I’m temperamentally inclined toward the old hymn model. This is because they are less subject to changing tastes, whereas what is defined as contemporary changes about every ten years, with the Catholic inevitably about five years behind the times.
Theologically, older hymns tend to be more sound (overall). Plus, there is a sentimental case for old hymns. They help connect us to the past. Another important point is that older hymns do not cause aesthetic offense, whereas few things in this world are as grating as amatuer musicians attempting to sound like pop stars.
Over the years, I’ve had many people say to me, when discovering that I’m a Catholic musician, some version of the following: “I’ve learned to wince whenever I see that a chosen hymn was composed after 1965. I shut my book and try to brace myself until it goes away.”
I’m supposed to agree with this point of view, and I do sympathize with the feeling because I felt this way for years. But more and more, I find that these sorts of comments bother me. Most of the musicians singing post-1965 material are doing their best to make a contribution, and loathing their output can tend towards cultivating divisive antipathies.
Few of these musicians have any idea how many people are rubbed the wrong way by varieties of pop music at Mass. Plus, it seems like an odd demand that Mass should only have music written between, say 1850 and 1965. In the long history of the faith, that is a very small slice of time.
More substantially, the debate over hymns completely misses the essential point that has become more obvious over the last few years. The truth is this: the hymn war distracts from the core issue, which is whether we will sing what the liturgy is asking to be sung or whether we will sing something else. The Mass assigns texts throughout the year for the precise parts of the liturgy where hymns are often inserted.
The text in question is not metric as given. It takes a skilled hand to re-rendered them in a metric suitable for the hymn structure. Kathy Pluth and others have been doing this, and this strikes me as a fantastic thing. If you are going to sing a metric hymn — and so many of the traditional hymn tunes still have a beautiful sound and do not sound dated in the slightest — this is the best way forward. Kathy and her colleagues are working on providing introits and other propers for the entire years.
If you are going to take the text as given, the suitable vehicle is of course chant. Chant came about as a style of music precisely because it is the best method for textual declamation. Chant is flexible and adapts to any length of text. As chant emerged over the centuries, its melodic and harmonic structure became more rich and varied than we typically hear in modern music, so it can express a greater range of colors and emotions.
The sacred music community has been making this argument for a few years, hence completely changing the terms of debate. Except for one thing: I’ve really not detected much of a debate at all. The argument is so strong, so obvious (in retrospect), and so indisputably more faithful to the liturgy that it is not really debated at all — at least so far as I can tell.
In my view, then, the intellectual argument is largely a done deal. Why don’t musicians immediately change? Well, this is where matters get complicated. Music that is more accessible than the Graduale Romanum (the official book of the Latin rite) has only become available (in a suitable form) within the last 18 months. That’s just not long enough to make the decisive difference.
The musical trajectory of a parish music program is exceedingly difficult to change. Musicians are not warm to changing. They are often pained by learning new material. Directors of music, too, are disinclined to undertake a new direction for fear that it will reflect poorly on their choices and management to date.
In conversations with singers and musicians, I’ve also found an interesting cultural objection to the idea of chanted propers. They strike people who are used to random improvisation as too narrow, too closed, too conservative, too culturally bound up with specific attitude toward Church politics. Now, this point of view is entirely wrong. If anything, it is the opposite.
Chant opens up history in a way that other music does not. It takes us back to the first millennium, to the early church, and even to our ancient Jewish roots. Music that maintains its power to compel for this long is extremely rare. In fact, can you think of other music that is still in mainstream cultural circulation that has this long a history? Even now, anyone can hear a few notes of Roman Rite chant and know what it means: this is Catholic liturgy (or as people might say it today, “this sounds like monks and stuff”). Music that has this degree of longevity leaves time entirely and becomes truly timeless, pointing both to a long past and a long future.
More importantly to my mind is that chant opens up the word of God to us. This the source of the text of the propers of the Mass. To be sure, some old and new hymns are based on scriptural sources, but one cannot be absolutely certain of that on first look, and even when they are rooted in scripture, the paraphrases can depart to a great extent. What’s more, the propers of the Mass are assigned Sunday by Sunday.
Christ the King propers are different from Advent which are different from Christmas and so on. They are all chosen with precision by the Church for a particular liturgical purpose. Therefore, they not only open the word of God to us; they also provide another means of spiritually accessing the overall liturgical experience in a way that accords with the calendar.
Discovering the Mass propers is a liberating experience, very much along the lines of what people feel when they first discover the Catholic faith itself. We don’t have to make stuff up. We don’t have to manufacture our liturgy from our own sense of how things should be.
Our main responsibility is to bury the ego, defer to the Church’s wishes, allow ourselves to become part of something larger than our own time and place, and serve the faith. This is a huge responsibility. Singing the propers makes being a Church musician and honor and a serious apostolate.