Out of the Desert and Into the Promised Land

The children of Israel wandered in the desert for forty years, the Hebrew scriptures tell us, and during this time they lost faith, built nutty statues out of their own stuff, complained bitterly about everything, and failed to notice that hand of God looking after them the entire time. I often think about these years and imagine all the people who died and were also born during this period of confusion. It was probably the only reality many of them new. And how glorious it must have been to have finally found their home.

This is a pretty good description of the situation for musicians in the postconcilar era. We wandered aimlessly looking for that answer. We built idols out of our own stuff and held them up for the people to worship. We ignored the gifts that God was trying to give us the entire time. Mostly we complained.

I’m reminded of this period after this morning’s liturgy, because the situation has changed so dramatically from the first to the last. Ironically, our period of exile started to end in just about forty years after the close of the Second Vatican Council. Now today we have the music we need. It is no longer confusing, no longer a weekly trial, no longer a game of chance to know what to sing. With some basic singing skills, one cantor or 50 singers, and not even an organist, the liturgy can be proclaimed in a manner imagined by the fathers of the Council — and this can happen in every parish every single week and without that much fuss.

It only took forty years. Many people left. Many people came. Many parishes are sadly still lost, even though the resources are right there.

So each week I find myself so happy to walk over to the bookshelf and pick up the three books that I unfailingly depend on to sing and sing what the Church is asking us to sing: the actual text of the liturgy itself.

I hold these books in my hand and look at them. I am conscious all over again of the time when they didn’t exist. It was only a few years ago. How well I remember the struggle and the arguments and the sense of something missing. We didn’t know what was missing but we knew that something wasn’t right. Surely there is more to this than just leafing through this floppy annual and pointing at some hymns and wondering: “is this good enough for this week?”

Yes, that’s what we did. That’s what everyone did — for decades and decades. It seems incredible in retrospect. But what choice did we have? Where were the resources that made the sung liturgy available to us so that we could sing in a dignified and solemn way that didn’t smack of some pop performance or pander to one or another style preference? Where were these books?

Before someone corrects me, I’m aware that there were some resources out there. In fact, I obsessively looked for them in far-flung places and worked hard to get them online. They were like drops of rain in the desert. An antiphon here, a chant there, a snippet of scripture here, and a fragment of a chant there. There was the full Graduale in English with the Anglican Use Gradual but here were issues with language and even with a slight ongoing tension with the cultural sensibility with the ordinary form.

Of course the whole time there was the big scary book of the perfect solution: the Graduale Romanum. That is the wonderful thing, of course, but in no parish was it even conceivable that these chants could all be sung in their proper place. Neither the talent nor the tolerance existed for that. It took years to finally come to terms with that reality.

We were closer about six years ago than we ever were. We had an idea — not a perfect idea but a growing clarity — about what we need. But the resources we really needed were not yet on hand. We still didn’t have the ability to walk over to the shelf, take out the resource, turn to the right page, and sing!

That is what has changed, and it has changed absolutely everything. This morning was a good reminder. With these books in hand, with two singers and no instruments, the entire liturgy came across as magnificent. We sang the right thing at the right time in the right way, exactly as the liturgical books suggest we should. It’s all come together in the most beautiful way.

It’s so good that I can hardly even recall the endless frustrations of the past, the hours of scraping around, the time and annoyance of not finding the thing that really worked, the planning time and the sense of confusion. It all seems like a bad dream in retrospect.

These are the three books that have led us out of the desert and into the Promised Land:

1. Communio, compiled and typeset by Richard Rice. This book allows for the singing of the authentic chants of the Roman Gradual during communion, a time which allows the choir more flexibility than anywhere else in the liturgy. The brilliant stroke of this book is to add all the Psalms in a fully notated way so as to permit the singer or singers to use music proper to the rite for the entire liturgical action. This is what made the difference. This is where choirs tend to begin with the singing of the chant. This is the book that also trains singers. It is so practical and yet so much the embodiment of the ideal.

