Thursday, March 15, 2007

Is sacred music too much to ask?

At Amy's blog, there is this little note that I found rather challenging, a sincere note that provides a look at the reality in most parish situations:

About using chant in mass...

I've read a lot of the discussion here about this because it's interesting, revelatory, and relevant to me. I'm a graduate student in my 20's, and I participate in a church choir (made up entirely of college students) that leads the music at one of our parish's Sunday masses. I do wish that some of the musical idealists in the crowd could be a little more understanding, however.

Our choir decided at the beginning of Lent that using chant mass parts would be fun, so we have been doing that up to this point. I'm telling you, although we chose simple and common chants, they are much more difficult to perform than the much-maligned Marty Haugen arrangements. Since they are difficult, we have gotten mostly negative feedback. It may or may not be worth continuing the effort, especially since we made this decision somewhat capriciously, and not out of a historical or theological understanding of the value of chant. Personally, I'm not so sure I get it. If we're going to sing difficult music that parishioners aren't going to follow anyway, why not go for Bach or Mozart? Are Baroque and Classical music really any less Catholic than chant? Why?

I am curious, too, if there are different kinds of Chant? The document referenced in this post talks about Gregorian, which is of course the one that I have heard of. If there are different kinds, how can you tell? And why is one more appropriate than another?

And here is my slightly shabby attempt at an answer to some of this:

The main reason chant feels different (and maybe harder) is that it is non-metric, which is to say that its phrase and rhythms are not divided into neat units of 4 beats or 3 beats such that you can tap your toe to it. Like the Psalms (and like prayer) the rhythm undulates in a different way, more akin to natural speech. It is not grounded in an earthy way and that is for a reason. The early Christians had access to metric Greek poetry but rejected that style for the song of their worship. Chant does have a pulse but it is not overt. This permits the music to float and modulate in a more prayerful way.

As for the Gregorian tradition proper, it is the very foundation of music as we know it, at least in the West. It is the song of the Roman Rite, intimately bound up with the development of the liturgical text.

If you are attempting to accompany chant, that might be part of the problem you are having. Try it unaccompanied. As for the text, you should learn that separately before putting it with the music.

You might also see for tutorials. There is so much more to say but I'll leave it there, and just encourage you to go forward. There is a vast world of amazing music awaiting your discovery.

And here is an intriguing comment from a priest who went through the transition:

I think it is safe to say that anyone who introduces Gregorian chant to a regular congregation that is not in the habit of singing or hearing it at Mass is going to get some grief from the pews and maybe even from the clergy. Another name for the grief is "the cross". It seems "no good deed goes unpunished."

When I arrived in the parish, where I am the parish priest, most of the music at Mass was poorly written, unsuitable as sacred music and poorly performed, although executed with good hearts. It was also highly amplified. Now, at the end of three-and-a-half years, we have a pipe organ, the music is suitable as sacred music, Gregorian chant is sung at the Masses, and the choirs have received the vocal formation making amplification unnecessary.

How happy the congregation should be! Well, not everyone. Here they are getting musical manna, yet like the Israelites in the desert, they complain, even though they were getting their food right from God. Yet, when the musical situation at the beginning of my term was most unsatisfactory, nobody said "boo!" Why? I think it is because doing proper sacred music, especially the chant, executed with skill, is challenging for a congregation, and some people don't like to be challenged. The reason there were no complaints before is that nobody feels challenged or threatened by mediocrity.

That the congregational Mass parts sung in Gregorian chant are more challenging for a congregation than Marty-Haugenesque arrangements is undeniable. However, anyone who has persevered with employing the chant week in and week out knows that the simple chant Mass ordinaries are so doable and help, like no other music, in entering into the sacredness of the Mass. We have to remember that the chant ordinaries, and the other sung congregational parts, were not written for trained singers, or even singers with talent, but for just the kind of people who sit in the pews of any parish church today. What our congregations are lacking is the habit of singing the chant and a familiarity with the Latin language -- a habit and familiarity never intended to be lost by the Church, as we read in the documents from Vatican II down to our own day (March 13, for instance). The only way that congregations can acquire this habit, like any good habit, is through constant repetition.

There is not short cut. "Saving" the chant or Latin stuff for the big feast days is next to useless for acquiring the habit of chant. If we were to train our children to brush their teeth the way we train our congregations in the chant, our kids would need dentures by the time they were twenty.

Promoting the chant is not for the faint of heart. Every little step we take in the direction of more chant challenges and encourages our people to take on more of the mind of the Church. Finally, we should never forget the gratitude of those in the congregation who appreciate that you went the trouble to bring the chant to them. and in that way enriched their time of worship of Almighty God.

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