Hymns, Hymns and more Hymns!

The subject of hymns replacing Mass Propers is not a new one.  Often there is a simple misunderstanding of spoken versus sung Mass, and the lack of catechesis on this topic. It appears common in our age to prefer neither High or Low, trading it in for a confused “Middle Mass”.

At the Middle Mass, clergy can remain comfortable in their way of praying, apart from obedience to the Liturgy.  Musicians in turn “choose” music at whim, trying their best to select something close to the readings, with an occasional sung antiphon.  The Alleluia is sung on weekdays, to avoid that awkward silence during the Gospel procession, while the Psalm itself is spoken.  Chant is simply an option, often inserted to check a rubrical box.  Is this really what the Church intends?  Creativity and hymns?  As has been thoroughly discussed, I quote a previous article from this forum:   Instead of receiving the Mass that is given, we make the Mass that we choose.
In a recent diocesan Instruction on Sacred Music, there is a good desire put forth to unify parishes and their music programs.  A five year plan is promulgated which requires the use of a diocesan hymnal (for better or worse), simple English congregational communion antiphons, and learning English/Latin versions of the Funeral Mass.   At its current charge, music directors now have to submit their choral music to the chancery for approval.  Palestrina, Handel and Byrd, look out; but modern hymnody is ok!
This instruction causes much confusion, departing from earlier instruction and conflicts greatly with Ecclesial directives on Sacred music.  In essence, it encourages hymns and once again endorses the Middle Mass.  

At a Sung Mass, the Priest and Deacon sing their parts, primarily leading acclamations that are responded to:  “The Lord be with You”, “The Gospel of the Lord”, etc.

At a Sung Mass, the Choir sings the Mass Propers: Introit, Psalm, Alleluia, Offertory, and Communion.  

At a Sung Mass, the congregation or choir may sing the Mass Ordinary: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei.  

At a Spoken Mass, none of these parts are sung:  Acclamations, Mass Propers, or Mass Ordinary. Hymns have been permitted as devotional items, with their principal use remaining within the Divine Office.
Mass Propers can be sung in various settings, chiefly Gregorian chant and Sacred polyphony. Choirs and scholae hold an esteemed place of beauty, adornment, and solemn praise.  They provide a spiritual haven for the congregation to pray, as their diligent work promotes Sacred scripture, clothing it in beauty.  Truly vocal and choral music provide the glorification of God and sanctification of the faithful.

The silence and austere awe that is present at a spoken Mass is truly a gift for God and for us.  Let us not lose this!  

The joy and exuberant melismaticism present in the sung Mass is truly a gift for God and for us.  Let us not lose this!

The Middle Mass pushes an agenda of mediocrity, hoping to please all.  We dumb-down chant as merely an option.  Choral music is often discouraged or altogether deleted, in favor of the cantor or choir as an “extension of the people”.  Hymns, often replete with non-Catholic Theology become the norm.  The problem is not hymns or hymnals, it is the Middle Mass.  
Clergy and faithful alike need to reclaim our musical heritage.  Certainly a stepwise approach can be taken, but these steps are not 5 year plans to learn the ICEL chants/funeral Mass, or simple communion refrain ditties in English, resulting in an increased impoverishment of choirs and cracking down on those already adhering to orthodoxy.  
Hymns shouldn’t replace Propers!  Propers should replace hymns!  Sing the Mass!  If you can’t, then let it be silent!

7 Replies to “Hymns, Hymns and more Hymns!”

  1. Thanks for this, Nathan. I can't really understand all the excitement about this mandate. Yes, it is wonderful that a bishop is taking interest in sacred music in his diocese, and it seems that he really intends to make improvements and bring parishes in line with certain aspects of musical legislation, but there are major drawbacks to this mandate and the complete ignoring of other elements of the legislation. It seems like no one running a serious music program was consulted, and anyone running a serious music program would rightly find these demands a burden.