2. Simple English Propers, by Adam Bartlett. This is the book, the one we’ve wait for all these years. With this book, the entrance, offertory, and communion can be sung in English, with verses, for every Sunday in the liturgical year. Yes, it should have come out in 1963 when the vernacular was first introduced. It had to wait. Regardless, we now have it. The more you sing from it, the better you get at doing so. The melodies are simple and formulaic but they work with the text. In all my time singing from it, I’ve never encountered even one chant that didn’t work musically and liturgically. Moreover, people love it in the following sense: it seems like the right thing. It might not be the final answer in vernacular chant but it is a massive upgrade from the status quo. I’m so grateful for this book!

3. The Parish Book of Psalms, by Arlene Oost-Zinner. Even in the old days when we started inching toward solutions, the Psalm has been a problem. It is supposed to be dignified and beautiful but the conventions were always lacking in both. It just didn’t seem to match the chanted liturgy otherwise. This book makes it all work. The composer uses Gregorian tones and a simple melody that takes all stress out of standing and singing the Psalm every week. It is such an indescribable relief to have this book.

The Beautiful Persistence of Chant

In some way, it’s all a miracle.

I can stand right here where I am and quickly sing a melody that is roughly the same as the first melody cooked up by an anonymous monk in the 7th century. That melody was committed to memory by others around that monk and then transmitted from place to place through constant repetition. It lived further through the generations, passed from old to young, and then again as the young became old and it was passed on again, cascading through time and place, and all long before anyone had thought up a way to write it down.

Then in the 11th century, the means became available to take this series of sounds and put them into paper form, so that the melody could be transmitted from place to place and from generation to generation even if it weren’t heard. The melody took on a new form, a form that made immortalization even more technologically possible.

Then printing came and made the process even easier. For the first time, the entire body of work could be easily reproduced and distributed all over the world.

Five hundred years went by until something even more spectacular happened. The chant took on a new digital form. Once the chant became digits, the limits of physical transmission were entirely overcome. The same chant, again without actually being heard, could be distribute billions and trillions of times unto infinity and never degrade with each passing use. One click to put the chant on digital networks and it enters into a new status of universal reach, capable of serving all of humanity so long as this world exists.

But there was even one more stage in this long evolution. Digital media made it possible to transmit not just the physical music but also a real recording of monks singing the chant. Right now we can hear a version that was sung perhaps back in the 1950s. Every singer is probably dead by now but that one version they sang that one time way back then can be resurrected and live, as alive right now as it was when it was first sung.

We can copy their vocal inflections and their careful interpretations and make them out own, and then turn around and make our own versions, which can be listened to by people 100 years from now. It’s like a time capsule that is never buried but continues to be added to even as it serves the living and the dead.

And to think that it all began with one voice, one person singing one thing some 1,400 years ago.

To enjoy such access is a unique privilege of our generation. This is the music of the Roman Rite. It came of age with the ritual itself as a means of making it more beautiful, more worthy, more compelling, more wonderful as a means of praising God in our public worship.

Why are we attracted by making our own bodies instruments to make this happen in our time? Because in this music we find truth and meaning. This means transcends the lifespans of all all existing things. It is evidence of the capacity of truth to extend beyond one generation, any existing political arrangement, any existing business firm or man-made institution. It is a manifestation of the persistence of the faith in all times and places, its miraculous capacity for outliving every attempt to kill it. It is immutable. It is strong. It is mighty. It gives us a glimpse of eternal truth.

Lately, I’ve been thinking more about this claim that the reason we are drawn to chant is that our deconstructionist age has made us fearful of change. The claim is that we cling to chant as an arbitrary source of stability.

What is meant by this idea of deconstruction? The movement is a 20th century idea. It began with legal studies. The deconstructionists observed that the law does not necessary embed robust truth. It is essentially made up by self-interested politicians. It is the product of interest groups, designed to help them at other’s expense. The law was revealed to be a kind of hoax.

The method of analytics spread to literature. What does a novel mean? The author might have one idea, but we can’t necessarily known what he or she intended. And maybe the author himself or herself was not fully aware aware of its meaning. In any case, we are the readers. We are the interpreters. Our own cultural conditioning heavily influences our own reading, and we cannot escape this. The dominant meaning for us is entirely subjective and it is pointless and fallacious to somehow insist that our subjective meaning be imposed on others.

