Thursday, March 1, 2012

What Should a Sacred Music Commission Say?

Valentín Miserachs, head of the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music, has repeated his call for a Vatican commission to pronounce on the problem of music in Catholic liturgy. Like many others, he has expressed great regret at the loss of Gregorian chant, and speaks of the widespread ignorance of music among so many. He decries the “anarchy” that persists in parishes and cathedrals around the world, by which he means the tendency for musicians to pull out any music they want and sing it during the processions of the Mass (entrance, offertory, and communion).

In this latest interview with Rome Reports, Msgr. Miserachs speaks of the continuing rumours that just such a commission is in the works. I’ve heard the same rumours. And surely something along these lines is in the works.



This raises a question. What would or should the commission say? You can fill up several volumes of books with existing authoritative pronouncements on the topic. If they were followed, there would be problem to pronounce on at all. Even if you repeated the actual words of the second Vatican Council, along with the writings of the Popes that followed until the present, and these words were implemented, there would be no confusion, no anarchy, no issue to solve.

What can a new commission do that these other teachings have not done? It could offer stern and ever more incontrovertible language on the first place of Gregorian chant in the liturgy. But my prediction is that even a tightening of existing language -- I’m not sure what a tightening would even read like -- will not cause needed change. In fact, nothing would change.

You only have to think about your own parish environment. The hymnals that the choir uses most likely have no Gregorian chant in them, apart from a simple version of the Mass ordinary and a few chant hymns. Sometimes pieces from this small group of chants are brought out during Lent. Would expanding the options available be the magic bullet? I seriously doubt it.

In any case, the core of the problem is not so much within the ordinary parts of the Mass but during the entrance, offertory, and communion. These are the times when the musical path wanders far away from the liturgical ideal.

At a Mass I attended on the first Sunday of Lent, for example, the choir sang a processional that had nothing to do with Lent, fully three offertory songs that were unrelated to the liturgy or (in the case of one of them) even to Christianity (so far as I could tell), and the communion song shouted repeatedly that “God is amazing!” but I failed to find that text anywhere in my liturgical books.

So let’s say you went up to this choir leader in charge and said: “Instead of those crazy songs, you really should be singing Gregorian chant, just as the Vatican demands.” Would this song leader have any clue at all where to begin? He would not have the music in front of him. He wouldn’t know what to sing and when. As for the official chant books such as the Graduale or the Gregorian Missal, the notation and the language are completely foreign to him. He would be totally clueless how to actually implement the demand.

This situation is true in probably three quarters of American parishes today, and even those parishes where there is a Gregorian schola, there are other Masses controlled by the Life Teen band or some other guitar group that wants nothing whatever to do with chant and refuses even to learn what it is all about. They won’t budge. I’m going to estimate that a strict demand for Gregorian chant will help reinforce those who are already doing it, but I seriously doubt that it will make much difference in those sectors where it is not currently be done.

A commission that made a grand statement in favor of chant would be great. For that statement to be widely ignored, just as all existing statements since 1963 and before are ignored, would not be great. It would be very bad because it would be yet another occasion in which the teaching authority of the Church would be undermined. In this case, it would be undermined not by open defiance so much as total ignorance about the meaning and implications and implementations of the statement itself.

For that reason, of course, such a statement would have to be seriously qualified. It would have to make room for polyphony and new compositions -- a necessary exception. It would also have to be sensitive to the needs of parishes in mission territories that have no tradition of chant at all and yet embed within the liturgy authentic expressions and styles of local piety. In these vulnerable communities, it would be unpastoral and probably greatly mistaken suddenly to impose a new form and style where it has never been known before.

Once the exceptions have been admitted, the document would then have to make some strong statements about the meaning and purpose of sacred music, and specifically pronounce on the styles and approaches that are truly unworthy of the liturgy. And yet, that has been done before! John Paul II repeatedly stressed the need to “purify worship from ugliness of style, from distasteful forms of expression, from uninspired musical texts which are not worthy of the great act that is being celebrated.”

Here again, musicians around the world will feel free to ignore all of this. They know full well that all these statements in the past have contained small loopholes that allow them freedom to sing something else. They know that they do not have the skill to accomplish authentic chant. They know that implementation of all of this will depend on the cooperation of the publishers, and that the publishers care essentially nothing for the spirit of this legislation and these statements and instead seize on the loopholes to continue their games.

Is this a counsel of despair? No. Absolutely not. There is a way out of this whole problem. Interestingly, it is not through further pronouncements on music and musical style. The Church needs to change its current legislation dating from 1967 that permits other texts to replace the proper texts of the Mass.

The problem text came in section 32 of Musicam Sacram: “The custom legitimately in use in certain places and widely confirmed by indults, of substituting other songs for the songs given in the Graduale for the Entrance, Offertory, and Communion, can be retained according to the judgement of the competent territorial authority.”

This sentence seems innocuous. It’s tempting to read past it. Should a legitimate custom be retained? Sure, why not? Actually, what this sentence permitted, for the first time in the history of the universal Church, was the complete throwing out of the Mass propers that had been largely stable throughout the whole history of the Roman Rite and formed the basis of Gregorian chant in the first place. The “indult” quickly became the universal practice.

This is the sentence that needs to be repealed, erased, and replaced, because it is this sentence that unleashed the musical chaos and confusion. This is the reason for why the choir is free to totally ignore the liturgy and sing any old song that they happen to have handy in place of the actual text that the liturgy is asking us to sing.

Any Vatican commission on music that is actually effective in our times needs to state very plainly, admitting no exceptions, that this universal practice of throwing out Mass propers in favor of just about anything is absolutely repealed. It must state very plainly that the proper text of the Mass, whether drawn from the Missal or Roman Gradual or from the Simple Gradual, must be the text that is sung. Period. Only after this text is sung in some setting may other songs be introduced.

This one step, which interestingly speaks not to music but to text, would completely change the musical culture of the entire Roman Rite through the whole world. It would mean that the hymnals that choirs use would not be useful for fulfilling this mandate. It would mean that the choirs would have to buckle down and learn new music. They would need to learn some chant in either English or Latin. They would discover that they have responsibilities to the liturgy and not just to their own performance needs. It would draw together the work of the sanctuary with that of the loft.

The document would need to state this in black ink and stark terms. And this is all that the statement would need to do. It would not need to restate what has already been stated a thousand times. Instead, it would repeal the one loophole that allows nearly the whole of the Catholic musical world to freely ignore any and all statements about Gregorian chant and sacred music that have been made throughout history.

It would be a fresh and inspiring start. Far from resenting the imposition, most choirs and choir directors would be thrilled to find that their work is actually valuable and important to the liturgy, that they can actually make a real contribution to the real action of the liturgy. Rather than merely performing some groovy song, they would actually be singing the liturgy again. That would inspire their work and drive them to improve.

What this analysis implies of course is that the core problem we are dealing with today only appears to be about the music. Actually, the core problem is a problem with the words of the Mass itself. The choir must defer to them. It must sing the entrance with the proper text and psalms. It must sing the offertory using the proper text and its Psalms. It must sing the communion with its proper text and Psalms. There is no indult not to. There is no “option four” as it appears in the General Instruction.

To accomplish this task, the commission doesn’t need to consult any musicians or liturgists or anyone else. It should simply close a loophole that should never have been opened in the first place. In this case, the commission could dispense with the long treatise, the lectures, the long sermons. If people want to read them, great, and the commission can provide a long bibliography. We all have google. The commission only needs one paragraph that states that it is no longer permissible to replace the Mass propers with “others songs.” The end.

Only then will we begin to see universal change.