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.
I mentioned in the comment box on one of Jeffrey’s recent posts that in a course I’m currently taking on the 19th and 20th century “Liturgical Movement”, a classmate remarked that we are, now in 2010, almost as far away from Vatican II as Vatican II was away from Pope Pius X’s 1903 Motu Proprio, Tra le Sollecitudini.
This was a very keen insight, one that the professor himself had not yet thought about. I was thinking about this more and I realized that there was another equally important event 60 years earlier than Pius X’s 1903 Motu Proprio: Prosper Guéranger’s “The Liturgical Year” was begun and first published. This 15 volume work on the liturgy really was the first substantial rumbling in the 19th c. Liturgical Movement, perhaps the “soft” inauguration, or initiation of the movement.
So it seems a paradigm shifting event has taken place just about every 60 years in the modern liturgical movement since it first begun:
What’s coming friends? Each of the previous events was a forceful and paradigm shifting event in the modern Liturgical Movement. Each built upon the other, no doubt amidst the simultaneous chaos of the developing modern world, but each was a substantial and clear turning point in the movement. If history repeats itself, we are due for the next 60 year installment of the Liturgical Movement in about 13 years.
Here is my initial prediction, if my logic is on-target:
This is great reason to hope, friends. This is clearly where our Pope is leading us. What will be the next paradigm shifting event that future generations will study in their liturgy courses? There is great reason to hope!
According to Jerry Galipeau of WLP, the final version of the English for the new translation of the Mass is still in flux. Rome has approved a version but there are so many requests for changes and exceptions and indults that the publishers still don’t have a stable version that can be used to prepare materials at Mass. It is fascinating to see how the musical considerations are oddly forgotten whenever the liturgy goes through another upheaval.
There is no reliable empirical study of the kinds of music used in the typical parish, so generalizations are rather difficult. This is especially true now that parishes have sliced and diced their Mass schedules in order to meet perceived demographic needs. There is the youth Mass, the family Mass, the college Mass, and so on. Moreover, available musical forces change week to week. Also, of course, it all depends on the pastor of the moment as to whether the propers are sung or if the Masses are accompanied by old or new hymnody only. All these factors cause us to resist making sweeping statements about the state of music in the Catholic Church in the United States.
And yet, I contend that all experienced Catholics know more about what is typical that we think we know.
This past week, I tried an experiment in stumbling upon a parish in the town I happened to be in for the night, and attending the main Sunday Mass. I knew nothing about the place. Ahead of time, I talked to some friends to ask for predictions about the music program. After just a bit of thought, they all said the same thing. It will be accompanied by the piano. There will be four hymns. The hymns will be from the Haugen-Haas genre of dated contemporary music. The ordinary setting will be the Mass of Creation of Mass of Light from the same genre. The Psalm will be metric, probably from “Respond and Acclaim” or a similar resource. There will be no choir or perhaps there will be two or three people led by a cantor. They will sing no motets but rather only sing hymn melodies.
Do you think this is a good prediction? If so, you know more than you think you know about the reality of parish life in the United States. We all know of exceptions like St. John Cantius in Chicago, St. Agnes in Minneapolis, St. John the Baptist in Charleston, and many others. The exceptions are growing in number. In fact, most every major city offers many exceptions to the rule, and there can be no question that the momentum is with the exceptions. Nonetheless, the rule persists, and, in our hearts, we all know it.
So what did I find? I found the rule, what we might call the modal parish music program – modal meaning that it has characteristic and predictable feature that constitute a norm. In fact, it conformed in every way imaginable. The musicians were fine at singing the songs. They were doing their best with what they have. The same was true of the celebrant, who sang as much as he possibly could and did he best to involve everyone. The ordinary setting was in fact the Mass of Light, and the four hymns, all drawn from GIA’s Gather Comprehensive, were Haugen-Hass.
If you are not surprised, then you do understand something about the state of music in our parishes. Once my own expectations were confirmed, I was able to settle in and take the time to observe other aspects of how the program worked.
Recall that a great goal of the paradigm shift in the 1960s was to permit the people to be more involved in the Mass, and singing along with the choir and cantor was a crucial aspect of this. The reformers imagined that the people’s voices had been somehow silenced and that the Catholic people were aching to be free to express themselves. Of course this wasn’t entirely true, as most everyone knows, and that left a vanguard of the cantor elite to elicit singing from people. This has gone on continuously for many decades. All programs, all compositions, all ensembles, are to be judged by how effective they are in calling forth audible participation.
The music program I witnessed had done everything correctly according to the prescribed model. The music was upbeat, catchy, and, by now, incredibly familiar. The cantor stood in front of everyone, chatting it up and raising her arms high. The pianist was heavily amplified. There was nothing too complicated for people to sing. People were asked to introduce themselves to their neighbors, “breaking ice,” as they say.
How did it work out by this overarching standard of audible participation? Let me see if I can describe the scene at the entrance. The cantor made the announcements and greeted everyone. We all greeted each other. The hymn was announced (“Gather Your People”) and the page number given. The pianist played a rollicking introduction. The cantor’s arms waved in the air and she began to sing. The wireless microphone on the celebrant’s vestment picked up his voice and he began to process.
As for the people, it was absolutely striking. Not one soul among the one hundred assembled picked up a hymnal, at least from what I could tell. Not one soul among the hundred even attempted to sing along. Not one soul among the one hundred even pretended to sing. I had some sense that if I had started to sing, my action would have elicited shock and awe from those around me. It was almost as if singing had become a taboo. This is despite all the efforts of the cantor and the celebrant. The people just stood there in stone silence with expressionless faces. And so on it went for the entire Mass, from the gathering to the scattering.
There was a time in my life when music of this sort in Mass made me angry about what has been lost. This time the whole scene struck me not as an outrage but rather as a tragedy. It was extremely sad. The people were there because they were obligated to be there. But there was no inspiration that was visible. The aesthetic package lacked the capacity to transform the heart. It seemed no different than the mood music you hear at the mall or the grocery store, something vaguely pleasant but otherwise non-intrusive, the great white noise of American Catholic liturgy.
How might we imagine that this parish could change? I think it could be done rather quickly, with a program that begins with Psalm-tone English propers and moves gradually to more complex propers. The parish needs a chant-based ordinary setting, which can also begin in English and move to Latin. The Psalm should come from Chabanel Psalms. The recessional can be eliminated completely. The dialogues can be in chant. The pianist could play organ instead, something very easy during offertory or communion. And all of this can happen without spending a dime.
This change would make a dramatic difference. It would give back to the Roman Rite the music that is native to do, creating an integrated package that would touch the heart. The musicians would feel good about themselves. The people might start to sing because by doing so they will be participating in the ritual and not merely singing backup to a contemporary soundtrack. In other words, this approach would actually achieve the results of participation over the long term. Not that this should be the standard by which the music is evaluated but it is one side effect of a program that actually centers on genuine liturgical music.
As it is, the modal music at the American Mass is unsustainable. It just can’t go on like this, simply because it is an incredible failure, even on its own terms. How can the change take place? It is a matter of a growing conviction stemming from a sense of urgency. It is the job of everyone who believes in sacred music to contribute to this growing conviction. We are fortunate to be living in times when this process has not only begun but is making great strides.
William Renwick of McMaster University is working with William Mahrt. the Gregorian Institute of Canada, and others on a remarkable project. It is a freshly typeset and fully reconstructed compilation of the music of the Sarum Office. Here is the information page and here is the download page. This is magnificent work.
When I was a student at Christendom College, one of the things that drove my chant maestro, the indomitable Fr Robert Skeris, crazy, was when I would absent myself from the schola on a Sunday morning to indulge in liturgical tourism. Now that I am a student once again, without any parochial responsibilities or musical ones, I can engage in this little vice to my heart’s content. Whether my heart is content with what I have seen and heard is another matter, but that’s for another posting! Right now, I am enjoying the city of Montpellier, where I am busy perfecting my French and enjoying a little bit of Languedoc for the summer.