motets and big polyphonic Mass settings are wonderful but they are not essential. The Church has given us 18 chanted Mass settings to chose from and they can all be led by a few singers or even one cantor. A big choir is a great thing but it is not necessary for a quality music program at a parish. Moreover, you are more likely to find yourself in the position of recruiting singers if the structure is already in place and there is some security and certainly over the task ahead.

7. Accompaniment is not required. Singing is music in the Roman Rite. Organ, piano, and guitar might not support singing; they might actually crowd it out.

8. A good default structure is more important than a huge repertoire. Every parish needs a reliable musical framework to fall back on for every Mass, so that it is not so dependent on a particular organist or choir leader or the presence of a large number of singers with a huge library of music. If this is done well, simple chants from the beginning to the end, combined with the beauty of silence, accomplishes the goal. And here is an especially good time to say thanks for the new Missal translation, which has all the music already given to us for the main parts of Mass.

9. You can’t blame the musicians for junky music at Mass. The Missal change quickly and hardly anyone was prepared. There were no books of English propers available until very recently. Musicians were using what they had and that was not much, and what has been available has been produced with very little understanding of the musical structure of the ritual. This problem has persisted until very recently.

10. Change does not come from edict. As much as we might dream of a pope or a priest who cracks down and demands appropriate music from everyone, this is not actually how change occurs. Change comes from patience, learning and teaching, inspiration and prayer, and hard work undertaken in the right spirit.

Those are my ten lessons. I have no doubt that the next ten years will continue to be fruitful no only in getting better at singing but in learning ever more about theory and practice of music in the Roman Rite.