Out of the Desert and Into the Promised Land

The children of Israel wandered in the desert for forty years, the Hebrew scriptures tell us, and during this time they lost faith, built nutty statues out of their own stuff, complained bitterly about everything, and failed to notice that hand of God looking after them the entire time. I often think about these years and imagine all the people who died and were also born during this period of confusion. It was probably the only reality many of them new. And how glorious it must have been to have finally found their home.

This is a pretty good description of the situation for musicians in the postconcilar era. We wandered aimlessly looking for that answer. We built idols out of our own stuff and held them up for the people to worship. We ignored the gifts that God was trying to give us the entire time. Mostly we complained.

I’m reminded of this period after this morning’s liturgy, because the situation has changed so dramatically from the first to the last. Ironically, our period of exile started to end in just about forty years after the close of the Second Vatican Council. Now today we have the music we need. It is no longer confusing, no longer a weekly trial, no longer a game of chance to know what to sing. With some basic singing skills, one cantor or 50 singers, and not even an organist, the liturgy can be proclaimed in a manner imagined by the fathers of the Council — and this can happen in every parish every single week and without that much fuss.

It only took forty years. Many people left. Many people came. Many parishes are sadly still lost, even though the resources are right there.

So each week I find myself so happy to walk over to the bookshelf and pick up the three books that I unfailingly depend on to sing and sing what the Church is asking us to sing: the actual text of the liturgy itself.

I hold these books in my hand and look at them. I am conscious all over again of the time when they didn’t exist. It was only a few years ago. How well I remember the struggle and the arguments and the sense of something missing. We didn’t know what was missing but we knew that something wasn’t right. Surely there is more to this than just leafing through this floppy annual and pointing at some hymns and wondering: “is this good enough for this week?”

Yes, that’s what we did. That’s what everyone did — for decades and decades. It seems incredible in retrospect. But what choice did we have? Where were the resources that made the sung liturgy available to us so that we could sing in a dignified and solemn way that didn’t smack of some pop performance or pander to one or another style preference? Where were these books?

Before someone corrects me, I’m aware that there were some resources out there. In fact, I obsessively looked for them in far-flung places and worked hard to get them online. They were like drops of rain in the desert. An antiphon here, a chant there, a snippet of scripture here, and a fragment of a chant there. There was the full Graduale in English with the Anglican Use Gradual but here were issues with language and even with a slight ongoing tension with the cultural sensibility with the ordinary form.

Of course the whole time there was the big scary book of the perfect solution: the Graduale Romanum. That is the wonderful thing, of course, but in no parish was it even conceivable that these chants could all be sung in their proper place. Neither the talent nor the tolerance existed for that. It took years to finally come to terms with that reality.

We were closer about six years ago than we ever were. We had an idea — not a perfect idea but a growing clarity — about what we need. But the resources we really needed were not yet on hand. We still didn’t have the ability to walk over to the shelf, take out the resource, turn to the right page, and sing!

That is what has changed, and it has changed absolutely everything. This morning was a good reminder. With these books in hand, with two singers and no instruments, the entire liturgy came across as magnificent. We sang the right thing at the right time in the right way, exactly as the liturgical books suggest we should. It’s all come together in the most beautiful way.

It’s so good that I can hardly even recall the endless frustrations of the past, the hours of scraping around, the time and annoyance of not finding the thing that really worked, the planning time and the sense of confusion. It all seems like a bad dream in retrospect.

These are the three books that have led us out of the desert and into the Promised Land:

1. Communio, compiled and typeset by Richard Rice. This book allows for the singing of the authentic chants of the Roman Gradual during communion, a time which allows the choir more flexibility than anywhere else in the liturgy. The brilliant stroke of this book is to add all the Psalms in a fully notated way so as to permit the singer or singers to use music proper to the rite for the entire liturgical action. This is what made the difference. This is where choirs tend to begin with the singing of the chant. This is the book that also trains singers. It is so practical and yet so much the embodiment of the ideal.

2. Simple English Propers, by Adam Bartlett. This is the book, the one we’ve wait for all these years. With this book, the entrance, offertory, and communion can be sung in English, with verses, for every Sunday in the liturgical year. Yes, it should have come out in 1963 when the vernacular was first introduced. It had to wait. Regardless, we now have it. The more you sing from it, the better you get at doing so. The melodies are simple and formulaic but they work with the text. In all my time singing from it, I’ve never encountered even one chant that didn’t work musically and liturgically. Moreover, people love it in the following sense: it seems like the right thing. It might not be the final answer in vernacular chant but it is a massive upgrade from the status quo. I’m so grateful for this book!

3. The Parish Book of Psalms, by Arlene Oost-Zinner. Even in the old days when we started inching toward solutions, the Psalm has been a problem. It is supposed to be dignified and beautiful but the conventions were always lacking in both. It just didn’t seem to match the chanted liturgy otherwise. This book makes it all work. The composer uses Gregorian tones and a simple melody that takes all stress out of standing and singing the Psalm every week. It is such an indescribable relief to have this book.