Friday, March 15, 2013

Is the Chant in Danger?

I just got off the phone with an older priest in Wisconsin who was ordering the Parish Book of Chant for his small congregation. He told me that he is inspired by the sensibility of Pope Francis to rediscover the roots of our faith, strip away artificials, and just simply sing what’s true. To this priest that means that his congregation must rediscover the core music of the Catholic people.

He concluded in his talk with me: “Maybe the new Pope and his call for simplicity will help fix the musical problems in the Church too.”

Are you surprised at such a reaction? Many people would be. People have tended to associate Benedict XVI with chant, and rightly so. At the same time, in the last few days since the elevation of Pope Francis, people have wondered: is Benedict’s musical reform in danger? There is a real worry out there. It is palpable. It is happening among the many who are dedicated to uniting the Roman Rite with its native music, both in its proper texts and its chanted style.

Many people worry that Pope Francis will not continue the support for the Gregorian revival that has made such enormous strides in the last five years.

The new Pope’s emphasis on austerity, humility, and simplicity -- underscored by his choice of name and his tendency to eschew material signs of wealth or position -- shouldn’t necessarily be a cause for concern. No music is so simple in structure as plainsong, nothing can compare with its austerity., and every musician is profoundly aware of the humility required to defer to its role in the Church’s liturgy.

There was a faction at the Council of Trent that took the idea of austerity so seriously that it wanted to legislate against all music in Mass except the Gregorian chant. They wanted polyphony out. They were against organs. Popular hymnody would have been banned completely. This was all in the name of reform to purge conceit and opulence after the crisis of the Reformation. Fortunately -- and mostly thanks to the intervention of the Spanish Bishops and King -- this faction did not get its way.

But the point remains: for Catholic who seek a restoration of fundamental and simple truths in faith and worship, the chant tradition has been there as a symbol of what they seek. The text is holy Scripture. The music is evocative of the text. The music is a dedicated servant of the liturgical action and not employed solely to pass the time or entertain.

Even as recently as the late 19th century, the highly influential Caecilian movement in Germany was driven by this ideal of austerity -- in contrast to what they perceived as decadence of the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic traditions -- to demand a central place for Gregorian chant in Mass. Their views had a big influence on St. Pius X’s motu proprio on music that kicked off the 20th century rediscovery of chant.

I think, for example, of the communion antiphon for the 4th week of Lent, Oportet Te. It is tells the story of the Prodigal Son. The melody is light and almost sounds like a dance. It is an beautiful expression of the father’s joy, a song perfectly integrated with its message. It’s this kind of piece that reminds me that Gregorian chant truly does have folk-like origins, a liturgical art form designed to convey truth to a culture where all learning took place by hearing. It is the people’s music -- for 2000 years.

And yet we all know the popular perception, particularly in the United States, is exactly the opposite. Within the Catholic music world, everything is upside down. Somehow, people associate Gregorian chant with highbrow intellectualism, high-church ceremony, conservatory training, spiritual pride, aesthetic attachment to “classical” music, and snobbiness in general.

It makes no sense but there it is.

In contrast, in this upside down Catholic culture of the United States, people associate simplicity and austerity with...wait for it...amatuer guitar strumming, popular songs with made up lyrics not from scripture and not associated with the liturgical text, the absence of trained choirs, hand clapping from the congregation, unleashed ego from performers, and a kind of exuberant spontaneity of musical expression that has more recently taken the form of rock bands placed near the sanctuary playing pop music.

This is simplicity? Absolutely not. This is humility? It’s anything but. There is no deference to the text and no attempt to simplify. It seems more like the embodiment of everything that the austere personality in Church history has opposed, even from the earliest Christians who tended to look with skepticism on anything but Psalm singing.

Why is the perception the opposite? The explanation probably dates to the late 1960s -- a period I’ll apparently never understand no matter how much I study it -- and the emergence of the genre of music that was called “folk” but was in fact anything but. This fake folk music was somehow supposed to be closer to the people, opposed to the corporate music empire, a restoration of fundamentals. There was a political and protest edge to it all -- wholly understandable in light of the draft and all.

In a period of liturgical upheaval, however, it was imported to liturgy and took on the same ethos. Those who played it and pushed it imagined that they were engaged in some kind of protest against artificiality, stuffy ritual, and clericalism. None of it was true actually. It was the seminary directors who pushed the musicians in this role, and there were no real barricades to push down at all. The chant has mostly evaporated from liturgy anyway in favor of vernacular hymnody.

That perception remains today. No matter how big a corporate business “Christian rock” has become, and no matter how entrenched the copyright-craving corporate elite in the Catholic publishing world are, the persistent belief is that somehow chant is elitist and canned, electronic, tap-your-toe pop music is for the rest of us.

So this is the source of the danger. If Pope Francis really is proclaiming a turn away from pomp and ritual, and claiming to want to exemplify Franciscan-style humility, can we be so sure that he will not also overthrow the enormous progress that has been made over the last years under Benedict XVI?

The evidence of the first days of the new papacy has been a sharp turn in matters of liturgy in a series of ways, most of which have been carefully chronicled by online observers. We now take it for granted that we are able to investigate every gesture, to instantly read a homily, to observe changes in vestments or the positioning of the altar.

But think of it. How much of this voyeurism is a result of technology? It simply was not possible in the past for so many to look so closely at the first days of a papacy. There is the prospect of growth here as with any new position.

What’s more, chanted propers and ordinary are already deeply embedded in the praxis of Papal liturgy. To step away from that would require abandoning the liturgy itself.

I and others have long said that a major reason that chant was lost to Catholic liturgy for so long is that people just stopped hearing it and experiencing it. Now that it is heard and experienced, a growing love for it permeates Catholic culture today -- more so than in half a century.

Another difference today as versus the 1960s: all the chant is online for free. It has been truly liberated. Millions know it and understand it. An entire generation of priests have come to expected it. Finally, we have chant in the vernacular today so not even the claim that Latin is elitist holds water.

So I can understand why this older priest who called me was excited. So far, he discerned that the new Pope will continue what was started and embed it in a spiritual sensibility that is supremely important to people today: a path to authenticity, simplicity, holiness, and truth.

I remember often having heard ascribed to Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, who used to oblige the lectors to recite the psalms with such slight modulation of the voice that they seemed to be speaking rather than chanting. But when I remember the tears that I shed on hearing the songs of the Church in the early days, soon after I had recovered my faith, and when I realize that nowadays it is not the singing that moves me but the meaning of the words when they are sung in a clear voice to the most appropriate tune, I again acknowledge the great value of this practice. So I waver between the danger that lies in gratifying the senses and the benefits which, as I know from experience, can accrue from singing. Without committing myself to an irrevocable opinion, I am inclined to approve of the custom of singing in church, in order that by indulging the ears weaker spirits may be inspired with feelings of devotion. ~ St. Augustine

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