So it is with language. It is just words and words change. They serve an instrumental value of enabling communication between people. We use them as a way of groping through the dark, working together to find ways to cooperate with each other. The means of words extends from their use only and is never embedded in the words themselves. It is all arbitrary and changing, never fixed. In this way, language too evades any claim to permanent meaning. Meaning is dictated by culture and does not descend from on high.

So too with the interpretation of philosophy, politics, art, theology — really everything. Nothing really means anything in a fundamental sense. Everything is conditioned on society and on our subjective minds. This is why we cannot speak of truth with a capital letter but only what is true for me and what is true for you, and this is forever evolving.

So goes the deconstructionist way of thinking.

Let’s grant that this is entirely correct. None of what we once thought to be true really is. What is left for us to hang on to? What in our universe can be counted on to last and persist and actually embed something valuable in the ultimate sense.

Liturgy is the great exception. It does not exist in time. It extends out of time into eternity. It touches a real outside of time and the material world. It points up and out of time. Through it we receive communication from God and find ourselves transported out of the limits of the physical and into communication to God to give praise. In sense this, and if this is true, the deconstructionist critique of the realm of time cannot touch it. We did not make up liturgy. The liturgy is a gift from all eternity to us.

No matter how much we might decided to accept the deconstructionist idea — and maybe even the more we accept the idea — the more impressive the liturgy truly is. It is the great exception, a means that we have to access truth with a capital T. Within liturgy we are rescued from a world that is otherwise invented, manufactured, and arbitrary.

This is one reason that the liturgical spirit that imagines ourselves to be making the liturgy rather than accepting it is so dangerous. It threatens to reduce liturgy to the status of law, literature, language, and politics. It cannot be so! The liturgy is the one thing in our world that evades the imperfections of all the things we create ourselves.

Now back to the chant. Here is the music of the liturgy, a thing transported through the ages by repeated singing, blessed by God to achieve immortality across all ages and places. It is the musical corollary to the liturgical text and integral to the liturgical action itself. We are not drawn to it out of fear but because we long for things that the permanently true, for sounds that are not arbitrary, for art that points to the Creator of all art.

Yes, the chant was made at some point by one human person but a human person who worked to discover a musical sound of eternity. And when this happened, it became part of the liturgical experience and it took on a new form, blessed and blessed again by its use in the eternal project. We stand here a millenium and half later and sing it in the same way. It is our means of accessing the longest possible human experience in our insatiable desire to find and touch the truth of God.

One simple song can do this when it is part of liturgy. It is not arbitrary. It is a rare and impenetrable well from which our generation can drink something pure and true in a time when everything else seems to be crumbling. This is a true act of love. To sing the chant is to find authenticity and purpose, to be part of something that is not only larger than our own time but larger than time itself.

How to Have a Good and Stable Choir

Many pastors I know are extremely frustrated by the lack of singing talent in their parishes. They have high ambitions to sing the propers, to revive polyphony, to have authentic Gregorian chant. They want to have this weekly, not just on special occasions. They want to be part of the answer and not perpetuate the existing problem.

But they are stymied because of a lack of willing talent in the parish. Both “willing” and “talented” are important here. There are often singers in the parish who are unwilling to commit to weekly rehearsals plus showing up consistently for Mass at a certain hour. Most Catholics like to choose week-to-week which Mass they will attend. Committing to a choir means restricting that life choice.

The Baptist church I grew up in had a culture of singing. Anyone who could do it absolutely did do it. They considered it their vocation, their contribution to the life of the religious community. My church I grew up in had only 500 families but we had 40-plus people in the choir. It was just something that musicians did. There were more musicians then and they were all committed.

That is no longer true in the Catholic Church — if it ever was true. I received notes often from singers in my own parish who say how much they love what our schola does but then apologize for not joining. There are always good reasons: kids, rides, school, work. They are all valid but they come down to the fact that they are unwilling to make parish music a priority. They have decided to be consumers rather than producers.

