Monday, February 04, 2008

Bonum est confiteri

I'm still recovering from the phenomenal success of our sacred music workshop this weekend. It was directed by Wilko Brouwers, one of the world's foremost conductors and teachers of chant and polyphony.

The highlight for me personally was singing the offertory proper for the day: Bonum est confeteri. We sang the Gregorian melody from the chant books, and, after it was completed, we moved immediately to the polyphonic setting of the same text by G.A. Palestrina. Never before had I experienced what it was like to sing the same proper text in both chant and polyphony in the same Mass. In some ways, this practice could be said to achieve an ideal. The chant propers have pride of place, according to the Second Vatican Council, but polyphony is also named as particularly suited. To do chant and the polyphony together was to be part of seeing that ideal achieved. (We sang the Mass without any instruments.)

Looking back it, I wonder what we were thinking in putting that piece of polyphony as part of the scheduled Mass. It certainly was an act of faith. The organizers had never sung the piece, or heard it, for that matter. Palestrina had written it for five parts, which, as Brouwers pointed out, adds a whole additional layer of complication to polyphony. One might think that adding only one part beyond what is traditional wouldn't be that big of a deal but, in fact, it causes the polyphony to tower to a point that stretches the comprehension capacity of the human ear beyond anything one hears outside of liturgy.

The piece itself is a marvel. It begins with a single tenor voice, and then adds more and voices at the top and bottom before each sections begins to cascade upwards on the text "Psallere nomini tuo, Altissime" (sing praises to thy name, most High!). Each time those words were said, a fast-moving scale would be sung by a new section of the choir. And movement was ever higher and higher until about 3/4 the way through when the soprano section seemed to touch eternity.

This was the first piece of polyphony that we tackled on Saturday morning. I had a feeling of terror when the conductor said to turn to that page. Most everyone did. But after he had us all sing the tenor line, and we grew more comfortable with the melodic themes, the piece began to unfold little by little. Within the first 30 minutes we had already sung the piece from beginning to end, and the director began shaping the piece, and working on timing and phrasing. His attitude of calming patience and systematic work pervaded the entire choir.

Truly, I couldn't believe it was happening. We were actually singing this whole piece. And with 70 singers in our small church, with excellent acoustics, the sound was beyond belief. We were there alone in rehearsal, all wild with excitement about singing it that very evening. We did indeed. The gentle simplicity of the chant contrasted with the heavenly complexity of the Palestrina setting in ways that I could hardly imagine. Truly, everyone who took part experienced something that comes once in a lifetime.

The singing of this motet was made possible through two main conditions: an incredible director and outstanding singers. This latter point was one that we hadn't entirely anticipated. This is the fifth year of the conference. In the first year, we did little more than explain some basics of chant and sing through some chant hymns, with easy polyphony. We didn't attempt too much more. Each year, the level of the workshop has risen. In this year's promotion, we specified that it was important that all singers be musically literate. We knew that this would cut down on our numbers (it did) but it would increase the quality of the group and its ability to sing the best music the Church as to offer.

This would have been inconceivable five years ago, at which point there were very few scholas working in parishes. Today there are hundreds. Most of the attendees were already involved in their parishes and singing propers, ordinary chants, and some polyphony. In short, the movement for sacred music has certainly matured in remarkable ways and in such a short time.

There were people of all ages who attend: from 11 to 80. But looking back at the demographics, I'm struck by the average age of the attendees, which I would estimate at 35 or so. These were mostly young adults, people who graduated from college in the mid to late 1990s, and started settling down in parishes.

In the case of our own schola, founded seven years ago, we formed without a pastor's request, even though we now enjoy full pastoral support. Most of the people who were here with us this weekend had been asked by their own pastors to please begin learning chant and polyphony so that the music of the Mass will be more fitting to the text of the Mass. In some ways, then, they are more secure than we ever were. It also reflects the changing times that there are so many priests now who are asking for change.

It's been such a wonderfully encouraging thing to watch how this movement has grown from virtually nothing to take on a sizable presence in Catholic liturgical life today. I'm beginning to see why it has been necessary to so vastly expand the CMAA colloquium, which expands the workshop model into a full scale choral university, with daily liturgies. What accounts for all this activity? It has nothing to do with money (certainly not!) and very little to do with organizing skill. It is all about the truth of the faith mixing with the truth about beauty. The combination of the two provides the closest thing to heaven we can experience on this earth.

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