Rock on, Rock on…

Over on the Musica Sacra site, I promised to write something about a recent experience that I had while attending Mass at another parish. It was a strange experience but I ended up feeling very optimistic.

I had reason to attend another parish’s mid-morning Sunday Mass a couple of weeks ago. I glanced at the music schedule and noticed that the Contemporary Ensemble would be serving, but my reasons for going outweighed any reticence I might have about the music. I arrived a few minutes early and noticed that this Mass was packed to rafters (I found out that all of them are. It’s a huge parish). I also noticed the drums and amplifiers and a few young singers checking microphones. Nothing new to me. I expected the usual OCP-style fare, but as the musicians set up, the director announced that they were going to teach the Responsorial Psalm. It was an original composition (I think) and very funky, something like you might hear on Bourbon St in New Orleans (I know this style very well, mind you). The director played piano and sang and the choir was mostly used for backup vocals. On the other hand, I will admit that it was played very well. These guys really had their act together and were fine popular-style musicians. The balance was good, the time was on and they were tight. The singers were good, too, but in an American Idol sort of way. I’m afraid that I am quite incapable now of actually praying the Psalm with music like this. It is just too distracting for me. Another aside… I find that most of the assembly at any Mass kind of dreads the Responsorial Psalm. There are many and varied reasons for this.

The preparations over, the Mass commenced with a Contemporary Christian classic that extolled how awesome God was and how we were going to praise him all the time. No real problem there. Many entrance songs and hymns have this sentiment, BUT no one sang. Again, for me the style of music really seemed out of sync with the liturgical action. The Kyrie was spoken and the Gloria was by Matt Maher, I think… I think some folks sang, but I really couldn’t tell. There was one woman behind me that must have been in that “choir” at some point. She knew it well, but the exception proved the rule here. The next musical item was the Responsorial Psalm that, even with the practice, no one sang along. The Alleluia was another great rocker that I did not know (and neither did the congregation from the sound of them). Offertory was another “You’re a great God and I’m gonna praise you all the time” CC song. No one sang along. The other Mass parts were again some contemporary setting I’ve not heard. Communion featured a new-age-style piano solo and then a ballad about, you guessed it, how awesome God is and how much much I’m praise him. The concluding song that the group played and sang was on the very same topic and true to Catholic form, most of the folks were headed for the parking lot, long before it was over (at least they don’t discriminate). By the way, did I mention this was the feast of the Baptism of Our Lord. One would never know from the music selected.

By the time Mass was over, I felt like I needed to go to Confession, so I stayed for a bit to pray and calm down. While doing so, it hit me. I recalled that no one was singing. I’ll bet they really liked the musical style and many may have actually made the trip just for it, but by and large they didn’t sing. In fact, I notice that folks will sing more at Masses that use the usual old-school popular style. For those of us who truly believe that there IS a “church music,” the OCP and GIA material is the biggest barrier to reclaiming a higher level of musical worship. The music I heard at this Mass was so much better than most of that stuff, but no one sang along. My friends, I believe that this might provide the necessary opening needed to reintroduce chanted prayer in the Catholic Church. At some point priests are going to notice that this new music is not accomplishing what music is supposed to do. They will be receptive if shown how a congregation can really fill a room with very simple chant (like the Snow Lord’s Prayer setting). This move to “real” contemporary music might just be a blessing in disguise. I have hope.

Magi viderunt stellam

My New Year’s resolution is to post a bit more this year. I promised some comments on Spanish polyphony, so here goes. I had the opportunity to program Victoria’s Magi viderunt stellam some years ago and I wondered how well known this lovely motet is. It’s set in the transposed mode 2 (a favorite of the Spanish), but the frequent Eb’s and cadential F#’s lend it a decidedly G minor flavor. There is a bit of musical imagery at the beginning as the Magi’s melodies travel up and down in a wavy pattern. Note the rise in the line at “stellam” as well. The entire second half of this beautiful work is taken up with repetitions of the 3 gifts, featuring some nice passages of parallel 3rds. I would often take the tempo up slightly at the Alleluia section for a bit more effect.

Victoria’s style is certainly Spanish, but Palestrina’s (or perhaps a general Roman) influence is never far away. Unlike Morales, Spaniards never thought of Victoria as a “foreign” composer. What is Spanish? I hear it in the lower ranges (perhaps to fit the shawm ranges) and occasionally the local chants, when they are present. Also the liberal use of cadential chromaticism is something one hears a lot in late Renaissance and Portuguese polyphony. A joyous Epiphany, everyone!

The score is the Victoria volumes of MME, but also at CPDL


A quick email from Jeffery Tucker convinced me to give this blogging thing a go, and I thank him very much for considering my thoughts on sacred music to be worth sharing. I’ll certainly do my best, but for now I will simply introduce myself to the fine readers here.

I won’t bore you with a list of my musical credentials, but I probably should say that I have a PhD in Historical Musicology from the Florida State University, where I spent a bit of time the fine early music ensemble. I remember my first graduate seminar paper topic. I had no idea what to write about, having recently decided to “try out” musicology at the master’s level. I told my professor that I spoke a little Spanish and might want to look in that direction. Long story short, I produced a paper on the only named composer in the Las Huelgas Codex, one Johannes Roderici (aka Johan Rodriguez). Little did I know that this paper would become my first conference paper and lead to an entry in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd Edition. More importantly the research prompted me to think a bit about the liturgy of the Middle Ages and how different it was from the Mass I attended near the university.

I was playing bass guitar in the “choir” and having a pretty good time. I even took my future wife to church on our first date! Well, I recall playing along one day, but before Mass ended I recalled thinking “This isn’t right.” I was more concerned with how people appreciated my playing than what I was playing for. Within a few weeks I quit the contemporary group and began attending the music-less Mass. There was no other option to escape the GIA material that was presented at all the other Masses.

It wasn’t until I got my first DM job in a little town in SE PA that I began to really see the issues in our sacred music. Whenever I tried to make things a little more dignified, I was cornered by someone who did not like it at all. It didn’t matter that the choir was sounding better than it ever had and that I could hear people singing the more traditional hymns and the chanted Lord’s Prayer. Everyone was deathly afraid that the young people would leave en masse. Well, I learned that they were going to leave in any case since it was traditional to stop attending Mass after Confirmation, since parents felt they had done their jobs and wouldn’t drive them to church anymore. Needless to say, I was appalled. I tried to put together a contemporary group for Saturday Masses, but it didn’t seem to help much and I hated doing it. I eventually moved to Gettysburg and took the position at the historic church downtown and was heartened to have only organ and choir or cantor. Still, there was only so far we could go before resistance cropped up. I thought I might be crazy, but it was that year that I attended my first Colloquium. Needless to say that I saw what “could be” and met fellow travelers on the road to reforming church music. It truly was a glimpse of heaven. I also realized that my academic work and my spiritual life could work together.

So, the point of this ramble was let you know that I will focus my comments on a few matters. In particular, I want to look at the Divine Office in the usus antiquior. This is particularly on my mind these days as I write about Spanish practices in the Renaissance. I am currently working on a collection of essays contributed by the top scholars of historical hispanic music — chant and polyphony. I also want to present my thoughts on some of the excellent recordings of polyphony that I run across.

I hope what I have to offer is interesting. It will be fun for me. I would say more, but I hear a baby crying and must run.