Sunday, March 15, 2009

Laetare Sunday is a real thing

Most Catholic musicians know that Christmas music belongs during Christmas season and Easter music during Easter season. There remains also some consciousness of Advent and Lent. But that's about as far as the understanding goes. Look at the printed liturgy guides from mainstream publishers: the rest of the year is pretty much up for grabs, or they use computer programs to match words in the readings with words in the hymns and assume that just about covers it.

The implicit message of these strategies is that music is an accoutrement to the liturgy, an embellishment, a soundtrack that should pick up on messages and themes and capture some kind of mood, lesson, or sensibility. Well, that's an interesting idea but here's a problem: the entire 2,000 year history of Catholic Christian teaching and and normative practice stands against this view.

The actual Catholic view of music underscores the perfect unity between music and liturgy. The music is the sung prayer that is the Mass -- and the fourth Sunday in Lent illustrates precisely how this is true. It is called Laetare Sunday (is that fact well known? I'm not sure). This is because of the introit:

The first objection that people offer: we can't read this, sing this, and no one can understand if we could. There are answers to all of these objections, but there are also ways around this you can use next Sunday. You can sing the proper of the Mass, the actual text of the assigned entrance song, using this wonderful and completely free Choral Gradual by Richard Rice.

I've been thinking about how to get this book better known. The only real answer I can think of is that every reader needs to send the link to others who do not read NLM. Every choir director in every Catholic parish in the English-speaking world needs to have access to this. I really do see this treasure as an excellent tool for shaking us out of the status quo and moving toward the ideal.

Here is his setting of the Laetare entrance proper:

We used Rice's entrance today for the first time. It was very revealing. Everyone liked it in rehearsal, but we hadn't been prepared for how well it would work in a live liturgical setting. It was just spectacular. It sounded great, gave the Mass an excellent start, and conveyed a strong sense of solemnity and decorum.

The reason is that 1) this is the proper text, and 2) Richard Rice is clearly one of the great Catholic liturgical composers of our age. This is increasingly obvious to me. I mean, I've known him to be a master typesetter and chant expert, but this other aspect of his talent is only fully dawning on me now. You might say: oh this material is simple and not so original and not so brilliant. You know what? It takes brilliance to write in a way that appears simple, and, so far as I know, he is the only one who has taken on this task and completed it with such consistently great results. To me, that is genius in humble service of the faith.