    I think the real issue here is UTILITY. There is an effort at re-establishing the first priority that the antiphons have in the Mass, but English settings that everyone can sing are bound to be less musically interesting and may end up having the effect of making people dislike "the propers." As Pius X says, without being "true musical art," a piece of music is simply unsuitable for Divine worship, even if it has the correct text. We've spent too much time producing filler music for the Mass, and these sort of refrain antiphons are just more of the same. I think one would be hard pressed to say that a really beautiful hymn tune, well sung, with an artful text is less worthy of the liturgy than a boring communion antiphon, produced simply so that the right text is sung at the right time and everyone is singing along.

    And to think that someone has to ask permission to use a piece of choral music from the treasury of sacred music is silly. I know it may have the aim of getting rid of choral music that deserves no place in the canon, but a mandate can be better constructed so as to really support a serious music program rather than applying to everyone a rule intended to disallow really bad music.

    Of course, the notion of utility also leads to what you point out with the problem of continuing to focus on hymns, and to focus mostly on the texts of the hymns rather than the overall ensemble of text + music. This is the same problem the USCCB had when trying to address the problem a few years back. Yes, it is good to get rid of heterodox texts, but bad or insipid music can be just as damaging. Because sacred music is an embodiment of the faith, a sort of incarnated artifact of what we believe (in addition to it being the actual, sung liturgy itself), music that is kitschy or badly-written makes people think that the faith is a farce or not worthy of serious attention. No true reform of hymns can stop (or even start) at addressing text only, and it's all the more ineffective when something like Archbishop Sample's deeper understanding of the priority of the Mass Propers seems to be nearly absent.

    Kudos to the bishop for caring, but this could have been more thoughtfully constructed. I hope other bishops will note the care a bishop should have for sacred music in his diocese that the mandate represents, but learn from the shortcomings of this document.

  2. "And to think that someone has to ask permission to use a piece of choral music from the treasury of sacred music is silly. I know it may have the aim of getting rid of choral music that deserves no place in the canon, but a mandate can be better constructed so as to really support a serious music program rather than applying to everyone a rule intended to disallow really bad music."

    While I agree in principle with this sentiment, can you realistically suggest an alternative approach? It is exceedingly difficult to draw a line that demarcates music that is (or should be) treasured from that that is not (or shouldn't be) treasured. The stipulation that one has to ask (and obtain?) permission to use a piece of choral music, while odious to those with outstanding music credentials and excellent music programs, is not that large a price to pay if it succeeds in rooting out bad music … especially from programs that may view themselves as outstanding in some way or another but are, in fact, somewhat deficient.

    One has to realize that, in addition to the treasured music of the Renaissance masters, there is now … especially now … a new Renaissance of creativity in sacred and liturgical music that cannot and should not be ignored. I only hope that such contemporaneous gems will pass muster and be admitted to the canon of acceptable or even desirable sacred music.

  3. What I'd realistically suggest is the same thing that the Church has done throughout history (even in times of equally dire music being written — e.g., the operatic ditties in the early 20th century) in dictating standards for choral music:
    – promote Gregorian chant as the supreme model of sacred music;
    – give guidelines for the writing of choral music (e.g., textually intelligibility is important, secular influences are not admissible, must approach the savor and form of chant, holding up Renaissance polyphony as a good example of something that is not chant but that is suitable for Divine worship)

    While a lot of people wish bishops would "do their jobs" and simply boot out bad music from the liturgy, there are reasons that the Church has always resorted to these two ways of approaching this particular problem in the past:
    – Artists, as you point out even in our current time, can always come up with ways of writing truly beautiful and worthy sacred music that bishops and clergy couldn't imagine. This approach offers a guiding hand rather than an iron fist in fostering the talents of composers.
    – A really profound understanding of the chant (as Dr. Mahrt continually points out) teaches composers and others what the beauty and inner logic and spirit of the Roman rite are, thus offering musical and spiritual insight and discernment into what's appropriate for the liturgy and what's not.

