Thursday, March 15, 2012

The New Awareness

How long will it take before Catholic musicians are universally aware of their responsibility to sing the propers of the Mass? How long before they begin to look with skepticism at the massive hymnals they’ve been using for decades, realizing that the contents therein provide very little actual liturgical music and instead offer mostly substitutes for given Mass texts that they ought to be singing?

This new dawning of consciousness could take many years. Or perhaps it will happen much sooner.

There are two important developments that could speed this process up very dramatically.

The first is William Mahrt’s wonderful book The Musical Shape of the Liturgy, as published by the Church Music Association of America. It is available on Amazon, as you will find from a quick search. In the first day it went on sale, its ranking soared up and it quickly became a Catholic bestseller. We even had to rush an extra 500 copies to the seller to keep up with the demand.

No surprise here. This is the first complete explanation of the role of Catholic music in the Roman Rite to appear in the postconciliar period. Actually, as I thought about it, I don’t think any book has ever appeared that so fully explains this gigantically important topic -- a fact which helps account for all the problems that exist in the Catholic music world. Until this book appeared, we had historical treatises, large books on the structure and meaning of chant, books like my own that are collections of short pieces, and plenty of manuals for liturgy that only gloss over the musical topic.

What makes Mahrt’s book different is that it is theoretical, historical, and practical. It is by a world-class expert. Its prose is accessible and yet still scholarly. It draws on the vast history of liturgy and scholarship on chant to make an impressive argument for a coherent musical structure for the liturgy. I say “argument” but it is not argumentative. It is more descriptive. It is like a guided tour.

Imagine that your have seen a beautiful cathedral and you know its look and its details very intimately. You know how it was built, the materials, the names of the architects, the struggles and difficulties, its purposes and uses through the ages. Now you meet some people who know nothing of cathedrals and their place in the history of civilization. You have to describe it to them in great detail with the goal of inspiring everyone to appreciate the institution and perhaps visit the one you know.

This is Professor Mahrt writing on sacred music. He understands the reason, history, and meaning of just about everything that happens in the Roman Rite as it pertains to music. He is able to write about the subject without being needlessly controversial. It is more descriptive than rhetorical, and all the more compelling for being so. He takes us far away from the disputes about style and rather deals with the intentions and structure of the music that is intimately related to the rite.

What makes this book especially important is how he links theory and practice. It is not possible to read this book and not come away with inspiration to change the music program at the local level. For priests, the takeaway is the need to sing the Mass because this is what is intended and encouraged by the Church. For the people in the pews, there is a compelling rationale to sing the parts of the Mass that belong to the people. For the schola, the message is inescapable: if you do nothing else, sing the propers of the Mass!

If you feel a sense of frustration at your parish, this is the ideal book to give to the pastor and the director of music. More often than not, inferior music programs are not a result of malice but simply the result of inertia that continues on the wrong track. The entire basis of the program needs to be rethought. The musicians need to realize that their job is not to provide background music or set the mood or perform in a way that delights the audience. Their job is, above all else, to lend their assistance to the liturgy itself. The liturgy needs deference and respect so that it purposes can be fulfilled.

This is a very inspiring message for musicians, who often despair because they sense that they do not have an important job to do. They try to ward off that despair by resorting to ever more fancy tricks or by goading people to sing with them or by using other methods drawn from the culture of entertainment. Mahrt’s book wipes away all these impulses by describing the extremely close connection between what is in the Missal and what is in the Roman Gradual, which is the music book for the choir.

You will note as you read that Mahrt makes no strong distinction between the musical demands of the extraordinary form and those of the ordinary form. That’s because the demands are identical: sing the liturgy. The chants are in a different order and perhaps the extraordinary form is more hospitable to a sung polyphonic Mass than the ordinary form usually is. But behind that, the musical demands are the same. From the point of view of singers, there is only one Roman Rite.

It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of this book on the future. We’ve never had anything like it before, never had one book that we could point to and say: this is a full-scale description of the normative form of music for the Catholic liturgy. This has been a gap in the literature that has been present for as far back as we can see. At last we have that book.. It will be decades before anything comparable is produced.

It comes along just in time. We are starting to see signs among the American Bishops that change is happening. Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix, Arizona, has written a four-partt series on sacred music that concludes with a wonderful case for singing the propers of the Mass. I will conclude by quoting from his final article:
The Proper of the Mass, comprising the chants of the third degree, form an integral, yet often overlooked part of the sung liturgy. The Proper of the Mass consists of three processional chants and two chants between the Lectionary readings. These parts of the Mass, contained in the Roman Missal and Graduale Romanum, are unlike the Order of the Mass and the Ordinary of the Mass in that they are not fixed and unchanging from day to day, but change according to the liturgical calendar, and therefore are "proper" to particular liturgical celebrations.

Here we find the Entrance Antiphon, Responsorial Psalm (or Gradual), the Alleluia and its Verse, the Offertory Antiphon, and the Communion Antiphon. While the Proper of the Mass is subordinated in degree of importance to the Order of the Mass and the Ordinary of the Mass, the texts of the Mass Proper form perhaps one of the most immense and deeply rich treasure troves in the sacred music tradition. Because these texts change from day to day, they were historically sung by the schola cantorum, and, because of their demands, are sometimes replaced today by other seasonal or suitable options.

The texts of the Proper of the Mass, especially the Entrance, Offertory and Communion chants, are comprised of scriptural antiphons and verses from a psalm or canticle. This is the form of the texts given in the Roman Missal, the Graduale Romanum, and the Graduale Simplex, the Church's primary sources for the Proper of the Mass. The GIRM also allows for the possibility of singing chants from "another collection of Psalms and antiphons, approved by the Conference of Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop" during the three Mass processions, and, lastly, allows for the singing of "another liturgical chant that is suited to the sacred action, the day, or the time of year, similarly approved by the Conference of Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop" (Cf. GIRM 48, 87).

The texts of the Proper of the Mass, while of lesser importance than the texts of the Order of the Mass and the Ordinary of the Mass, form a substantial and constitutive element of the liturgy, and I encourage a recovery of their use today. We are blessed to have in our day a kind of reawakening to their value. In addition, many new resources are becoming available that make their singing achievable in parish life. I strongly encourage parishes to take up the task of singing the antiphons and psalmody contained within the liturgical books, and to rediscover the immense spiritual riches contained within the Proper of the Mass.