Friday, June 30, 2006

Is there really continuity here?

Given the new emphasis from the Vatican that music at Mass must have a link to chant and polyphony, we can probably expect some interesting strategic twists and turns in the coming days, including efforts to justify music of the St. Louis Jesuits as not a break from the past but a continuation of it.

Bob Hurd, for example, writes in the new issue of Today's Liturgy (Ordinary Time, 2, 2006) on the communion rite, and acknowledges the Church's preference for the text in the Graduale Romanum. But, he complains, this book "exists only in Latin. Its Gregorian chant antiphons are too complicated for most assembly singing." Having the choir sing alone ends up "rendering the assembly voiceless during Communion" (does the celebrant's homily similarly render people voiceless during the "Liturgy of the Word"?).

He continues, then, to argue that Dan Schutte's "Only This I want" is "an equally wonderful way to reflect on these Scriptures while receiving Communion. Our biblical piety would be the poorer if his Scriptural song were eliminated from our repertoire, simply because it does not come from the Roman Gradual." He further recommends other familiar songs by Marty Haugen, Bernadette Farrell, and David Haas—-music that most any Catholic listener knows in his heart is as far from chant as a modern church-in-the-round is from a traditional cathedral.

Writing in the same issue, Don Saliers discusses chant, its "discovery and rediscovery," with a special focus on Adore Te Devote. He credits the "semiological approach" with giving license to restore "earlier free-flowing Latin forms found in the Triplex"—-using terms and references few readers of this publication could possible follow or understand. He invokes the need for "ecumenical sharing of chant forms" and "modified chant in hymns" to recommend popular songs such as "How Lovely is your Dwelling Place" (Randal DeBruyn, 1981) as suitable substitutes. Thus does his article imply that contemporary praise songs are viable successors to the old chant, not a break from the past but a praiseworthy development.

These are only two such instances. But I expect that we will see more such efforts to re-render contemporary Christian song as a continuation of chant rather than the break that it truly does represent. Whether or not this effort is successful, it does suggest a last-ditch effort to salvage the legacy of the changes of the 1970s by implicitly conceding that chant is the standard or the paradigm of Catholic music. But it still begs the question: why accept a substitute when the genuine song of the Church is available to us if we are willing to challenge ourselves to offer the best?

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