The Gregorian Institute of Canada is offering a program from the 12th to the 18th of August. See the site for more information.
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.
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.
Now the Cathedral has a full-time music department, one of only three in Catholic cathedrals in
The final jewel in the crown of this musical renaissance is perhaps the newly rebuilt organ – Orgelbau Klais of
The work undertaken by Ben, Chris and their dedicated, talented team of singers and choral directors is a lesson to us all and other cathedral musical directors would do well to follow their example!
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.
Last week my wife and I took the opportunity to meet with a couple of dear friends from CMAA who are also Directors of Music in their parishes; two of us in OF parishes, and one of us at an EF parish. We afforded ourselves as much time as possible to reminisce and share our experiences, offer each other encouragement and advice, and more importantly, celebrated the reality that our jobs afforded us opportunities to know and embrace so many virtues. A lot of “gaudete” was going on, and it was no mere “lattice of coincidence” that produced our optimism. (I’ll give a bottle of Mondavi Reserve Cabernet to the soul who first correctly cites the cinematic reference to that last quote!)
One fact we celebrated was the providence the Holy Spirit gifted the Church when the conclave elected Benedict XVI. For me, this pope exemplifies (with his predecessor) the true humility and joy within the organic optimism that we call Christian faith. But he also manifests a lifelong emblematic assertion of the axiom “lex orandi, lex credendi.” John Paul II turned the lenses of the Church unflinchingly towards the world, and, as with the nine days he walked his motherland among his fellow Poles as the Holy Father, our world was overturned virtually on a widow’s penny and the dignity of humanity had its champion. We could only move forward. Could it be said that Benedict has now refocused the Church’s vision, turning it inward by calling into question the meaning of “lex orandi, lex credendi” as the pre-eminent model for evangelizing our own faithful as well as the world to witness for Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord? “Theology as expressed on our knees in worship,” to paraphrase Baltasar.
“Save the Liturgy, save the world” means many different things to many different people. The cliché’s coining seemed to correspond to the pithy television series “Heroes” and its catchphrase slogan, “Save the cheerleader, save the world.” But Benedict’s legacy just may be that of a heroic priest/professor who, during a hellish and horrific decade among many within and outside of the Church, has invigorated the Church to reconciliation by nudging us back to the real “center of our lives,” the rich traditions of our ritual forms and elements that demand our adherence to the Real Presence of Christ among us at the Altar of Sacrifice, including the clear exhortations to re-orient ourselves, in the language that is chant and polyphony, towards the Eucharistic worship of God, and not an abstract celebration of ourselves as a community of believers.
It was Liturgy that called me to the Church forty years ago this year. It is Liturgy that has been the best and only suitable expression of a naïve child’s innate knowledge that God has, is and always will be “here, there and everywhere.” It is Liturgy that has humbled me so that I may taste and see the existential optimism of salvation and union with my Maker.
Here in blogdom, the culture of pessimism is well nurtured. How could it not flourish here when in real time we’re enduring the omnipresent assault of our reason and senses through the “miracle of media?” But I believe that what erodes the moral certitude of our Holy Fathers current and of recent memory isn’t pessimism but cynicism. The egocentric and narcissistic trademarks of our post-modern societal norms find their power magnified by the evolution of social networking that is inorganic and intoxicating. Cynicism can appear overtly and benignly. When it’s confrontational, which I find more common within the internet venues, there is no real community. There can only be facsimiles of community or communion. When it’s benign, we can sometime find it couched in the manners and niceties of “do they like me?” or “do they like what we’re singing at Mass” or worse, “do they like what we sing at church?”
My prayer for this new blog endeavor is that cynicism never finds lodging here. I also pray that we musicians at service to the Church’s worship and in that ideal charity of serving the Faithful, consider emulating the optimism of our current Holy Father, who has always answered “yes” to the Lord, even if that answer was to a question that he did not anticipate ever hearing addressed to him.
Musicians, consider saying “yes” to a particular parish calling and, being immersed in optimism and steadfast of spirit and perseverance, stay as long as you can within that parish to infuse your talent, knowledge and your own faith in the “mind of the Church” so as to take root through many seasons and years.
Let us, indeed, join our voices with choirs of angels and saints in an unending hymn of praise that, really, in our hearts we know to be not only in concert with our patrimony, but also we know are truly sacred, beautiful and universal.
A highly respected ethnomusicologist I had the pleasure of speaking to recently feels sad for her nieces and nephews in her native Nigeria. They have little knowledge, much less awareness, of the long musical tradition that is indigenous to their culture. Like most teenagers, they are quick with computers and all things digital, and listen to the same music other teenagers around the world are listening to. They can take cell phones apart and put them together within a matter of minutes.
But what they can’t do, she reports, is beat out even the simplest rhythms on a drum. This is a music that is unique to Nigerian culture and to a Nigerian understanding of the world. They haven’t been taught.
Readers here are sure to understand her point of view. Advances of the 21st century have made ancient sounds and customs obsolete in more spheres than we’d like to acknowledge. In fact, they’ve become downright irrelevant in many cases.
You can order anything you want from Amazon at any time of day, or manage your bank account and speak to a business colleague halfway across the world and across time zones in the comfort and convenience of your own home. You don’t need your ancestors to tell you how.
If you do pay attention to the sound of a drum, it is probably not because you have a vested interest in what the drum means to any particular culture, let alone your own. It’s probably because it provides the kick and pulse for the gazillion popular selections cranked out on Itunes. With downloads ranging from $1 to $3 a piece, it doesn’t take a lot of time, money, training or sage advice to get what you want and fill a void – right now.
I will not deny that disseminating information so quickly and comprehensively to all citizens of the world is quite simply an amazing thing. It is for the betterment and material advancement of all. It’s progress. The future we dreamed about as children is here – we can do what George Jetson did (with the exception of darting about the universe in a hover craft) and much, much more.
But has fantastic and easy access to all things blinded us to something even more essential and amazing? Namely, the unique traditions that make world cultures and traditions what they are: practices and rituals that define cultures and illuminate truths about life on heaven and earth?
Our young man in Nigeria can control his environment and hear what he wants to hear, see what he wants to see, and know what he chooses to know—almost instantly. He can create his own culture. One that is personalized and tailor-made for comfort and survival in an advancing society. He’d be the top-paid engineer at Spacely Sprockets, to be sure.
Yet we suspect that the life he creates for himself will not be tenable unless he is willing to acknowledge the lives, dreams, suffering, and rituals of his ancestors as they tried to understand their place in the universe. He might even be so blasé about the amenities and ease of modern life that he is not sure why he would want to.
Is he so different from American Catholics today? Are Catholic teens texting their friends the minute they leave Mass because it is the best use of their time? Does it bring them more gratification, immediate or real, than the Mass they just attended?
This of course begs larger questions. How many teens in this country have the opportunity to go to Mass and listen to the pulse of a solemnly sung Introit? How many Mass goers of any age have the chance to listen to the words of the Gospel with ears and hearts primed by a melismatic Alleluia?
How many have learned through repetition of ancient ritual — timeless words, melodies, and movements— that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist? Have they been taught?
If our esteem of ritual is not measured by lessons learned from ancient tradition and its organic development, who is to say that our Catholic belief system won’t be dismantled altogether? It might become as obsolete as the beat of Nigerian drums.