Saturday, March 3, 2012

From Time to Eternity: The Interlectionary Chants

Some years ago a friend of mine was having a drink with friends at a bar in Cincinnati during an NPM convention. Michael Joncas walked in.

My friend asked, “isn’t that the guy who wrote that yoo-hoo song?”

“Well, we don’t know; why don’t you go ask him?”

This friend of mine, a colorful character with a raspy voice from Baltimore, walked right up to him: “Saaaaaaaay, aren’t you the guy who wrote that yoo-hoo song?”

Joncas couldn’t figure out what she was talking about.

“You know. ‘Yoo-hoo dwell…’”

Joncas was, thankfully, amused, and admitted that he really should have revised some parts of that “yoo-hoo song” but just hadn’t gotten around to it. It doesn’t matter, really. It’s popular enough that its continued use doesn’t depend on it.

On Eagles’ Wings is one of those pieces, like the Mass of the Angels, that is popular despite the difficulty in singing it. Why is this? I can only suppose that it’s because of the text. The Psalms in general are stellar, but the ideas in Psalm 91 are particularly appealing, aren’t they? So people sing this song. It’s understandable.

Every year on the First Sunday of Lent, the text of Psalm 91 dominates the Propers of the liturgy. The centerpiece of this arrangement is the Tract, which goes on for five pages or something like that. Last week when I practiced it at home, I timed it at twelve minutes. This always makes me nervous, since the interlectionary chants (Graduals, Alleluias, and Tracts) are in the crosshairs even of many people of a traditional mindset. In a lot of places it’s difficult enough to persuade those in charge to allow the Gradual and Alleluia from the Liber Usualis on an average Sunday, but this Tract in particular, as well as the one on Palm Sunday, seems to be the kind of thing that can constitute a last straw, the event that gets the congregation to complain about the length, and the end result of that is always unpredictable. I have always had support from my pastors in these matters, but given the opinions I’ve heard expressed from some people scattered about, I always get a little bit nervous when Qui habitat comes around.

So why should those parishes that are doing the chant Propers sing the Interlectionary chants out of the Liber Usualis or Graduale Romanum rather than one of the shortcut books? One could say that these are the official chants of the Church, the most historical, but there are better reasons than this.

One could begin by saying that the chants found in the Liber, particularly on an average Sunday, don’t take more than a couple of minutes longer than the microwave versions, but in some ways this seems like it’s conceding the premise that time is of the utmost importance.

I like to compare these chant melodies to rhetoric. This can mean word painting and other such things like ascending lines for questions, but that isn’t all. Sheer beauty itself is a form of rhetoric; it makes the message of the text more attractive and more readily absorbed. The melismas in the interlectionary chants are among the most beautiful melodies in the Gregorian repertoire. Many will argue that this is not necessary; honk through the text as quickly as possible so that the obligation can be dispensed with. Get rid of the unnecessary stuff---and in the rule books of many, what is not strictly necessary is useless.

Do good sermons exclude "useless" turns of phrase and even “useless repetitions,” or do they employ various rhetorical methods that, if held up to the same standard to which the music is often held, would be found inefficient? The latter case seems to obtain. In fact, a good speaker really only makes two or three points and spends most of the time expounding on them in various ways, usually repetition, variation, and exhortation. The melodies of the interlectionary chants dwell on the text the same way a speaker dwells on his message, and this makes the text appetizing so that we want to feast on it. (I watch a bit too much Food Channel.)

Tied into this is meditation. Dr. William Mahrt of Stanford University has often commented that a member of his congregation once approached him and observed that the Graduals were so slow. Mahrt was puzzled, since, rhythmically speaking, this isn’t exactly true. “Oh no, I mean the text,” the man said. The melismatic character of the chant slows down the rate at which the text is rendered. This reminds me of St. Teresa’s advice to say the Lord’s Prayer, but to take an hour to say it. How is it possible to meditate upon a text when it is sprinting by on the tenor note of a Psalm tone?

A few years ago I was in Chicago and wanted desperately to get to the Art Institute to see what they had there. I crammed my trip in to a tight timeslot and rushed through the museum, but I don’t remember a single painting I saw. That was the Psalm tone version of a visit there, and I paid for it with a forgotten experience. In music, it’s not just the hurrying that has this effect; the absence of a memorable melody can do the same thing.

It seems to me that whenever I have been confronted with something really beautiful, it makes time stop. Everything else goes away and this one work of art, whatever it is, is getting my full attention. I am not worried about the time, or about where I need to go next, or even my plans for next week. These experiences are little slices of eternity. When I get too busy, my frantic, mathematically-based efforts to save time only seem to add to my restlessness. I’ve been to many Masses that feel that way. Proper leisure, a space in which eternity can peak into time, requires an investment, a carving out of space that is set aside; otherwise, the experience will be lost.

Of course, different situations require different solutions. My main concern here is with the argument against the interlectionary chants in the Liber on the basis of time---a contention that is limited to a small scope of parishes. Some scholas aren’t going to be able to handle them, and that needs to be taken into account. Maybe a smaller group within the choir can sing them, or maybe the interlectionary chant repertoire can be built up over time, at intervals.

I would only say this: the interlectionary chants are not as difficult as many suppose them to be; there certainly aren’t any octave leaps, and one is never expected to begin a piece on a major 7th chord. These melodies are highly centonized. I like to say, exaggerating only slightly, that if you’ve sung one mode 5 gradual, you’ve sung them all. This idea is even more true for the Alleluias. However, this is not going to be apparent without a commitment to learning the repertoire. Repetition isn’t noticed unless a motive is repeated.

I also find myself as yet utterly puzzled by the temptation to abbreviate the melodies in the Liber. This seems to be for reasons of time, since the essential difficulty level is not changed all that much. As a listener, I find the practice to be jolting, as if someone bumped the needle on a record player. This is a cavalier treatment of the art form. Which third of the triptych above the altar should be removed? Which part of the sermon should be omitted?

The way I see it, there’s an irony here, and it’s that On Eagles’ Wings itself isn’t exactly short. Yet I have played many funerals where it was insisted that all the verses be included. This highlights what I’m tempted to believe rises to the level of an axiom: We always have time for whatever it is that we want to have time for.