Then there is the problem of real talent. Actual music readers are ever rarer these days. Good voices that hit the notes and don’t draw attention to their own glories are rarer still. It takes time to develop such skills. Singing without accompaniment is harder than it might seem. Sometimes you can have a seemingly great singer who turns helpless without accompaniment and microphones. People who can handle the task of starting a Sanctus without any cues, breaking the sacred silence with confidence and without error, are hard to find.

Making matters more complicated, choral music requires four parts at least: soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. What are the chances that four such strong voices exist in every parish? They are extremely small actually. Priests are often confused why their music programs are so bad and do not seem to improve but they haven’t thought through all these factors. You need four strong singers who are committed. If you do not have that, you will not have a consistent provision of liturgical music. That’s just the way it is.

One answer is recorded music. But that is prohibited by Church legislation. The Church seems to expect that all music in each parish be produced entirely within the parish. By tradition, this is mostly done by unpaid volunteers.

I would submit that this is the real core of the problem. People with this skill set are not willing to sing consistently without any pay whatsoever. They might do so for a while but they burn out, feel used, and eventually give up. It is all the more annoying that the priest and others look down on them when they throw in the towel, completely forgetting about the countless hours they have spent in the past without pay.

If you talk to any professional or just experienced music who knows the world of churches, you will find one consistent complaint about the Catholic Church: it does not pay its musicians. Parishes will sometimes pay an organist (not often a full-time salary) and sometimes pay a nominal fee to a director of music (many parishes even expect this to be done by volunteers). But very few pay singers.

I’m not arguing the point on grounds of social justice. I’m not carrying water for the hoards of musicians out there who imagine that they are constantly wronged by a world that doesn’t fully appreciate their greatness. My point is purely practical. If you want a good choir with members that are genuinely committed, and you want cantors who can substitute for each other and are willing to change their plans to come to sing, the parish has to start paying singers.

It is not necessary to pay ever singer. What every choir needs — and here I’m only reporting what every musician knows but very few priests understand — is four solid singers who can lead each sector. These solid singers are called “ringers” or just “section leaders.”

These people also make good solo cantors. These can lead the other singers. This doesn’t mean getting rid of volunteers. The amateurs can be great. In fact, I’m constantly amazed at how good non-readers are at mimicking the sound of those they stand next to. They can’t sing a note alone but sound great as part of a section. They desperately need strong singers around them to give lift to their talents.

How does this work in practice? Let’s get down to specifics. The parish should employ four singers to play this role, chosen mostly by the director. Each singer can be paid $50 per Mass plus rehearsal once per week. This is terrible pay, to be sure. But it takes the sting out the time commitment. It makes people feel valued. It allows the parish to expect things from the singer. Everyone is happy. The music problem goes away — or perhaps the biggest problems in the music area go away.

Look at the overall expense. We are talking about $200 per week for a total of $10,400 per year plus special Masses. In total, a great program can cost a parish $12,000-$15,000 per year. Keep in mind: this is the difference between a program that is unstable and mostly bad to one that is excellent and consistent. The singers themselves can be asked to cantor other Masses. They can serve to train the volunteers to become better become cantors too. (Ideally, we would double those numbers but I’m just using these as an example.)

And, by the way, the payments do not have to be open and known to all people. There is nothing wrong with using discretion in this regard. One might think that jealousies would quickly appear but that is not the case. The weaker singers sincerely appreciate having better singers around. If the weaker singers discover that the stronger ones are paid, it is not a problem. I’ve known many cases where a mix of paid and unpaid is perfectly peaceful, with no jealousies.

Here is an issue: what if the paid singers are not Catholic? What if they are students at the local university with no preexisting interest in liturgy? Let’s face it: this is more-than-likely going to be the case. Think of it as an opportunity for evangelization in two directions: the non-Catholic gains exposure to the faith and the Catholics gain exposure to good musicians. This is a win/win situation for everyone.

Morale will vastly improve among musicians in the parish. This is guaranteed. It will increase the respect that the local musicians have for the Catholic church. It will vastly improve the parish music and the liturgy. The importance of this cannot be overstated. The liturgy is the main experience people have of the parish. It has to be good. It has to be compelling. It has to be right. It has to conform to the high expectations that the Church legislation has for music.

