Saturday, October 6, 2012

Vatican Intervenes: No More Tropes in the Agnus Dei

The Vatican has intervened in the guidelines for Catholic liturgical music in the U.S.. It has sent a messages to U.S. publishers that it objects to extending the official text of the Agnus Dei to add additional text. The practice is called “troping” but that’s using a rather high-minded and deeply historical term for what is actually just pop-music riffing. Further, the Congregation for Divine Worship has asked the USCCB for a change in its musical guidelines to reflect this.

As the blog Gotta Sing reports, one publisher received the following note:

In response to a request from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, the USCCB Administrative Committee adopted a change on September 12, 2012 to the U.S. Bishops’ 2007 guidelines on liturgical music, Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship. Number 188 of the document has been altered to remove any further permission for the use of Christological tropes or other adaptations to the text of the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God).

This is a good development. Too little, too late, but still good. “Sing to the Lord” is vastly better than the barely-Catholic predecessor document called “Music in Catholic Worship” that had sent two generations of musicians off course (MCW, for example, said that music of the past is not a good model of music for the future).

Still, the new document has problems, such as claiming that the style of music used at liturgy is not a relevant consideration, as well as open contradiction of official documents that the Agnus Dei cannot be troped.

In many ways, this issue should be a non-issue. It is pretty well established that when you are singing the liturgical text...you should sing the liturgical text. Otherwise you are just inventing stuff on your own. Why would anyone think that musicians can do such things? Well, there is a very long precedent for doing so. That’s what’s going on in your parish every week, most likely, unless you have a choir director who knows what’s what.

And yet, one wonders if this intervention will make any difference. Note that it removes “further permission” but says nothing about the settings already published and already in use. Another issue is that any choir director could easily sing the real Agnus Dei text and then continue singing tropes, calling the extension an example of “other appropriate music.” People who don’t have the desire to follow the spirit of legislation will always find ways around the text of the legislation.

In general, however, as annoying as the troped Agnus Dei is, it is hardly the main problem of Catholic music today. A much more troubling issue concerns the USCCB’s permission to composers and publishers to completely mangle the text and structure of the Gloria itself. It is intended to be sung straight through, obviously. This is how it has been sung from the earliest years of the Church. This is how it is structure in the whole of the Graduale Romanum’s Kyriale, the official songbook of the Roman Rite.

One of the major purposes and intentions behind the text revision of the Gloria was to revive the chanted structure of the Gloria or, at least, remove what amounted to a rhythmic occasion of sin: it put the first line in a clear triple meter. That is now ended and thank goodness. But, again, people who ignore the spirit of the law will find a way around the law.

I was astonished when publishers, after the approval of the Roman Missal 3rd edition, started pouring out new floods of bowdlerized Glorias that mangle the whole structure. They have continued to turn the opening phrase into an antiphon, and treat the remainder of the text as a response. Thus do people sing sing “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will” again and again. Each phrase is separated with a fancy passage from the text sung by the choir alone. This contradicts the whole of the history of the Roman Rite. It is a wholly unwarranted corruption.

How could this be happening? Well, my inquiries led me to an extraordinary revelation. The U.S. Bishops approved it. And that’s that. The publishers begged and the USCCB complied. They unleashed all the publishers to put out these versions of the Gloria that continue the very problems that the new translation was supposed to stop. I have no idea how the Vatican allowed this to happen or whether anyone knew it was happening.

But it seems rather obvious to me that no matter how much autonomy that national conferences have, or believe they have, they should never be permitted to grant permission to fundamentally alter the text and structure of the liturgy itself, especially not concerning such a historically crucial part of the liturgy as the Gloria.

My question: why hasn’t the Vatican intervened here? It would take only one note to three people, the heads of the big three publishers. One quick fax or email. That’s all it would take to save the Gloria (The Gloria!) from this continued corruption of its structure and text. In addition, the antiphon-response artificiality here unleashes the choirs to turn a solemn celebratory text into a show-tune performance in which the people merely play a bit part of repeating the same line over and over again. It is contrary to the liturgical goal and patronizing to boot.

To be sure, the publishers are of the opinion that the people are too incompetent to actually managed more than one little line. If you want people to sing, they say, you have to give them easy stuff to sing over and over like songs on the radio. Whether that line is “I’m at a payphone, trying to call home,” or “Glory to God...” they people that the people need short catchy things to say or they won’t sing, and “getting the people to sing” is pretty much the sum total of the perceived goal of publishers and musicians today.

If you provide no challenges whatsoever to people, it is hardly surprising that they get bored of the whole project and enter protest mode. This probably accounts for 90% of the silence of Catholic congregations. But instead of embracing the actual liturgical text and structure, the publishers keep going further, making music ever sillier and the structure ever more simple. It’s just not working. But even if it did work, it shouldn’t be done.

When it is time to sing the Gloria, sing the Gloria. It’s not rocket science. Here’s to hoping for another intervention from Rome, this time without the proviso that grandfathers in nonliturgical renderings and instead insists that the liturgy be sung as it is given to us.

After that, we need an open discussion on the major problem that afflicts Catholic music today: the substitution of newly composed text for the given propers of the Mass. To repeat what I said above, when you are singing the liturgical text...you should sing the liturgical text. Otherwise you are just inventing stuff on your own. Why would anyone think that musicians can do such things?

“It is the right of the community of Christ’s faithful that especially in the Sunday celebration there should customarily be true and suitable sacred music.” ~ Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum