Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Report on the Manchester Chant Workshops

This past weekend I was in Manchester, NH, at the invitation of the Diocesan Office of Worship, and His Excellency Bp. Peter Libasci, Bishop of Manchester. I gave three workshops in total: Two three-hour sessions for about 100 parish musicians from throughout the Diocese, and one two-hour session for the 60 or so members of the Diocesan chancery staff as a day of reflection for the beginning of the Year of Faith.

All of the workshops began with the Year of Faith, and with a rereading and reconsideration of the music of the liturgy as it is articulated in the first conciliar document Sacrosanctum Concilium (The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy), and also the other pertinent documents that subsequently followed. I proposed to the attendees that the Second Vatican Council's vision for sacred music has not been tried and found wanting in these past 50 years, but in many ways has even yet to be tried.

The session with the chancery staff of Manchester was particularly intriguing. After a rereading of some passages from Sacrosanctum Concilium, we looked at many of the ways that make the Church's chant tradition particularly suited to the liturgy of the Roman Rite.

All was going very well, with many happily participating in the conversation, although – as is often the case – some in attendance were sitting back in their chairs, perhaps with arms crossed, and maybe a furrowed brow here or there.

When we finally reached the end of my first session, and I opened the room up for questions, the inevitable happened.

One concerned, and perhaps somewhat confused attendee pulled one of her arms out of its previously firmly crossed position, and raised it, saying: "At my parish, sometimes we sing some chant, and I remember hearing some chant in my youth... but it all sort of seems dead and lifeless and, and I'm very uneasy about it."

There were a few others here and there in the room that shared the same sentiment, nodding their heads, and had a mild sense of discontentment on their faces.

My response to her was that I was very sorry to hear that in her experience of chant thus far the result was perhaps not living up to what it truly is and ought to be. I went on to explain that the Church's efforts to restore the regular singing of chant in the liturgy has been an ongoing project for at least 150 years, and in more than a few places it has commonly been sung poorly, and by singers who were trying to sing too much with not enough time to prepare, and in settings that were probably much more than they could handle. Recovering a practice that we've lost touch with is not easy work for anyone.

But I also stressed the Gregorian chant tradition's genius as the carrier of the liturgical Word. I explained the way in which chant melodies always seek to be subservient to their source, the text, and that through the heightened declamation of their sacred and liturgical texts in song the Word of God takes on new levels of meaning. I described the way that chant melodies seek to provide a commentary on the text, that the music springs out of the words themselves, and helps us to penetrate their inner mystery through a form of lectio divina. I went on and on.

She wasn't convinced.

At this point I asked if we could transition into the second part of my presentation: The Chant Practicum.

Some wondered why I would ask 60 some Diocesan employees (accountants, janitors, secretaries, social service workers, etc.) to sing. But Bp. Libasci stressed to them that the song of the Mass is our common inheritance as Catholics and that it belongs to us all. Every Catholic can sing the Mass: It is a part of our Catholic composition, and is a part of the genius of the Roman Rite.

So we began singing together the four Entrance Antiphon settings for the four Sundays of Advent, as they are found in the Lumen Christi Missal.

I didn't have the need to go into any detail about the Gregorian notation, about clefs, or solfege, or anything of this sort. We didn't have the time and even if we did, it wouldn't have helped this group of non-musicians much, if at all. I asked them to learn and sing like Christians did in the liturgy for 1000 years before the invention of musical notation – through imitation and repetition – although I invited them to follow the "pictorial" square note notation which can help them see some of the melody's contour and character.

I sang the first antiphon, phrase by phrase, with all responding, then we sang the entire antiphon. A few musicians who happened to be in the group then jumped up and sang the verses of the psalm, and before you know it the entire group was singing together a simple English chant setting of the Introit for the First Sunday of Advent.

I showed them how the melody gives form to and helps express the meaning and structure of the text. They latched onto this immediately. I stressed: Please don't make this a funeral dirge! Chant is nothing more than the bringing to life of the Word of God in song.

And then we moved onto to the Second Sunday, and then the Third (having some fun with the common Catholic memory of "Gaudete Sunday"), and then the Fourth.

Everyone sang, and the result was breathtaking. All furrowed brows eased. People were sitting forward in their chairs, eagerly, enjoying what they were doing. It was as though everything that we had talked about for the hour before had begun to meld together into one joyful experience of singing the poetic and beautiful texts of the Mass.

When the session concluded, Bp. Libasci came up to the podium for the last word. He reaffirmed the importance of the Church's sacred music and chant tradition, and expressed how significant "singing the Mass" is in fulfilling the Second Vatican Council's wishes for sacred music. He also surprised everyone in attendance, including myself, when he said that he would be purchasing a copy of the Lumen Christi Missal for each member of the Diocesan Staff so that when they celebrate the liturgy together they can take up the practice of singing the Mass in the way that the Church and the Second Vatican Council ask us to do.

The entire group responded with enthusiasm, and there were even a few gasps, and some applause – It was quite a different scene from what I had seen in the same room, just an hour before.

As the group moved onto to their lunch together there was a lightness in the air. Some were humming, many were discussing, but the sense among the group was that of joy and assuredness. The workshop was a great success.

What is my takeaway from this event?

I think that for many years we have done a lot of talking about what sacred music is, or ought to be. We have had debates, we have pointed fingers, we have tried to convince, and at times have argued, even bitterly.

What I am seeing is that when we offer a sound catechesis, and then begin simply doing, something magical happens. The experience of beauty leads us to truth and goodness, and the true "sensus fidelium" of Catholics begins to speak to them and they see that they take to singing the Mass like a fish to water. It is just a part of our DNA as Catholics, whether we realize it or not.

We have not had resources that allow Catholics to do this in a realistic way, though, throughout the past 40 years. And at times, some may have bitten off more than they can chew – despite the best of intentions – and have perhaps made a bad name for Gregorian chant.

With the resources like those that are being made available today by the Church Music Association of America, Illuminare Publications and Corpus Christi Watershed, among others, we are seeing resources that make it possible for all Catholics to make the leap of faith into the Church's sacred music tradition. In particular, the Lumen Christi Missal is a complete resource that makes this possible for average Catholics in the pew.

In this Year of Faith we are blessed to have the tools and resources available to us so that we can not only reread and rediscover the Second Vatican Council's vision for sacred music in our parishes, but we can put it into action too.