As for the choir not being a priority, I’m always impressed how a small and even token payment can cause a complete rearrangement of priorities.

I’ve gone into such detail here mainly because pastors are rarely if ever told these things in seminary. They too often fear the music issue. They are annoyed by the whining and the demands from musicians. And sometimes it seems like no matter how much money they spend on materials, the music never improves. Eventually they reconcile themselves to mediocrity.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Paid ringers can make the difference. It runs against the practice is most American parishes but this needs to change if we are going to get serious about music again.

Music that Broadens the Mind and Spirit

In all the debates about Catholic ritual music over the last half century, the issue of the propers of the Mass has played very little role at all. Mostly the debate has been about styles. It’s been pretty much the same since the 1960s: one group like the old hymns and one group likes music in contemporary style.

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.

A Music Set Apart

The offertory chant for this Sunday is the famous text “De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine; Domine, exaudi vocem meam.”

From the depths, I have cried out to you, O Lord;

Lord, hear my voice..

The text itself has inspired poems, novels, songs, plays, ballets, and films. One thinks, of course, of the tragic and difficult letter of Oscar Wilde from prison, in which he was working through his nascent Catholicism and coming to understand Christ’s ministry in his own way, years before finally embracing the faith from which he had been running his entire life. It was written during a dark part of his life, when he had fallen from the heights to the lowest level of the social order, and gradually climbed his way out, not back to society but to God. The Lord heard his voice.

To cry to God from the depths is an unavoidable part of the human experience, and this Psalm seems to capture that experience. So too has the text inspired the fundamental music of the Roman Rite, and in a way that is as robust and heart-wrenching as any of the other art to which the text has given rise. The chant begins precisely where it should, at the lowest point of the scale. And the cry itself is long and pleading, ending with a melismatic phrase on one syllable that is fully 35 notes long.

One gets the sense when listening that one is part of a private conversation, an intimate communication between one soul and that soul’s maker. The experience is evocative to the text to the point of novelist perfection. As much as I love English chant and polyphonic music, there is something about the Latin original that seems like the ultimate thing itself, the core music, the perfect expression of emotion and truth, all wrapped up in a form that is most suitable for liturgy. It is ordered and ritual spontaneity, a form of prayer given to us so that we can aspire to a higher form of expression than we ourselves are personally capable.

In many ways, we can say that any Mass that does not include this form of musical expression is deficient in some way. It is missing out. There is nothing wrong with seeking other kinds of ways to express the same thought, putting the idea in other languages and other forms. But to neglect or even forget the chanted original is to miss out on something extremely important. To hear this chant makes me grateful to all those who worked so hard to revive the chant during the late 19th century, and makes me sad that so many Catholics today have no way of experiencing this in the course of their liturgical lives.

Why haven’t we been hearing this kind of music? There are superficial explanations that have a element of truth about them. People can’t read the music well. People don’t know how to sing well anymore without instruments, without microphones. Latin is scary to people. A long melisma like this is hard for modern musicians who are used to didactic verbal expression. It all seems like it is from another time and place, and there is something about modern man that is both attracted and repelled by that time and place.

Also, the singing of this piece seems to violate every rule that people have invented for what constitutes successful liturgical music. The people do not sing it. Only the best singers do. Everyone else listens. The results are not cognitively communicative in a normal sense. The Latin is remote. You can’t swing and sway to it. The melody does not immediately stick in your mind. It doesn’t have a bright and uplifting message that puts a smile on our face. It has nothing in common with any music called popular today. It is free of the prison of rhythm and meter. It is sung in unison

That this music does not pass the routine tests that people put their musical selections through really should raise questions, not about Gregorian chant but about the tests themselves. We need to come to understand that Gregorian chant really is a music set apart, something absolutely sacred. Sacred is remote and mysterious. It has qualities that are out of reach from what is common and accessible in the normal sense. It resists being evaluated by the same standards we use to evaluate everything else. In fact, the reverse is true: what is truly holy stands apart in judgement of what we are, what we do, and what we want.

