Thursday, September 14, 2006

New (Serious) Music for Mass

This story describes a case of a local music director (St. Eugene's Catholic Church, Chicago) who wrote a Mass setting specifically for a new pastor, who sings well. There's no telling of its quality. It might be wonderful or it might not be. The parish itself offers a list of Midi files of music that looks like a duplication of Thomas Day's black list, which does not inspire confidence.

Nonetheless, there is something always exciting about new music being composed for Catholic liturgy. Indeed, this has been one of the reasons why papal legislation has continually intervened (since the earliest centuries) to remind people that the chant is the foundational song of liturgy. People get so excited about the new material based on chant that they leave the chant itself behind, and this neglect leads to unliturgical outcomes. This is one reason that the whole history of Church music has been an ebb and flow between musical piety and far-flung decadence.

For centuries, every composer aspired to write a great Mass, possibly as a means of immortalizing their creative art. A Mass is written neither for one's ego nor for an audience but for higher purposes that extend beyond the confines of time and place. No other compositional venue provides what liturgy provides.

One of the many tragic losses associated with the destabilization of text and form in the postconciliar era has been how the Roman Rite has lost its attractivness to many serious and otherwise secular composers. In listening to Paul Hindemith's Mass, there is great beauty but also tragedy. It was published in 1963, just before the permanence of form that inspired him began to appear not so permanent. You can hear audio samples here.

Yes, it's modern music: serious modern music. Here was a master musician who poured his heart and soul into this project.

Still, even today, serious Catholic musicians--not just pop-music rejects--are still at work, composing not only motets but also full Mass settings. We sing through many compositions every year at the CMAA on the last day of the Colloquium, in a session lead by composer and organist David Hughes.

One of our schola's favorite pieces is by NLM's own Michael E. Lawrence, a setting of "O Sacrum Convivium" that I would love to upload for the world but for the fact that it is set for publication at CanticaNova. He has since written a wonderful "Pater Noster" that we read through just last week.

One of the many benefits of a reform of the reform and/or the liberalization of the 1962 Mass will be that serious composers will be again be inexorably drawn to the Roman Rite. What blessings await! After all, even Leonard Bernstein's Mass of 1971, for all its outrages and sacrilege, has moments of incredible beauty.

One amusing point to note on Bernstein's setting: it is based on the Tridentine form, and includes the Introibo ad altare Dei. I wonder if Mr. Progressive even knew that this text has been removed in the New Rite that had been promulgated a year earlier, and, actually, had been taken out in the transitional missal of 1965 (correct me if I'm wrong on that point).

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