    As the bishop's mandate stands and as Nathan's post points out, Gregorian chant plays a meager role in forming "what an ideal music program should be" in the minds of people, looking instead to hymnody as a main tool for reform. If the only chant people are exposed to is one simple Mass setting and a non-Gregorian chant-like refrain, they aren't going to have a good idea of what type of choral music is appropriate for Mass. A broader encouragement of the use of Gregorian chant would, practically speaking, go further in forming people in this regard than simply requiring permission for choral music.

    Also, the way the mandate is framed makes it seem like congregational singing is a good which trumps the good of Gregorian chant as the native musical language of the Roman rite; to sing choral music that the congregation can't sing is made out to be a problem solved by the bishop's permission. This is contrary not only to common sense (which evidences the need for beautiful music, unsingable by a congregation, in the sacred liturgy) but also to Church legislation which prizes the (unsingable by a congregation) body of choral repertoire in the Church's treasury of sacred music. Permission to sing these things can't be taken away by a bishop because it is granted by the Church's own universal legislation. The real problem is not whether a choir is singing music that the congregation is not singing, but that some music that a choir sings without the congregation is bad music and/or has a problematic text. Giving the impression (even though likely unintended) that a choir singing without the congregation is problematic in and of itself hinders the understanding of what sacred music is or should be, and this problem could have been avoided by writing the mandate according to the principles I mention above and leaving out the "permission of the bishop" stipulation.

    Moreover, who is approving these requests? If text is seemingly the only concern (as the mandate gives the impression it is) and style is no matter, there isn't much that's going to be technically inadmissible and the rule is just annoying. For example, something that sets a text of the Scriptures is going to be considered orthodox and permissible, even if the music is terrible. One would hope that this sort of rule would admit of disallowing music that is bad music + orthodox text, but the mandate leaves the impression that artistic considerations aren't coming to bear in these decisions.

  4. "While I agree in principle with this sentiment, can you realistically suggest an alternative approach?"

    An alternative approach is to return to the original Pastoral Letter. While it was esteemed in the new instruction, it deviates substantially from the original liberal approach of a more parish-based implementation. Rather than growing from the ground up, each parish at a different level, this new instruction now presumes that everybody must start from scratch, returning to musical Kindergarten.

    Mandating Missa Iubilate Deo and simple english propers at communion seems like a nice approach on the surface, but neither require an improvement to the ars celebrandi, instead we reach for simplicity and ease. Many parishes already learned the Mass setting, embedded in the 2011 Roman Missal. Many parishes already sing propers, some even from the Gradual, and a few in treasured choral settings. Are they now to abandon their hard work and trade it in for syllabic chant? I can think of no better way than to discourage choirs.

    An alternative approach is to learn these simple chants in one year's time, en route to Missa de Angelis, Orbis Factor, or even a modern reverent setting of the Ordinary, affording the choir more time to learn more noble works.

    An alternative approach is to trust the skilled music directors you have, and hire more trained ones to follow liturgical directives that continue to be ignored.

    An alternative approach is require choral music to be God-centered, chiefly from Sacred Scripture, and more often than not, written by esteemed composers. How can one police this? Pastors and Associates should already be attentive to these matters, not necessarily in a watchdog manner, but rooting out poor choices, or encouraging better ones. Their formation is key, something already begun with the initial pastoral letter. It would take little effort for a Diocesan music director or Bishop to submit to priests a list of composers that are esteemed in the Church:

    lots of owski's

    One wouldn't necessarily require music to be from this list, alla black/white list, instead provide a positive approach to what immense treasury the Catholic Church has!

    In the same vein, it would be easy to mention that most modern composers who are well-marketed are in-fact non-Catholic, supportive of wacko agendas and harmful in text and style. Rather than a black list, it would suffice to explain that rolling piano chords, rhythmically driven works, and self-centered "me" texts are not sacred or liturgical.

    An alternative approach is to sing the Mass. The simple communion chant has at its start the intrinsic intention of departing with rubrics. How are people supposed to sing while receiving the Most Holy Body and Blood of our Lord in the Eucharist? How is this simple refrain going to extend the entire length of communion, as rubrics intend? The Instruction itself mentions that a hymn will follow.

