New Parish Polyphony

I often find myself even more inspired by amateur performances than professional ones, but this recording is very special indeed. It is a group started by a seminarian in a tiny parish in Mississippi. They have only been together for one month. This is the third piece that they have sung at Mass. Their singing has brought new inspiration and life to the parish, with accolades pouring in. At first the pastor was reluctant but, seeing the effects, he is now fully on board with the program. It begins differently in every parish. This is one direction one can take. In most parishes today, there is no choral program at all, so this kind of effort amounts to flowers blooming in a desert. Absolutely thrilling. Have a listen.

The Christopher Page Book

In recent days, I find myself constantly talking about The Christian West and Its Singers: The First Thousand Years. There can be no question that his account is seminal and, of course, deeply interesting to anyone who sings at liturgy or has an interest in Gregorian chant. I’m thrilled by the intense focus on the subject that I care about most deeply, so the book is a joy from the first to the last. It begins in the Apostolic period and goes all the way to Guido d’Arezzo. The production values are fantastic (thank you Yale University). My only complaint is that the book is so heavy that I could not bring it with my on travels so all I can do at the moment is look forward to getting back to my reading. I aspire, actually, to live blog the book in the Chant Cafe, chapter by chapter. Live blogging a book can be rigorous and draining but it is a wonderful way to learn. This book is certainly worth such a detailed treatment. Perhaps it will happen. In any case, you should get your own copies so we can discuss it in the comments box as we go along. The price is certainly right. I say again to Professor Page: your book is a marvel and you deserve profound congratulations on this monumental work.

“Why Do We Keep Singing this Music?”

This week at Acton University, I was in casual conversation with a professor of theology at a Catholic seminary and the topic of music came up. She did not really know of my activities here or in music at all but when she found out that I had written a book on Catholic music, she asked me a pointed question. “Why do parishes and seminaries continue to sing music that is so obviously inferior to what has come before?”

I asked her to explain what she meant. First she gave provisos that she is not a musician and knows nothing about the topic. Then she went on to describe her gradual discovery that she could pretty much tell if some hymn is suitable for Mass based on its publication date. If it was composed anywhere between 1960 and the current day, it was likely to be silly and thin and not really very serious. It was likely to be a song that just didn’t seem very churchy.  In contrast, she said, she has variously sung hymns from the 19th century that are strong and inspiring and seem suitable for reasons she couldn’t entirely identify.

Perhaps you know this narrative well. I’ve heard it dozens of times, even hundreds of times. But she persisted in asking why. Why is it that this inferior music continues to be printed and sung but the great music of the past is not? I thought for a moment and first began with the explanation that this debate between old and new hymns is probably the wrong debate, that we really need to be talking about the problem of all hymns from all times replacing the actual text and music of the Mass centered on the propers and chant ordinaries. This intrigued her; she had not heard this before.

Still, she persisted: given that we are singing hymns, even if we should be singing propers instead, why do we sing these hymns and not better ones? I do understand what she means. In general I think she is correct – with all provisos for the sappy material in St. Gregory Hymnal and the like. In general, she has a point. There are many answers to the question I could give, and even then I’m not sure I know the one most important reason.

And yet, in the end, all issues of culture and taste and the triumph of mediocrity granted, the factor most often overlooked is the issue of copyright. The older hymns are in public domain. The CMAA has made hundreds available for free. But the newer hymns are all held in a proprietary legal arrangement bound up with royalty payments to publishers, writers, arrangers, and composers. That means that the publishers can extract money from congregations, pay their employees, pay whatever is leftover to composers, charge people for using them, license them out to other publishers, and so on.

The entire economic viability of these publishing firms that dominate our parishes is bound up with this state-based regulatory institution. If you doubt it, take a look at the ostentatious display of GIA’s copyright warchest in the back of Gather Comprehensive, for example. Here you find a major driving force behind the strange mystery of the persistence of bad music. None of this music has stood the test of time and most of it will not. That means that there is money to be made in the short run. Using public domain material, to put it very bluntly, doesn’t pay the bills.

I would like to know more about this, and much of what I’m saying here is based on hunches drawn from other industries and not inside knowledge about the ledgers of the big three. Whether it is the number one factor or just one among many, it is certainly the least talked about element of this debate.

