Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Variations without a Theme

Interior by Watts and Co in All Saints, Margaret St, London
Patterns and limits are the stuff of life, and great people find ways to work within these limits in order to achieve great things. In classical art, the limits and form are the grammar of expression. As any philosopher will tell you, grammar and syntax are not arbitrary, but are rather based on the very nature of things. Grammar and syntax are, in effect, the limits within which we find meaning. Composers and artists are ever exploring these limits, and often the art lies precisely in the way the artist interacts with the grammar of expression. Is there ever a time to break the rules? Speaking to one of his speech-editors, Winston Churchill famously said, “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.” While this dictum is often used to support all-out rule breaking, one might note that Churchill still used a correctly paired subject and predicate. Like it or not, meaning comes through grammar and convention.

So often liturgy is understood like rules of grammar. Arguably, breaking the norms of the liturgy actually depreciates (or sometimes defaces) the fullness of Catholic truth that the liturgy makes present. Because the liturgy communicates God’s truth from above and not our human wisdom, it would seem presumptuous to tamper with it. This breaks the grammar of meaning, and not for any reason that would make it more intelligible. So much is preaching to the choir. 
I wish, however, to propose a new reason for sticking to the liturgy as written in the Missal. Let me explain: 
In Latin, the course of a race is a “curriculum.” As Catholics, we compete in a number of races. Of course the first race’s goal is heaven. But along the way we have other races: family life and career, coupled with the “course” of our own sanctification, namely the liturgical year and the Mass. Each year, we run the sacred races anew, hopefully gaining some fresh insight and growing in holiness. In the educational realm, this sort of curriculum is called “spiraling.” Each year the same content returns, however each year we explore it in deeper ways.
Spiraling curriculum need not be pedantic. Think of a classical Theme and Variations. While perhaps neither as noble as a Sonata nor as lofty as a Fugue, it is a real art form with lots of room for creativity. See the Carnival of Venice for a good example. “Mastery” curriculum is the other approach. This is the sequential sort of instruction we ought to receive in catechesis. In our analogy, Sonatas and Fugues are “sequential” or “mastery,” and Theme and Variations are “spiraling.” 
Parish music and parish liturgy benefit greatly from the spiraling approach, but only when there is a rallying point. In other words, there must be a theme which returns each time. 
Let me give a practical example. If Ubi Caritas is to be sung each year for the Offertory on Holy Thursday, we might begin our first year with the chant sung simply. Certainly any hodgepodge group can flub their way through chant this simple. After this is established and confident, perhaps a few years later a group might sing a polyphonic setting. Maurice Durufle’s setting is well known and would serve our needs well. But when this seems tired or boring, or if we wanted something composed in our own lifetime, we might switch to settings by Ivo Antognini, Ola Gjeilo, or Paul Mealor. The text and meaning are the same, and yet the music can help us appreciate it in new ways. If you're up for African Chant mixed with Gregorian chant and new-age piano, you might even try Paul Halley's setting. I'm not up for it.
The point is that we must have a curriculum in order to “spiral” upwards in our understanding and appreciation of the Catholic Faith. We must return to things which are familiar and make them new. This is the essence of reform, and also the essence of tradition. 
Everyone is seeking meaning when they come to Church; the question is whether this “meaning” will be transitory or eternal. Emotions are present, but not relevant for the larger question at hand. Deep emotion may be present in a Palestrina Motet, a 12th Century Chant, a Paul Mealor anthem, or a Dan Schutte song. The difference is the connection Palestrina, Mealor, and the chant retain with the tradition, with the larger curriculum of meaning. We can build with Palestrina, Mealor and Chant, in ways we cannot build with Dan Schutte. It's not necessarily that Dan Schutte's compositions lack meaning, it's that Dan Schutte's compositions are not a lasting part of the curriculum. 
At times, and for some communities, it may be appropriate to return to simpler forms. When John Scott, noted organist and director of the choristers at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Fifth Avenue, died, his requiem was sung simply in Gregorian Chant. As much liturgy is often demonstrative in parishes and cathedrals, we must never forget the contemplative approach of the monastery. Meaning is often communicated best with excellence, taste, and simplicity. But nonetheless, whether with a trained choir of fifty or a schola of three, the Missal and Gradual are our starting point. 
When obedience to the Missal is not the starting point, our ship falters. We crash into the rocks of personal ambition; we spin in the doldrums of private revelation; we heave up and down with the rise and fall of our own navel. Politics and personality conflicts have driven many qualified musicians away from the Catholic Church, when the objectivity of a curriculum would have made all well. 
So I say, choose the compass and the map. Orient yourself with the Missal. Start with melody before polyphony. Keep your finger in the air to be sure your choir and congregation are happy, but choose the compass and the map when you move the boat which carries us all.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: