Monday, October 09, 2006

Catholic Music: The Urgent Need for Honesty

Today, the liturgy and music subcommittee of the USCCB meets in Chicago to consider revisions to two American essays that have done much to sew confusion concerning music at Mass, and even much to harm the cause of beauty in American liturgy. The CMAA has released this statement.

In addition today, Sandro Magister has published two fascinating studies by chant scholar Giacomo Baroffio of the University of Pavia.

The first is a fictional letter from the Pope:

So then, you will be thinking: soon the pope will tell us that we should sing only Gregorian chant. I would say so instinctively, and with great emotion. But there are two considerations that hold me back: the first, which is tragic – and I know the weight of this word! – is that very few communities today would be ready to implement a demanding musical program in a dignified manner. Don’t be fooled by appearances: Gregorian chant, what we today sing with a single melody, is a musical form that is as difficult as any to interpret in a creative way. I think, among other things, of the simple line of psalmody: the smooth execution of this requires a spiritual energy and a verbal precision that are acquired only through enduring effort in the areas of personal prayer and communal singing.

The second consideration: Gregorian chant constitutes a fundamental and still relevant experience in the life of the Church, as can be said also, to a different extent, of sacred polyphony. But the Church’s vitality, which is also manifested in the contemporary realization of the experience of prayer from the past (not because it belongs to the past, but because our forefathers made achievements of permanent validity), requires discerning symphonic composition between "nova et vetera," between preservation and innovation.

Some of you will be disappointed, but well-considered and prudent choices must be made at this particularly critical moment in the life of the Christian community. This community is adrift and confused; it has lost, or cannot find, precise points of reference. I don’t believe it is opportune to say this or that is forbidden. I think that the teachings of the Church’s magisterium, and the norms of canon law, are already sufficiently explicit and clear. I am convinced that the most urgent thing is the recovery of Christian identity through a renewed spiritual commitment.

The second fictional letter is from John Paul II. The contents here attempt to come to terms with some of the more damaging liturgies that occured during his pontificate. This piece makes for difficult reading, but it does highlight a point: if we are to move forward in a progressive way with the rediscovery of sacred art, there is no sense in pretending that that the last 30-40 years didn't happen. The errors, excesses, and offenses against what is beautiful and true do need to be admitted. Those who warned against what was happening were treated very badly, while those who delighted in shredding and trashing 1,500 plus years of musical progress were rewarded and praised. Artists were banished while vandals took over.

Indeed, John Paul II called for honesty concerning these matters with his suggestion (made on February 26, 2003) of an "examination of conscience so that the beauty of music and song will return increasingly to the liturgy."

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