Friday, November 17, 2006

What is traditional?

A few years ago, it dawned on me that the words "traditional" have an oddly ambiguous meaning in the current liturgical context. I saw some CD on sale on Amazon calls itself "Catholic Classics" but it was most mostly 1970s stuff. Then someone defended the sacro-pop to me on grounds that it is "traditional" Catholic music. My mouth fell open.

Then I realized that there is a sense in which this is true in the United States. A German friend of mine says that the US is the only country in the world in which doing something twice, and sometimes only once, makes it a "tradition."

At some point, I just stopped using the term. If the purpose of words is communicate a love of chant in liturgy, the term traditional just wasn't doing its job.

So here is an example from today's papers:

The Gregorian Schola, which sings the music for the Gregorian chant Mass in the Jesuit House Chapel, provides a refreshing break from the traditional Catholic Mass. The chant Mass, as its name suggests, is a sung Mass. The Gregorian Schola sings the propers of the day...

So there you go. Chant has been sung for a millennium and a half, at least, but it is now considered new and radical; sacro-pop entered the scene 40 some years ago but now it is considered traditional (and tired). What are we to think about these terms and this perception? I really don't see that it matters. Chant exists out of time, so there is some sense in which calling it "traditional" diminishes its status.

There is another way in which chant as we understand it today truly is modern, at least after the ingenious work of the Solesmes monks and their astonishing restoration. Last night I heard a recording of Solesmes singing, and it struck me that it is very unlikely that anything this incredibly beautiful--is there anything more beautiful?--was heard in the 13th century. The goal of restoration is not merely to recreate but to develop and perfect. But I'll stop there because I haven't done enough thinking on this topic.

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