The Role of the Cantor

There are some preachers so intent on finding a text to suit the day that this very concern for appropriateness makes them overlook the criterion of usefulness, so that they take texts which contain little or nothing that is of any use to their audience. People like this should be called church cantors rather than preachers of Christ. It is the job of the church’s cantors to chant the texts which are proper to the season or the feast, without regard to whether the sense of what they are singing is useful to those who listen or not.

Blessed Humbert of Romans

The Pious Imperative

Like many parishes this first Eastertide Sunday in May, the choirs at my parish will be singing several versions of the Regina Caeli. I wonder how many folks have stopped to consider the paradox of this text. We, with our limited vision and holiness, are exhorting Our Lady, with all her privileges of knowledge and love, to rejoice. Mary, whose mere voice sounding in her cousin’s ears made John the Baptist leap for joy in the womb, already rejoices exceedingly. And yet we, the Church militant, as yet on the path to redemption, exhort her, who is full of grace, to rejoice. And then we explain to her the reason why she should do so.

I take this verbal construction to be a kind of literary license, not to be taken at face value. Somehow, by saying to Mary “rejoice,” we are not helping her but helping ourselves. We are not cheering her on, like fans in the stadium during the race, but entering into her exultation, like fans during the victory lap. Or rather, we are the runners, and are cheering on ourselves, by praising the Lord for her victory, her salvation, and her joy.

Music and the New Evangelization 2

From Religion and Imagination ‘in aid of a grammar of assent’ by John Coulson.

When the vital connection between religion and imagination is either overlooked or denied, it is not merely theology or the theologian that suffers. The very life of religion ebbs and becomes infertile. (p. 3)

To what extent can a belief be said to be established as true, if it has failed to convince or to be successfully brought alive and made real? (p. 4)

It is literature which shows us that we cannot rest in a purely negative conception of imagination. It does more than suspend our disbelief. It predisposes us to believe in what it has realized. (p. 7)

When we “use imagination,” we begin to see our world differently. Our standpoint or focus changes, but this act of imagination remains incomplete until spontaneously and creatively we gain an enlarged sense of reality. But our powers of perception are more than merely enlarged. They are reordered. (p. 8)

Announcing the Feast: Why Antiphons?

From Jason McFarland’s book:

Without a doubt, responsorial or antiphonal singing is especially suitable for processions because such songs have an open musical form and thus a variable length that can accommodate the infinitely variable length of an entrance procession. Repeated antiphons also facilitate active participation because the gathered faithful can sing them from memory, in contrast to singing a hymn from a book, and thus engage more fully in the entrance procession. (p. 110)

Indeed, antiphons are a unique liturgical-textual genre. Their purpose is neither to proclaim nor to allude to the ancient Christian textual tradition, but to appropriate it. In so doing, antiphons reflect and pass on a tradition of textual interpretation. This occurs through the way a specific antiphon text employs the textual tradition and relates to and interacts with its verses to produce a particular Christian meaning, and then how the antiphon and verses together relate to and reveal something about a specific day of the liturgical year, thereby announcing “the mystery of the liturgical time or festivity” (GIRM 47). (p. 167)

The Music of the Spheres

Organ pipes, like the sun, are filled with sound-waves. Find out more on the NOVA special tonight at 9 pm EDT. Film footage of both the sun and organ pipes (the latter filmed at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception) will be featured.

New Year’s Resolution: Beginning to Sing the Propers

If your parish is considering using the proper texts of the Mass, and if you are not sure how to make the transition from hymns to propers, Hymn Tune Propers might be the solution you are seeking for the upcoming liturgical new year. Charles Giffen and I have worked together to produce this booklet of Advent propers. The texts are my adaptations of the daily and Sunday Entrance Antiphons, rhymed and metered in 8.8.8.8. iambic (Long Meter) verses. Charles has set these verses to familiar Long Meter tunes: Conditor Alme Siderum (Creator of the Stars of Night), Winchester New (On Jordan’s Bank), and, for December 17-24, Veni, Veni, Emmanuel (O Come, O Come, Emmanuel). Optional Psalm verses are provided, in traditional Anglican chant, except for the days of the O Antiphons, and Dec. 24, when the antiphon is followed by the refrain: Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

The Hymn Tune Propers project is envisioned as a “first step” in parish music renewal. It offers an easy and accessible way for parishes accustomed to singing hymns–a majority of parishes–to sing in their familiar musical style, but using the Church’s universal texts. Parishioners on a wide scale can have access to the liturgical texts that are often hidden from them by the custom of singing hymns in place of the processional chants.