It is the failure to comprehend the sound of what is holy that I believe is at the root of the resistance to Gregorian chant. Otherwise, people would be inspired to overcome their inability to sing it and appreciate it. It’s true that the music is hard to sing and requires experience and training but it is not out of reach. It just takes effort. Why are we so unwilling to make that effort? Why are we so quick to grab and sing what is easy and available rather than work toward something that is higher, better, and more appropriate to the task?

What this generation of Catholic singers really lacks is inspiration to work harder toward a more noble goal. People imagine that nobility is not attractive on its own terms, that we need to “do something” to music to make it appealing. We have to let our personalities shine through and present music that reaches people in the same way that popular culture does. But what if this is completely untrue? What if what is holy is not only more pure and appropriate but also more effectively in drawing people to the faith and keeping people interested in liturgical life?

Benedict XVI seems to understand that hoy music is both true and practical; there is no contradiction between these two principles. In speaking to the St. Cecilia Association in Italy lately, he said:

we need not have recourse to illustrious persons to think of how many people have been touched in their depths of their soul listening to sacred music; and of how many more have felt themselves newly drawn to God by the beauty of liturgical musi… And, here dear friends, you have an important role: work to improve the quality of liturgical song with being afraid to recover and value the great musical tradition of the Church, which has in Gregorian Chant and polyphony of its highest expressions, as Vatican II itself states (cf. “Sacrosanctum Concilium,” 116). And I would like to stress that the active participation of the whole people of God in the liturgy does not consist only in speaking, but in listening, in welcoming the Word with the senses and the spirit, and this holds also for sacred music. You, who have the gift of song, can make the heart of many people sing in liturgical celebrations.

He is offering this generation a challenge to take on the hard task, to take seriously the musical responsibility, to avoid the easy and rationalistic path and embrace the difficult and holier path. Truly this generation needs to develop the humility to cry out from the depths and aspire to new heights.

How to Read Liturgically

I’ve put off writing this column for years even though it addresses a point that is a major and persistent problem in liturgy. I’ve put off writing about it because the people I’m correcting here are following the rules they know and they are very well intended otherwise. They are giving their hearts to the cause. They know not what they do. Still, it is time to speak out.

The problem is the manner in which people read the scripture in liturgy. The instruction books that are published by the major houses warn against reading plainly and solemnly with a steady tone. These manual urge them to bring some personality to the task, to elevate the voice on the important parts, make the reading more life-like and vibrant, and even to make eye contact with the people in the pews. They want long pauses between sentences and for every sentence to come across like a major declaration that sears itself into the ears and minds of the listeners. They try to make the text reach us in a new way.

But that is not the result of this approach to reading. The sing-songy sound of a reader trying out communicative inflections on word after word ends up producing the exact opposite of its intention. Instead of conveying the meaning, the reader ends up conveying himself or herself. The words and meaning get lost in the inflection and the tonal dance. The lilting attempt to emphasize one thing in the text over another robs the listener of the ability to understand the text on his or her own. It turns out to be a major distraction from the whole point of the exercise. It denies the scripture an opportunity to speak in its own voice. Adding “eye contact” only makes it worse.

There are a number of ways to explain this. I would first make reference to a comment by Joseph Jungmann, from The Mass of the Roman Rite, as quoted by William Mahrt in The Musical Shape of the Liturgy. He describes how the words of scripture ought to be brought to the liturgy like jewels on a golden plate. When you are bringing such jewels, you walk steadily and with great discipline and dignity. You do not run, you do not perform tricks, and you do not attempt to bring your own personal drama to the task. You walk carefully and present the jewels on the gold plate in a way that does not distract from their inherent worth.

There are examples from the secular world. Consider professional readers for books on tape. They read in the clearest possible way and minimize the amount of vocal inflection that goes into the task. They try to disappear in their personalities so that the text itself can emerge. Also, professionals understand that the reader can naturally get tired of hearing one person talk so the goal is to reduce the personality as much as possible to make it easy for the listening to focus on the text.

The same should be true of reading the scripture in Mass, except that it should be done with even greater dignity and even less personality and vocal inflection.

