Friday, January 24, 2014

Some thoughts about the liturgical music of Rome

Having thought a great deal about the liturgical music commonly practiced in the United States, it's always interesting to me to visit someplace new and to see what might be going on in the Catholic churches there.

Having lived in Rome for just a few months, I would say that I'm only beginning to understand the liturgical music here. One of the reasons for this is the sheer number of different parishes in Rome. In the States, it is not atypical for a suburban parish to have 10,000 members, most of whom arrive by car. In Rome, it is not atypical for a Sunday Mass to comprise 25 congregants, most of whom arrive by foot, and who could just have easily have walked to half a dozen other parishes in a 10-minute radius.

If you have 10,000 parishioners, and buildings and a plant built within the last 100 years which require much less repair and maintenance than Renaissance-era buildings, you can afford a staff that includes a top-notch full-time Music Director. And if that musician is concerned with sacred music, rather than keeping up with the latest trends and styles, then true, consistent beauty is within reach of the average American parishioner. If we were to fail at this, and we often do, it seems to me that this failure would be preventable, and fixing it must be a priority, as part of pastoral care.

Fixing Roman parish music, which must be a matter of extreme pastoral urgency, seems much more difficult. Again, I do not pretend to understand the local issues, but I do believe there are universal problems that can be named. I've been to a few Masses with music that was simply badly performed. I've been to Masses with wonderful music, but with a rather theatrical and operatic style that can be distracting. I've been to Masses in which parishioners themselves have begun singing from the pew whatever hymn they chose. The Sunday Mass I attended at 11 am on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord had no music; the Alleluia was not chanted, the Sanctus was not chanted--there was no music at the Mass at all. At one daily Mass, a recording of a song was played during the distribution of Communion.

One wonders why this must be so. Rome is a musician-dense city, like Washington or New York. Furthermore, from what I understand from musician friends, they work for much less money. A cantor-organist combination could easily be hired for less than the cost of either musician alone in the metropolitan US.

One obstacle to sacred music that the two countries have in common is that we have become accustomed to a widely accepted musical idiom that musicians know to be banal. An Italian version of the popular bilingual American song Pescador de Hombres is popular in Rome,  for example, and there are local equivalents to our own "pop" composers. The only excuse possible for these lesser types of music, which are in every way unworthy of the Mass, is the likewise widely accepted misreading of Sacrosanctum Concilium and its call for actual participation--a misreading that our previous two pontificates have repeatedly tried to correct.

Fortunately there are also excellent examples of truly sacred music, which after all has the strongest possible heritage in the Eternal City. They include:
  • The English College and the North American College. These two seminaries have incorporated vernacular propers, gorgeous polyphony, and often chanted ordinaries into their already robust traditions of hymn singing. Doubtless other seminaries have as well. The interest of rising seminarians and young clerics in truly sacred music suggests that marvelously hopeful things are in store for the future.
  • St. Peter's Basilica. Some English-speaking critics fault the Sistine Chapel choir for not sounding more like German or English choirs. I do not think this is fair. Italian-sung music moves differently from music conceived in countries where language is less multi-syllabic and spoken in a less cadential way. Where speech is different, music will be different. The tango couldn't arise in New Orleans any more than jazz could arise in Buenos Aires. These regional differences in choir sounds should be accepted as part of the richness of the Church's music. The choir wisely avoids sounding operatic--according to Magisterial cautions that other accomplished choirs in the city might well heed. The only exaggeration that I hear, and again, this could be simply American ears talking, is a tendency towards an extreme of ritardando and diminuendo at cadences. I believe these could both be moderated for an overall better effect.
  • Santissima Trinità dei Pellegrini. This FSSP parish's music program is by far the best I have heard in Rome. The music is concert-quality, full stop. A paying concert audience could not demand better singing on any level. And yet there is nothing in the music, no display, to suggest that the music is being sung at anything but a Mass--and a Mass that is being celebrated with the highest care and beauty, as are the Masses at the seminaries and St. Peter's. Recollection is easy, prayer is easy, in a Mass such as this, which is probably why Santissima Trinità is so crowded with young adults.
Undoubtedly there are many other excellent examples. I have heard that the choir of at least one of the undergraduate universities in Rome routinely sings Renaissance polyphony--much like in the States, where college-age young people tend to be much more interested in sacred music than the previous generation or two. This gives me much hope that the future is bright, and that many of our problems are due to simple misunderstandings, and that the Holy Spirit is actively working to build us back up again where we had rather lost sight of the heights to which we are called.
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