    Nobody is intending that new music, the Renaissance thus spoken, is to be abandoned. New music, however, does need to be held to a high standard, perhaps my opinion, but an even higher standard than existing music by esteemed composers. Just as Bach and many other composers' music went unperformed for decades, we need to step back and give more care and concern for the music that we insert into the Sacred Liturgy.

  5. Salicus makes many excellent insights, thank you!

    Choral music requires not the oversight, in as much as the chant. True that more oversight is needed to weed out bad texts and styles, however this is likely an exhaustible task for a small (or large) chancery.

    Hymns and congregational singing are not the focus. O that chant and choral music was given the training and time it will take to formulate a hymnal.

    The points on Pontifical authority overriding existing legislation from a higher ecclesial source are truly key. While helpful to have direction from the ordinary, the laws have already been in place for decades, and in some cases centuries.

    Graduate to the Graduale. Simplify to the Simplex. Liberate the Liber. Keep the Kyriale.

  6. I have many of the same concerns with this document, and I think it could end up doing more harm than good – not just in this diocese, but as an example for other places. "Look what they did in Marquette! The Reform of the Reform crowd wants to ban some music and force everyone to use one hymnal!" Personally, I would rather help people experience and appreciate good music than waste time banning bad music (some extreme heretical cases aside – those do need to be gotten rid of). There's just too much poor music out there, with more coming out every day – you will never be able to keep up with all of it, read through it, and formulate good reasons why it shouldn't be done. And it's not really worth the time.

    I find the treatment of the Communion antiphon particularly disturbing, because I see this antiphon as a logical starting point for the Propers at a parish. We sing the Graduale antiphon every week at the Sioux Falls cathedral, not as a token statement before the hymn, but during the entire communion procession (with psalm verses to extend). This is explicitly allowed in the GIRM. However, some people still argue that it is an abuse to not have congregational singing during communion. According to the Marquette instruction, and going against the GIRM, our practice would not be allowed! To require both the antiphon and congregational singability is to open a whole other can of worms (what defines singability? Can the antiphon be shortened, say when it is 4 or 5 lines long? Who gets to compose these settings, or choose them? etc. etc.). It also limits the musical scope to whatever can be defined as congregational singability. Don't get me wrong – it's great to have congregational singing of the antiphon. But the church never requires that. And the solution to these practical problems is not monolithic.

    The whole idea of congregational propers is a radical departure from history (the propers were always choral) and was sort of glibly held out as an ideal at Vatican II, without, I think, much thought about how to actually implement congregational propers, or whether congregational propers could really work.

  7. In our parish the celebrant chants all the antiphons recto tono himself. Little Latin polyphonic music is sung because the pastor and people don't seem to like any form of "concert music" during Mass, especially if it's in Latin. We had a Tridentine low mass for a short time, but it was dropped for lack of interest..

    Now we don't permit low masses on Sundays or feast days and attendance is still high. Recto tono is employed for greetings, responses to the invitations to pray, for the canons (always sung by the way) ,and for the collects as well. The Kyrie, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei in Greek and Latin are not common, only on feasts.

    We have a fixed prayer of the faithful taken from the Byzantine rite and it is sung by the cantor using Gregorian chant..
    Be careful of banning "unorthodox" hymn writers. The Wesley brothers (Anglican originally) are still the most popular hynodists in the English speaking world. Be careful in forbidding "heretics" and their English and German Christmas carols. The people, my parish is no exception, love them.

    We got rid of our music directors and organists because they insisted they knew best what the faithful wanted. As it turned our Latin masses and polyphonicchoral works went out with the muscians who tried to impose them. This should be a lesson to all in church music. Get smart, know you audience, and if you try to dictate to the masses by imposing your own ideas, especially upon a congregation accustomed to the novus ordo with hynns, don't rely on the pastor to come to your aid. You coud be out on your ear. This happened several times at our church and I know of a similar outcome at other parishes.

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