Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A Hard Truth: the Test of True Creativity in Art and Music is Popularity, so says Pope Benedict XVI

There is an imperative to create good new forms of music for the liturgy in Latin and the vernacular if either is to flourish.

I recently read a book by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI that I would recommend to any who haven't seen it yet  (h/t Stratford Caldecott for telling me about it). It is called A New Song for the Lord - Faith in Christ and Liturgy Today. The publisher, Crossroads, decided to put the following quotation from text prominently on the cover: 'How we attend to the liturgy determines the fate and faith of the Church.' This last part is what drew me to it particularly. I wanted to know more because it seemed to support my understanding that it is the liturgy that forms most powerfully the worldview of the believer and that, in turn, is what shapes the culture most powerfully.

It was written in 1996 shortly before the Spirit of the Liturgy. There is greater discussion in this book than in the later one, as the title suggests, of the connection between the person of Christ and the liturgy; and also, happily for me, about the general connection between liturgy and culture. He talks in depth, for example, about the the forms of music appropriate for the liturgy and how important the connection between this and contemporary culture is. In connection with this, he gives a critique of modern music forms (displaying a surprising degree of knowledge about them - differentiating between rock and pop!) and explaining why they are, for the most part inappropriate for the liturgy...and in many cases not good in any other situation either. He then goes on to say that the response to this cannot be simply a recovery of past forms. We must always also be creative and produce new forms that connect with people today. Rejecting what is new simply because it is new is not an option.

He says (p127): "The level of a culture is discernible by its ability to assimilate to come into contact and exchange and to do this synchronically and diachronically. It is capable of encountering other contemporary cultures as well as the development of human culture in the march of time. This ability to exchange and flourish finds its expression in the ever recurring imperative 'Sing the Lord a new song'. Experiences of salvation are found not only in the past, but occur over and over again: hence they also require the ever new proclamation of God's contemporaneity, whose eternity is falsely understood if one interprets it as being locked in decisions made 'from time immemorial'. On the contrary, to be eternal means to be synchronous with all times and to be ahead of all times.:

Then he tells us also (p133) that part of the test of whether or not the creativity that gives rise to the 'new song' originates from God is that it will connect with the ordinary person and not just the cultured elite:

"It is precisely the test of true creativity that the artist steps out of the esoteric and knows how to form his or her intuition in such a way that the other - the many - may perceive what the artist has perceived."

This may be a surprise to some, who assume that in order to be popular the artist must compromise on his principles and stoop down to the level of the masses. In fact, the Pope is telling us, it is the opposite: unpopular artists are so because don't know how to scale the heights facing them and reach up to the many.

While, given reasonable publicity, unpopularity is the mark of the bad and the ugly, we cannot say that the reverse is automatically true. That is, to say that all that is good will be liked by the many is not same as saying that all that is liked by the many is good! Much of what is popular today is very bad - hence the Popes critique of 'popular' music. It is the contemporary expressions that connect most powerfully, good or bad. When the work of the artists and composers who are painting and composing today is good enough, it will speak to the many and overwhelm what is currently popular and inferior to it.

This supports the idea, I have stated on other occasions, that the main task ahead of us if we want to be successful in the creation of art and music and the other liturgical arts the task ahead of us is not the education of the masses, but the formation of the artists so that they know how to speak to the masses. The artists must break out beyond their own social circle of friends at dinner parties and speak in a universal language.

At this point I would like to praise Adam Bartlett and his Simple English Propers which are an attempt, I would say a very good one, to do just this. I would relate one my experience in support of this. I am a member of a choir (run by my friend Dr Tom Larson) that has been asked to sing regularly at a Mass at a church in Manchester, New Hampshire. Our perception was that this was a good and devout congregation, but not, generally speaking, traditionalists who are clamoring for ancient chant and polyphony. It is an English Novus Ordo Mass. So Tom decided to use the Simple English Propers and, if there was time, the psalm meditations; sometimes with Bartlett's tones, sometimes using tones we have worked out for ourselves at Thomas More College and which are harmonised by Paul Jernberg (see here if you are curious). The responsorial psalm is chanted, as our the Mass Ordinaries.

Our experience has been very positive.The Simple English Propers are modal, simple to sing, and to my ear they have just the right feel - goodness of form; and they are skillfully composed so that it is easy to articulate the text clearly, enabling the congregation to understand what we are singing. AFter we have sung Mr Bartlett's proper and the meditation, we sing the Latin proper chanted in the traditional gregorian chant. Because the English proper is always in the same mode as the Latin, one just follows on naturally from the other. I had made a point of standing up before the congregation (at the suggestion of Fr Jerome, the pastor) before Mass and explaining what was going on, for the benefit of any members of the congregation for whom this is a new experience. I explained that the Latin text was what they had already heard in English and that they could use this as a chance to listen and meditate on the meaning of the words while allowing the centuries-old melody to draw them upwards.

Our experience is that these English Propers open up the doorway to the Latin in a way that seems natural and easy. Some members of the congregation are coming forward and asking to join the choir; most want to have the music we hand out and the priest tells us that he can hear that they are starting to learn how to follow along and sing with us.

Some will not like the music we are singing as much as I do, but here is the point. If we trust Pope Benedict's view of music in the liturgy and the imperative to create new music (which has only been reinforced by Pope Francis) we have no option but to strive for creativity. I first started to write psalm tones myself because I was looking for something in English, many years ago now, and I struggled to find anything I was happy with. In the end I felt that I could do at least as badly as everybody else...and who knows maybe even do something better. I would say the same to anyone reading this who doesn't like the currently available versions I refer to - start composing your own and let's raise the bar. And let's go on raising it higher and higher. Of course, the freedom to create can be abused, as we know only to well from the disasters of the last 50 years and beyond. However, the right response is not to remove the freedom, but learn to use it more wisely. I for one think that Mr Bartlett is showing us the way.

This has always been the way: Tallis and Byrd were at the cutting edge in their day, composing in both English and Latin (although for reasons that would not apply today) and building on what came before. One of the harmonised tones we use in our Mass in Manchester is an old English pre-reformation Sarum tone in Mode I, harmonised originally by Thomas Tallis as a five-part harmony (homophony not polyphony) and modified to four part by William Boyce in the 18th century. We then adapted this very slightly into a generic form that we could apply to any psalm. We have been singing both English and Latin texts to this four part tone (see here for the tone, and here for how it can be made to fit any text). So what started off as a melody for the Latin, became standard use in English in the Anglican worship is now used for both English and Latin in the Roman Rite. Tallis was quite happy to start the process by building on the old to make something new and we, I suggest, should be prepared to do the same.

If the argument of the Pope holds, then one way of popularising the Latin Mass further is to produce new chant and polyphony, and even create other forms of music that participate in the principles necessary to sacred music as articulated by Pius X (holiness, goodness of form and universality). This is how we will connect with today's Church and those currently outside it more powerfully. Even in the context of Latin chant we must follow this imperative of singing 'a new song' for the Lord. This will open the door to 'the many' to an appreciation of the already existing traditional forms.

If our efforts are good they will catch on and remain popular; if they are not they will fade away and into oblivion. This is the hard truth that I, Mr Bartlett and all other creators of art and music will have to face...but that is no reason not to try!

For those who do not know: the Simple English Propers are all available free online as downloadable pdfs for the score (and with tutorial videos for each one) here at  Corpus Christi Watershed (ccwatershed.org)

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