In my opinion, this is not a long-term solution for any parish, for both musical and textual reasons. The musical style of hymnody is not flexible enough to foster true cantillation of the liturgical text. In my versifications I have made small compromises in meaning and imagery in order to accommodate meter and rhyme. But it is a useful, easy, non-confrontational first step in helping parishioners become familiar with the existence of propers, to know and love the liturgical bounty they represent, and to have a chance to become more deeply immersed in “the mystery of the liturgical season or festivity” (GIRM para. 47).

Saints and their Hymns

     “The church of Milan had only recently begun to employ this mode of consolation and exaltation with all the brethren singing together with great earnestness of voice and heart. For it was only about a year — not much more — since Justina, the mother of the boy-emperor Valentinian, had persecuted thy servant Ambrose on behalf of her heresy, in which she had been seduced by the Arians. The devoted people kept guard in the church, prepared to die with their bishop, thy servant. Among them my mother, thy handmaid, taking a leading part in those anxieties and vigils, lived there in prayer. And even though we were still not wholly melted by the heat of thy Spirit, we were nevertheless excited by the alarmed and disturbed city.

     This was the time that the custom began, after the manner of the Eastern Church, that hymns and psalms should be sung, so that the people would not be worn out with the tedium of lamentation. This custom, retained from then till now, has been imitated by many, indeed, by almost all thy congregations throughout the rest of the world.” St. Augustine, Confessions

Click here for Blessed Henry Cardinal Newman’s hymn, Praise to the Holiest in the Height

Evaluating Hymns: the Verbs

In one of the main theaters at the historic Mt. Vernon Estate they show a video about Washington’s key Revolutionary War victory at the Battle of Trenton. It’s never boring, though I’ve seen it a hundred times, and until today I’d attributed this to the special effects. There are big soap-bubble snowflakes that fall from the ceiling during the Crossing of the Delaware, for example, and the cannon fire makes the seats shake like a 32″ contra bombarde in a clapboard church. But they’ve just installed a caption screen for the hard of hearing, and as I read the narration for the first time, I realized why the movie was never boring: the verbs. Screen after screen passed without a single form of the verb “to be.” Instead, there were real verbs: marched, refused, surprised, attacked. There were only a few “was”es and “were”s to slow down the action.
A similarly vigorous use of verbs characterizes many of our greatest English language hymns, like those of Charles Wesley and Isaac Watts, and of other great hymn writers. In the five common-use verses of Watts’ Jesus Shall Reign, for example, there is one use of “be,” and in all eight verses of Watt’s original hymn, there are only two. In two popular versifications of the Te Deum, Clarence Walworth’s translation of Grosser Gott and Christopher Idle’s God We Praise You, action verbs predominate and the use of “be” is very limited.
Limiting verbs that merely function, that merely link together nouns  with other nouns or adjectives, and instead choosing true action verbs, greatly increases verbal density. This is hugely important in poetic forms such as hymns, which are meant to be dense speech. The tongue delights to trip through the rich forest of verbs in Jesus Shall Reign: reign, run, stretch, wax, wane–and that is just the first verse.
There are exceptions, of course. In Wesley’s epic hymn Wrestling Jacob (which Watts said was worth all the verses he himself had written) the verb “to be” is prevalent, and yet highly meaningful, because Jacob’s own question “What is your name?” makes the verb “to be” into a real verb. It is God’s own Is-ness that Jacob seeks. The same can be said of all four uses of forms of “be” in Holy, Holy, Holy: they refer to God’s I Am-ness, God as Being. They are not linking verbs but real verbs.