Thursday, May 10, 2007

Getting Out of the Missalette Rut

Most Catholic parishes in the country are stuck in a musical rut. The biggest problem concerns not so much hymns (that is a hit and miss situation) but the very heart of the music sung by the people, what are often called the "Mass parts" but what is more properly called the sung Ordinary of the Mass, the musical parts of the Mass that stay the same week to week.

Looking at discussion boards and talking with Catholic musicians around the country, conversations often go like this:

"What Mass parts do you use?"

"Oh, last year we used Mass of the Bells, but this year we are using Mass of Hope."

"Yeah? We are using the Mass of Creation, like we did two years ago. But we are looking at Heritage Mass for the Fall."

"Really? We thought about Heritage but some people like the Mass of Promise better."

"Well, I'm just glad to leave behind the St. Louis Jesuits Mass that we did for ten straight years. Of course there is the Mass of Glory…"

"What do you think of the Mass of Light?"

and so on.

If you don't recognize any of the above names, you are fortunate to be in a parish that has not been sucked into the great musical vortex of the missalette that prescribes any of these, among another dozen or so. Many musicians believe that they must choose among them, and the truth is that none of them are very satisfying. They all have that slightly bothersome feeling of triviality because each draws from some non-liturgical genre of tunefulness floating out there in the culture. None are quite live up to the occasion. None of them wear well over time.

But many musicians don't believe there is any choice. The parish pays for the missalettes and the choices are in there. This menu is given. Have it your way, so long as you choose among these and only these. Musicians fear that if they choose music that is not in the missalette, the people won't know it and won't sing it. Or they will run into copyright problems when trying to print it in a program (and people these days are positively terrified about this prospect), or they won't find any accompaniment, etc. etc. There are a thousand reasons to continue being stuck in this rut.

But there is one good reason to leave it all behind: solemnity. If you want the music to contribute to the liturgy in a positively Catholic way, you have to think completely outside the missalette box. You have to take the dramatic step of moving to plainsong. This doesn't necessary mean Latin. There are English-language settings of the Ordinary that people can memorize and sing in one or two weeks, and that wear well over time. They are simple and beautiful, require no accompaniment, and are nicely integrated one with another.

Over time, our own schola has settled on a nice collection of English chants that are fitting for just about any day of the liturgical year. We tend to fall back on them during parts of the calendar that don't call for something specialized. They are very popular with people because they don't impose a certain musical sensibility, such as pop, or country, or other odd sounds like "goin' West," or dumbed down glam rock or 70s folk or some other genre.

They sound like "church," they are easy, and, for that reason, the pass the first rule of liturgical music: "do not harm to the liturgy."

So over the course of a few posts, I'm going to offer suggestions for completely refurbishing the Mass Ordinary, beginning with the Kyrie, which Fortescue tells us dates from the earliest centuries of Christianity.

This setting is from Mass XVI in the Kyriale. It is the simplest Kyrie there is. It can be sung the first time quite well, except for the last Kyrie eleison which has a descending tone that might be a surprise at first. The people will get it by the second or third week. No, it is not in English, but everyone knows the words Kyrie eleison.

In most parishes, there is no Kyrie sung at all, and the reasons are a bit elusive. It has something to do with a view promulgated twenty years ago that the introductory rites should be very short and not disproportionate to the rest of the Mass. There is really no basis for this opinion but, in any case, it hardly matters because this is short. Combined with the Gloria that I'll blog tomorrow, the introductory rites from this plainsong Mass are overall shorter than any of the "Mass of ________" above.

Singing the Kyrie sets the right tone from the beginning. Lord have mercy on us. People can sing it without instruments and, perhaps for the first time, experience what their voices sound like together, and how the room reacts to their own voice. The tones have a gentle pulse but no beat, and the language is not street language, so immediately the music moves the heart and mind out of the world and into something completely different. With silence before and after, people gain the feeling of solemnity.

There aren't too many pastors who would be against this. They need only say the form of the Penitential Rite that includes the Confiteor, and then the Kyrie can be sung precisely as above.

If you need help with the notes, just think of the clef as starting on C and read it note by note, staying on the white keys of the piano. Probably the best note to actually start on is F. The little line above the note is a episema and it signals of warming of the sound.

This Kyrie is not only the beginning of the people's sung parts; it is the beginning of a beautiful reconstruction that gets us out of the missalette rut and into something momentous and eternal.

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