Thursday, June 11, 2015

What is it that we want, exactly?

Initially I intended to frame this article from the perspective of “being in the twilight” of my career as a church musician. Typically myopic, I’d forgotten about mentors such as Professor Mahrt, Maestros Salamunovich and Wagner, and Msgr. Schuler. Careers span multiple generations. And I wonder if our mentors had a slight sociological advantage in the formation of fundamental values necessary to their calling as church musicians? Mahrt’s famed anecdote about a pastor asking him to start singing English settings of the Mass , hymns and such, to which he replied “I will, when someone writes something worthy of the Mass in English” illustrates that liturgical confidence instilled in him so early in life.

Right now in our situation in Central California, I think we’ve managed the “brick by brick” strategies fairly well and without resistance from any quarter. That said, many might say if they visited all of our 15 Masses over the weekend, that my assessment requires an asterisk. Sure, our 22 year schola/choir has always sung Latin motets, some Latin Ordinaries since day one, and we now have infused SEP/Simple Choral Propers/Choral Communios (Rice)/Weber and Kelly Propers, Kevin Allen’s collection, Noel Jone’s Anthologies, Heath Morber’s English Communion motets into weekly rotation while singing Masses by Mueller, Jernberg, Nickel, Ostrowski and others since MR3. What’s the asterisk for? We offer this RotR at one of those 15 Masses only.

We underwent a complete pastoral change of clerical staff a year ago, and it’s taken a year for things to settle into “smooth functioning.” Our newest associate, a late vocation, is taking weekly tutoring in chanting all the collects from MR3, and he’s already capable of offering the Missa Lecta in the EF, with the goal of moving up to Cantata, Solemn and Requiem. He’s a voracious student which astounds me. Our other associate chants collects, prefaces and the prayers of consecration fairly regularly, and now prefers the “Circumambulation” method of entrance. Even our pastor, who is possessed of fine voice but rarely chants, offered his gratitude to the schola for maintaining the use of Latin at English Masses, reminding the congregation that “Latin is still the mother language of the Church,” direct quote. He then proceed to offer the final blessing in Latin (spoken) flawlessly.

At this point I’m happy to have assisted getting the “sacred, universal and beautiful” maxim ensconced (or at least a foot in the door) in a very diverse parish of four churches. But, what I have not tried to do is shift my managerial style for subordinate leadership from “example, suggestion, catechesis etc.” to mandatory and unilateral change.

The newer voices among us now, Pluth, Ostrowski, Leung, Yanke, Motyka, Woods and many others are now afforded a much larger audience eager to hear and put into practice their advice and strategies to revive liturgically/musically malnourished and impoverished parishes. However, I wonder if their motus operandi’s occasionally have a sort of Marie Antoinette attitude when practicality occasionally conflicts with philosophy. “I want to eat my cake, and have it too” when it comes to programming styles and forms of music that clearly do have pride of place at liturgy, namely chant and polyphony (in the Roman sense) and newer works that are clearly generated in those models?

Over at CCWatershed, Andrew Leung’s methodology involves negotiating three “battles.” The first of these is Theocentric Vs. Anthropocentric textual/lyrical content as regards the theological consonance with RCC tenets/ethos. That is an easy sell here, MSF, NLM and other RotR sites. And this consideration ought to be the first priority of pastors and musicians if they’ve gotten lazy or convenient. But I’d wager that musicians who program “Gather Us In” aren’t much concerned with either of those battle stances. They choose it because they aren’t at all interested in quality of worship, or upsetting a status quo, or they simply don’t want to “learn new stuff.” And if the pastor and congregation provides no evidence of rejecting “Standard Operating Procedure” no battles at all will ensue unless some brave muckraker wants to upset a lot of apple carts. You could solve the poetic hymn versus assigned Proper processional problem with a hymn setting by Pluth, Tietze, Woods and many others, but a reactionary opposition may insist that strophic hymnody belongs to Leung’s second battle: Liturgical Vs. Devotional.

“Hymnody” per se is relegated by liturgical purists to the Liturgy Hours and Devotions. That would likely include Latin metric hymns that are set in chant form. Well, are we prepared to revise the culture of the last half century (and longer actually) by insisting on chanted Propers only? Are we going to then bend to the numerous resources of vernacular chanted Propers rather than going all in with the Liber, Graduale, Gregorian Missal, Graduale Simplex Latin Propers in the OF?
One could then slide over to the Ordinary and ask the same questions. If your congregation has successfully acquired Bob Hurd’s Missa Ubi Caritas in Latin, are the only other settings you can move to are the Gregorian settings? Or if your choir and congregation can sing the Proulx Missa Oecumenica or the Jernberg Neri, should you next shoot for the Schubert in G, or Lord help us, the Vierne? If you sing a Kevin Allen polyphonic Sanctus in Latin, should you regularly program the Hassler Missa Dixit Maria? I want all these cakes! They’re all sacred, universal and beautiful!

I’m not inclined to deliberate Leung’s third battle, “Revolution Vs. Reform.” I think perhaps his premise is that the Church’s post-conciliar “song” devolved (or gravitated to what Tom Day called the “sweet song” option) into misappropriation of secular, idiomatic musical styles and forms. I don’t believe that’s wholly incorrect. But I think that contemporaneous genres often defy simple categorization, and that it is not a fait complite that some “classical” Latin Masses heard in the last fifty years belted out by Cappella Sixtini are of a higher nature, or more simply put, more worthy in terms of beauty than some Masses by Joncas, Schiavone or Janco.
These observations won’t sit well with many of my friends like Dr. Kwasniewski who argue well for the narrower, clear cut with less “options” method, that, prioritized or not, still make room for the "My Little Pony" sort of setting as licit under the GIRM. But I think a lot of our contentiousness is because we simply want to have access to all our cakes, and to eat them too. What do you think?