Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Two of Five Ways to Ruin a Mass Relate to Music

Hope you find something interesting in my piece for Crisis Magazine this morning: Five Ways to Ruin a Mass.

Here is #4 and #5

4. Replacing Sung Propers with Something Else

Since the earliest centuries, the liturgy assigned particular scriptural texts to particular liturgical days. This happens at the entrance, the music between readings, the offertory, and the communion. The instructions are very clear: the assigned chant is to be sung. If something else was sung, the words were still said by the priest. And so it was in most countries from the 7th century until quite recently.

Today, the Mass propers are mostly replaced by something else, usually a hymn with words made up by some lyricist. Quite often the results have nothing to do with the liturgy at all. It’s actually remarkable when you think about it. Choirs busy themselves with replacing crucial parts of the liturgy. They just drop them completely. Mostly they do this with no awareness of what they are doing.

How many choirs know that their processional hymn is displacing the assigned entrance? How many know that there is a real antiphon assigned at the offertory and that it is not just a time for the choir to sing its favorite number? How many have read the repeated urgings in the General Instruction to sing the assigned chant or at least use the text in the official choir books rather than just choose a random song loosely based on the theme of the season?

To be sure, this is technically permissible to do, but, truly, this approach “cheats the faithful,” as the Vatican wrote in an instruction in 1969. The propers of the Mass are crucial. They are from scripture. Their Gregorian originals are stunningly evocative of the liturgical spirit and even define it. Even if sung in English or in choral style, the propers are part of the Mass. It should always be seen as regrettable when something else replaces them.

The General Instruction says “Nor is it lawful to replace the readings and Responsorial Psalm, which contain the Word of God, with other, non‐biblical texts.” That’s pretty definitive. But the same rationale should apply to the entrance, offertory, and communion chants as well.

Composed hymns with non-scriptural texts don’t need to be thrown out completely. They can be sung and always will be. But the real liturgical work of the choir is found in the Mass propers. That’s their primary responsibility. There are resources newly available that make it possible for any choir to do the right thing.

5. Percussion

In the first millennium, instruments were not part of the sung Mass, but as time went on, the organ was gradually admitted. By the 17th and 18th centuries, whole orchestras were used in certain locations. Even today you can find places where orchestral Masses are used that include tympani and other percussion instruments.

Most likely, that is not the context in which percussion instruments are used in your parish.

Today we hear conga drums, trap sets, bongos, and other drums played not in the style of Monteverdi processions, or Masses by Haydn or Mozart. Instead we hear them just as we would hear them in a bar or dance hall.

They are used just as they are in the secular world: to keep a beat, to make the music groovy, to inspired us to kind of do a bit of a dance. That’s the association of percussion we have in our culture. It is not a sacred association. The association is entirely profane. There’s a role for that. But Church is not the place and Mass is not the time.

And keep in mind: the piano is a percussion instrument. It has been traditionally banned in Church because it has non-liturgical associations. In today’s anything-goes environment, it is tolerated even by the liturgical regulations. But it is always a regrettable choice. The whole point of liturgical music is to lift our eyes and hearts to heaven, not drag us down to the dance floor.

One final point on this matter: you will notice that many of the songs in the conventional songbooks for Mass today seem to long for a drum-set backup. That’s because their style is borrowed from commercial jingles, TV show theme songs, power ballads from the 1970s, and so on. I don’t entirely blame choirs who choose drums to help out to make this style make more sense. What really needs to change is the whole approach here. Liturgical music has several critical marks: it uses the liturgical text, it grows out of the chant tradition, and sends a cultural signal that this is a sacred action in a sacred place.
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