Another hint comes from the history of the lessons in general. Historically, evidence indicates that the lessons were sung and not read — in keeping with the general observation that the spoken Mass we know it today or before the Council was an invention of the second millennium. The sung Mass was the norm for the first one thousand years.

And what happens when you sing? You follow a formula of notes. The notes indicate the sentence structure but do not change based on the content or meaning. The formula permits the content to ascend in importance. The reader himself or herself does not bring his or her own perception of what is important. The reader does not add personality or seek methods to convey some drama to the text. The singing alone prevents that from happening by practically eliminating the tendency of readers to lift and lower the voice based on subjective understanding.

The effects created by the singing of the text — that effervescence of tone and stability of purpose — should carry over to the reading of the text. Of course these days, readings are not typically sung, so we no longer have a model in mind. This is a tragic loss.

Nonetheless, a good and serious reader can bring that sense of allowing the text to emerge from the thicket of human personality by maintaining a steady pace and a steady tone throughout. Just as the singer brings nothing to the reading other than word accents and notes, the reader similarly should being nothing to the reading other than calm, stability, precision, solemnity, and clarity.

One should not use the opportunity to read a lesson as a chance to compose a symphonically dramatic poem. You are not on stage. This is a point that every reader should understand from experience. It applies even more to liturgy. The liturgy should be permitted to speak on its own without our having to make it speak by hurling it out there or gussying it up with all sorts of on-the-spot, made-up drama.

How does it happen that all the mainstream instructions on this point are essentially wrong? Well, it all comes down to the persistent and hyper-vogue of the cult of the community. Since it is believed that reaching the people is the number one and nearly only goal of liturgy, the instructions for reading are similar to those you get for music too. Grab people by their shirt collars. Get their attention. Make it real. Meet people where they are. It’s up to you to do this. You have to make this happen. Otherwise people will check out.

This entire approach is wrongheaded because it doubts the inherent power of the liturgical voice, which is not the same as the human voice. It is a divine voice to which we are called to submit. To believe that one must somehow jazz it up and make it real implies a core doubting of the merit of what is being sung and what is being read. It labors under the conviction that the liturgical voice does not exist unless we work to make it exist through our own talents and choices. This represents a fundamental misunderstanding that ends up exalting the human ego and personality over the words of the liturgy itself that have been handed on to us and form a divine voice in our midst.

I would love to see these poorly conceived instruction manuals tossed out. They are misleading thousands of well-intentioned people and creating pain in the pews rather than doing what the readers themselves believe they are doing, which is bringing the text of scripture to life. But I don’t believe they are going away soon anymore than we are soon going to get rid of the common habit of replacing Mass propers with non-liturgical songs. It thereby becomes important for pastors to re-train readers themselves to cut the drama and the failed attempt to infuse the text with new meaning. The word of God needs to be permitted to speak to us in the voice of the liturgy, not the voice and personality of the reader.

Vatican Intervenes: No More Tropes in the Agnus Dei

The Vatican has intervened in the guidelines for Catholic liturgical music in the U.S.. It has sent a messages to U.S. publishers that it objects to extending the official text of the Agnus Dei to add additional text. The practice is called “troping” but that’s using a rather high-minded and deeply historical term for what is actually just pop-music riffing. Further, the Congregation for Divine Worship has asked the USCCB for a change in its musical guidelines to reflect this.

As the blog Gotta Sing reports, one publisher received the following note:

In response to a request from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, the USCCB Administrative Committee adopted a change on September 12, 2012 to the U.S. Bishops’ 2007 guidelines on liturgical music, Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship. Number 188 of the document has been altered to remove any further permission for the use of Christological tropes or other adaptations to the text of the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God).

This is a good development. Too little, too late, but still good. “Sing to the Lord” is vastly better than the barely-Catholic predecessor document called “Music in Catholic Worship” that had sent two generations of musicians off course (MCW, for example, said that music of the past is not a good model of music for the future).

Still, the new document has problems, such as claiming that the style of music used at liturgy is not a relevant consideration, as well as open contradiction of official documents that the Agnus Dei cannot be troped.

