Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The changing needs of the Communio and Introit, new and old rites

A distinguished and experienced musician and liturgist (ok, I'll not be coy: it was William Mahrt) made a point concerning the new availability of Psalms that really struck me.

He pointed out that under the old rite, there was (or is) a large need for Psalm singing at the Introit simply for the practical reason of time. The choir sang the Introit twice plus the Gloria Patri but there also had to be many Psalms to cover the allotted time for the prayers to take place. [Coda, Mea Culpa: a commentator pointed out that this is incorrect; only one psalm verse is given in the Introit--which I should have known from having sung in an old-rite schola for several years. The error is mine and not Dr. Mahrt's, who was explaining that the time requirements seem to call for more than was provided, so the point stands.]

Meanwhile, at Communion, the time demands were not as intense. Fewer people went to communion, and the process was fast, so fewer Psalms were sung, perhaps only one or two, and then the antiphon was repeated, and, by that time, communion was over.

The music needs are reversed in the new rite.

The Introit is usually sung once. This is because when the Introit is used as a prelude (yes, it is permitted), it is not necessary to sing a long time. When it is used as a processional chant, well, it takes very little time for the priest and servers to walk from the back to the front of the church, so the complete Psalms are not necessary at all.

Meanwhile, Communion too is very different today. Almost everyone receives. The lines are long. Standing in lines is less efficient than kneeling at a rail, so that adds to the time. Many people receive under both kinds, which adds more time. In some parishes, there can be a need for 5 or even 10 minutes of music, even more. Even if you add silence, there can be a need to sing all the Psalms applied to the antiphon, which is why it is such an important development that they are being made available now.

In Catholic parishes today, the Communion antiphon might be sung 4 or 5 times, which is a wonderful thing to do: it creates a growing familiarity with the chant line, and the repeating antiphon instills a sense of timeliness while the beauty of the chant itself is prayerful and transcendent.

This point hadn't struck me before. It also explains why some of the most loathed of all the "contemporary" music of today is that which is sung at communion. It is repeated again and again, and then the instruments play the same tune, and then the singers start again. A song that might have been tolerable for one or two verses becomes unbearable, and during this intense part of the liturgy. This might partially account for the high level of resentment against this music.

This is also why it is so important for scholas to start to work on these antiphons as the first part of the Propers that they tackle. What was once a less important part of the sung Propers has become a hugely important part. Doing them can make a big difference in the liturgy. And they are all so incredible beautiful: like miniatures of the greatest symphonies, or extremely detailed paintings that cover a very small surface. Each is a masterpiece.

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