Saturday, January 03, 2009

Rice's Simple Choral Gradual

The single most bizarre and tragic aspect of Catholic music in our times is not the usually named sources of stylistic scandal. The problem is more fundamental: the strange neglect of the sung propers of Mass. The propers have been part of the Mass structure since the earliest years, and they are among the most stable parts of the Mass through the ages, marking the liturgical year in song, week by week and even day by day.

Some habits of Catholic liturgy are very difficult to explain, such as the following. In many daily Masses around the country, where no music appears, there is someone present who often reads the entrance antiphon from the pew, with the rest of the congregation joining in if people find the right page.

The same happens at Communion. These are the propers of the Mass. I wonder if anyone questions why it is that these are spoken at daily Mass but when Sunday comes around, they are completely tossed out and ignored, even though even the Missalettes still print them. Instead, we have hymns hymns hymns, a sea of hymns and more hymns until the point in which we are all drowning in them. Our big hymnals have hundreds and hundreds of them of every style. Hymns are what we think of as Catholic music.

What about the propers? The sung propers are all still in place, but everyone proceeds about their business as if they do not exist. And yet it is the propers that mark the season, they tell us where we are and what we are doing, that enable us to pray the Mass week by week. Ignoring for now the peculiar mismatch between the sung and spoken propers in the ordinary form (clearly a mistake that is only now becoming more clearly in focus), the answer to the music problem that exists in the Catholic Church (and everyone agrees that there is a problem) cannot be found outside the propers. To forever sing hymns and more hymns of ever more varied styles really amounts to going around in circles.

A few weeks ago, Richard Rice uploaded to the MusicaSacra.com forum a document that he put together some 12 years ago. It is extremely interesting. It is a simple choral gradual, that is, sung propers for the choir for the Entrance, Psalm, Offertory, and Communion, all in English, all in plainchant.

In a world in which Mass is in English, choirs have limited abilities, and propers are emphasized, Rice's book here would be one of dozens. Dozens! As it is, this is the only one of its kind I know about. He writes that he would certainly make changes in it today, and the compilation doesn't take count of the problem of the Missal v. Gradual texts. But these really are side issues for now.

His work here goes from Advent to Baptism but no further. Doesn't it make sense that some Catholic publisher would see this and make arrangements for him to finish the work? Doesn't it make sense that some Catholic publisher would seek him out or find other composers to work toward integrating our times with our history from a musical point of view? It does to me. Resources like this should be used every week at every Mass in every parish.

I don't need to point out that such resources are not the ideal but they point the way to where we need to be, which is always and everywhere defined by the Graduale Romanum. But getting from here to there is going to take more than merely making a decision. Choirs need to understand what the propers are. Priests do too. Actually, Bishops also must come to a higher realization concerning music at Mass.

Rice's document here is extremely important for this reason. It also contains very beautiful music that any parish can use. Here it is.