In many ways, this issue should be a non-issue. It is pretty well established that when you are singing the liturgical text…you should sing the liturgical text. Otherwise you are just inventing stuff on your own. Why would anyone think that musicians can do such things? Well, there is a very long precedent for doing so. That’s what’s going on in your parish every week, most likely, unless you have a choir director who knows what’s what.

And yet, one wonders if this intervention will make any difference. Note that it removes “further permission” but says nothing about the settings already published and already in use. Another issue is that any choir director could easily sing the real Agnus Dei text and then continue singing tropes, calling the extension an example of “other appropriate music.” People who don’t have the desire to follow the spirit of legislation will always find ways around the text of the legislation.

In general, however, as annoying as the troped Agnus Dei is, it is hardly the main problem of Catholic music today. A much more troubling issue concerns the USCCB’s permission to composers and publishers to completely mangle the text and structure of the Gloria itself. It is intended to be sung straight through, obviously. This is how it has been sung from the earliest years of the Church. This is how it is structure in the whole of the Graduale Romanum’s Kyriale, the official songbook of the Roman Rite.

One of the major purposes and intentions behind the text revision of the Gloria was to revive the chanted structure of the Gloria or, at least, remove what amounted to a rhythmic occasion of sin: it put the first line in a clear triple meter. That is now ended and thank goodness. But, again, people who ignore the spirit of the law will find a way around the law.

I was astonished when publishers, after the approval of the Roman Missal 3rd edition, started pouring out new floods of bowdlerized Glorias that mangle the whole structure. They have continued to turn the opening phrase into an antiphon, and treat the remainder of the text as a response. Thus do people sing sing “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will” again and again. Each phrase is separated with a fancy passage from the text sung by the choir alone. This contradicts the whole of the history of the Roman Rite. It is a wholly unwarranted corruption.

How could this be happening? Well, my inquiries led me to an extraordinary revelation. The U.S. Bishops approved it. And that’s that. The publishers begged and the USCCB complied. They unleashed all the publishers to put out these versions of the Gloria that continue the very problems that the new translation was supposed to stop. I have no idea how the Vatican allowed this to happen or whether anyone knew it was happening.

But it seems rather obvious to me that no matter how much autonomy that national conferences have, or believe they have, they should never be permitted to grant permission to fundamentally alter the text and structure of the liturgy itself, especially not concerning such a historically crucial part of the liturgy as the Gloria.

My question: why hasn’t the Vatican intervened here? It would take only one note to three people, the heads of the big three publishers. One quick fax or email. That’s all it would take to save the Gloria (The Gloria!) from this continued corruption of its structure and text. In addition, the antiphon-response artificiality here unleashes the choirs to turn a solemn celebratory text into a show-tune performance in which the people merely play a bit part of repeating the same line over and over again. It is contrary to the liturgical goal and patronizing to boot.

To be sure, the publishers are of the opinion that the people are too incompetent to actually managed more than one little line. If you want people to sing, they say, you have to give them easy stuff to sing over and over like songs on the radio. Whether that line is “I’m at a payphone, trying to call home,” or “Glory to God…” they people that the people need short catchy things to say or they won’t sing, and “getting the people to sing” is pretty much the sum total of the perceived goal of publishers and musicians today.

If you provide no challenges whatsoever to people, it is hardly surprising that they get bored of the whole project and enter protest mode. This probably accounts for 90% of the silence of Catholic congregations. But instead of embracing the actual liturgical text and structure, the publishers keep going further, making music ever sillier and the structure ever more simple. It’s just not working. But even if it did work, it shouldn’t be done.

When it is time to sing the Gloria, sing the Gloria. It’s not rocket science. Here’s to hoping for another intervention from Rome, this time without the proviso that grandfathers in nonliturgical renderings and instead insists that the liturgy be sung as it is given to us.

After that, we need an open discussion on the major problem that afflicts Catholic music today: the substitution of newly composed text for the given propers of the Mass. To repeat what I said above, when you are singing the liturgical text…you should sing the liturgical text. Otherwise you are just inventing stuff on your own. Why would anyone think that musicians can do such things?

“It is the right of the community of Christ’s faithful that especially in the Sunday celebration there should customarily be true and suitable sacred music.” ~ Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum