Friday, May 28, 2010

Sing a New Song, Please

The decision to rewrite the translation of the English version of Roman Missal was a double-edged sword for Catholic music publishers. On the one hand, it might seem to offer an opportunity. Parishes will have to replace the pew books with all new books. The music editions used by choirs since the 1970s will have to be thrown away and replaced.

On the other hand, bureaucracy always means delays. During the long period of waiting, sales of existing material have seriously slumped, imposing difficult financial pressures on publishers. The costs of delays have been worsened by the strict rules imposed by the U.S. Bishops, namely that the new texts cannot be used before a certain date and music for the texts cannot be distributed until authorities approve.

Well, the long period of waiting is nearly at an end. The restrictions are still in place and no publisher is permitted to actually sell its new materials just yet. At the same time, publishers are doing their best to start marketing their materials in hopes that parishes will start planning their budgets for large purchases in the year ahead. In these marketing efforts, we can see where this is headed.

Publishers are not planning new directions in their music toward solemn and dignified settings that match the much better translations. Instead, they have tapped their old-line up of authors, singers, strummers, and music writers to refurbish existing styles and settings.

Let's see what they are offering, beginning with everyone's favorites, the Oregon Catholic Press and the GIA. There are revised versions of all the staples of American parish life, including the "Celtic Mass" by Christopher Walker, the Heritage Mass by Owen Alstott, the Misa del Pueblo Inmigrante by Bob Hurd, the Mass of Creation by Marty Haugen, the Mass of Light by David Haas, and so on.

Listening to these settings online, I'm reminded that many make slight textual changes in the existing Mass translation, replacing "his" with gender neutral words, piling words on top of each other in several translations, and otherwise manipulating texts in small ways. Some turn prose into litanies and repeat phrases in ways that permit the publisher to claim that it is not using the ICEL text and thereby does not owe royalties for what is under copyright. One wonders about the point of revisions when faithfulness to the existing texts has not been a feature of existing settings.

In any case, to the casual listener in the pews, the changes in the translation with new renderings of old musical settings will be barely noticeable, which raises questions about the entire decade-old enterprise.

But of course there will also be new works of music.

Dan Schutte, whose songs over the last forty years dominates the missalettes in the pews, gives us the Mass of Christ the Savior. OCP says "the overarching musical elements that unify this setting are the common chord progression and the similar musical motifs. Even though the various Mass parts are different in tempo, meter, mood and purpose, these unifying elements help to hold the entire setting together." If you know something about this oeuvre, you can just imagine the result.

Estela Garcia-Lopez gives us "a Latin-American flavored Mass with varied colors and lively rhythms intended to express the 'fiesta' experience of liberation in the Risen Lord.... The Lord, Have Mercy, Penitential Act and Lamb of God are more reflective and mellow, in 6/8, while the other parts of the Mass are lively and syncopated, in 4/4. This Mass is fully bilingual and can be performed in either language." Listening to her music online, we can hear sampling from just about any light rock radio station on the dial.

Meanwhile, jazz/rock musician Curtis Stephan offers the Mass of Renewal, "an assembly-friendly setting with a modern feel, this Mass helps congregations celebrate with an ever–increasing vigor.... Composed with the contemporary ensemble in mind, this flexible setting evokes a sense of joy, triumph and majesty (as in the Gloria and Holy)..." Listening to his other music online, I can see why people like it. He offers pious renderings of entrenched pop styles heard in the top-forty milieu since the early 1980s. What this has to do with the liturgy is unclear.

The Mass of Plenty by Rob Glover offers the "infectious joy of the spiritual 'Plenty Good Room'... The writing is upbeat and contains a lot of syncopation." The Unity Mass of Norah Duncan gives us a "calypso feel" in its Gloria. The setting by Sally Ann Morris gives us "dance-like writing" that captures the "warm and comfortable feeling" of the black mountains of North Carolina. Or you can select instead the Glendalough Mass of Liam Lawson to produce a "resplendent emerald landscape," especially with its "upbeat lilt in the Gloria."

I'm restraining my criticism here because I know some of these song writers, and I know that they are not entirely pleased by what they are doing here. None of them consider these settings to be their best work. Some are just embarrassed by the whole enterprise but feel that they are doing faithful service. From a musical point of view, they quickly distance themselves from the results, while pointing out that they must work within constraints.

It is true, of course, that all liturgical composers have worked within constraints. But in the past, these constraints have inspired astonishing creativity such as we hear in the work of Josquin or Byrd, and breathtaking beauty given to use by Palestrina and Tallis. The constraints in the past were that the music must service the liturgy and the text, and bear the marks of truly sacred music (holy, beautiful, universal).

What are the constraints today? Many of them are dictated by the marketplace. The music must be "upbeat." It must be catchy. It must sound like something experienced in the world outside of liturgy, such as rock or jazz or calypso. Above all else, there is the core principle, said to be derived from "the documents," which must never be violated and which must serve as the guiding force: it must inspire vigorous singing among the people.

Now, there is something remarkable about this doctrine. It has been elevated above all other considerations for some forty years now. And yet, if you saunter into nearly any parish on Sunday morning and observe what is going on, you will come away with an impression of people barely engaged at all, and certainly not singing with vigor. Most stare blankly ahead, enduring it all with pious patience. It reminds of some version of the old joke about the Soviet economy that the workers pretend to work and the party pretends to pay. In the case of Catholic liturgy, the musicians pretend to inspire participation and the people pretend to participate.

In contrast, parishes where Gregorian and plainsong Mass settings are used, people do tend to sing, provided that the settings have been in place for some duration. One of the reasons is precisely that it is not instantly accessible music anymore then the faith itself is instantly accessible. It requires some learning and work. Liturgy is frequently describe as the "work of the people" but it seems that the common interpretation of this phrase focuses entirely on the people part while leaving the work part out completely.

That is not to say that the Gregorian ordinaries require specialization. One look at their musical structure as compared with the proper chants and you can see the wisdom of tradition at work. The ordinary chants are more accessible and singable by non-specialists. This is the music of the people.

The architects of the new translation and new Missal have worked very hard themselves to prepare music that has the sound and feel in Gregorian chant but in English. The music is dignified and solemn. It is accessible without being stupid. It is Church music, not music drawn from the rest of the world. Thus, at bare minimum, it complies with the fundamental dictate that has been a central principle of sacred music from the first century to our own: it must be distinct from popular styles.

Interestingly, the US Bishops have required that all materials produced for Mass include the chants from the Missal directly. This has never been done before. To me, this suggests some impatience at the top with the domination of Catholic liturgy by commercial publishers. They are trying to take the liturgy back. It might not work and there have already been many missteps but at least the mandate suggests that someone knows there is a problem.

My advice to all pastors and directors of music is this. When the new Missal appears, do not replicate the mistakes of the past. Use the occasion to make progress toward doing what the Church is asking, which is not always the same as what the Catholic music publishers are asking.