Regardless, however, no one is forcing parishes to buy this material. The pastors who support these institutions with parishioner dollars are doing so of their own free will. They can stop anytime. So to some extent my explanation really explains nothing at all. As Adam Bartlett has written and emphasized, we lived in changing times in which digital media provides ever more free options to the warchests of the old-line publishers. If more parishes start to use them, there will come a time when the problem and mystery of inferior music will be no more.

Qui Vult Venire

This communio for this Sunday is very special indeed. Its economy is notable. It is a beautiful tune in a very short space, covering a very wide range, and with some interesting modulations and tensions. Most of all what we find here is an unmistakable forward motion that befits the text: If a man wish to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow.

As a first mode chant, its tonal center is RE but other than the first phrase, the chant doesn’t dwell in this resting place. It always seems to be headed somewhere else. Notice its midpoint on MI, which creates a musical question of what is to follow. We move up a fourth to the LA to sing about the cross, again with moving force.

We arrive at the last phrase, which is the most intriguing. In three words, we reach from the highest point in this chant to it lowest, nearly an entire octave. But notice the last musical phrase. Instead of going RE ME RE, as we might expect in a communion chant, it dips down to DO. It is a vocally interesting passage because we don’t often encounter this sound at the end of a chant.

We might say that this musical turn it is unexpected. A surprise. We have traveled a direction that we might not have anticipated. The singer even notices a near loss of breath. It is a subtle but powerful effect. If we follow Christ we must be prepared to go places that are unusual, places that do not fit in with our plans, places that are unfamiliar. But they always end in our true home.

Pittsburgh and Chant

I’m writing from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a town I’m just getting to know, and I’m wild about the place. What strikes me immediately is the remarkable range of architecture, materials, and styles used to make this place, all created over a very long period of time, all delightfully lacking in evidence of central coordination but somehow all cohering in a spontaneous order. It is huge, industrial, complicated, and beautiful in its way – highly suggestive of history with technology from all times currently in operation, an impressive demonstration of intratemporal and intergenerational life that is all working together. The unifying theme is the working together of design and function.

It might at first seem to be an implausible home for the holding of the CMAA Chant Intensive and Colloquium. The setting is not monastic. It is not a city of gardens and natural beauty so much as a city in which the work of human hands is everywhere in evidence. But in the same way that chant, with all its transcendent and divine qualities, must ultimately be rendered by human voices singing in places built and maintained by human hands, it strikes me as a perfect place for these programs to be held. 

Like Pittsburgh the city, the chant which was similarly born across many generations. No one sat down one day and wrote the chants and codified them. They grew up alongside and integral with the Roman Rite, becoming ever more embedded in the ritual through trial and error and achieving stability and universality through use and function. We look at the entire body of chant and we are in awe of its sheer size. Sometimes we are intimidated by its scope. We know that we can never get to know it in a lifetime and yet we experience joy exploring every bit of it.

It is the same with a great city. The whole can be awesome and intimidating. Yet as we explore it and get to know small pieces of it each day, our appreciation intensifies for the whole. It seems ever friendlier by the day. We can move faster through it. We get to know the tricks of transportation, and learn where to shop and where to live. Eventually, if we live there long enough, we become natives, which means that it seems truly like home. It doesn’t happen all at once. No great city is immediately accessible. A great city is something that we get to know slowly, one fascination at a time.

Like a great city, chant is also something that will outlast our lifetimes. We have but a short time to participate in its living aspects, aware that we are surrounded by the ghosts of the previous generations that experienced it and knowing too that how we handle our period of domesticity will have some measure of influence on our future generations will experience it. Both chant and Pittsburgh are filled with millions upon millions of stories, each one fascinating in its own way. Our voices and lives become part of story if we take on the challenge.

When Will the Texts Stabilize?

According to Jerry Galipeau of WLP, the final version of the English for the new translation of the Mass is still in flux. Rome has approved a version but there are so many requests for changes and exceptions and indults that the publishers still don’t have a stable version that can be used to prepare materials at Mass. It is fascinating to see how the musical considerations are oddly forgotten whenever the liturgy goes through another upheaval.