Thursday, February 28, 2008

A Critique of Sing to the Lord

Sacred Music has decided to release the following article ahead of publication, because of its timeliness and broad interest. It is a critique by William Mahrt of "Sing to the Lord," the new USCCB document on liturgical music. This new document replaces Music in Catholic Worship, the document that many regarded as legislatively preeminent in American Catholic parishes for 25 years, with results you can evaluate at your local parish.

The new document, notes Mahrt, is an improvement because of its incorporation of current and traditional Catholic teaching on music. However, it retains some drawbacks of its predecessor and introduces some new puzzles.

Here are some excerpts:

The problem, wider than the present document, is that the ultimate in Gregorian chants, the gradual, tract, and Alleluia, chants whose liturgical function represents a profound entrance by the congregation into the ethos of the liturgy of the word, have gradually been replaced by, at best, pieces from the divine offices, which were composed for quite different purposes—e.g., the antiphon with the three-fold Alleluia as a text from the Easter Vigil—or, worse, mediocre refrains, repeated too frequently. The congregation’s rightful participation in the liturgy of the word is the sympathetic and in-depth hearing of the Word itself. I have consistently maintained and continue to maintain that this fundamental participation is achieved in a far better and more profound way when they hear a gradual or Alleluia beautifully sung than when they are asked to repeat a musically impoverished refrain with similarly impoverished verses. I concur with the notion that these parts should be sung, but I maintain that their simpler forms are only an intermediate step in achieving their singing in the authentic Gregorian forms, where possible, or a practical solution for Masses where a choir cannot yet sing the more elaborate chants or does not sing at all.

Much discussion of repertory throughout the document passes over the facts that Gregorian chant sets the normative texts of the liturgy and that it uniquely expresses the nature of each liturgical action. A particular case in point has to do with the texts of introits and communions. The texts in the Graduale Romanum are not the same as those of the Missale Romanum, and it is those of the missal which are printed in the disposable missals used in the parishes. I have often been asked, “Where can I find the Gregorian chants for the introits and communions in the missal?” The answer is, you cannot find them, because they were provided for use in spoken Masses only. Christoph Tietze, in these pages, sets out the documentation of this issue: for sung settings, even to music other than Gregorian chant, the texts of the Graduale Romanum are to be used.[11] The present document says only that they may be used (¶77). The bishops were to have voted upon a proposal to amend the American text of the GIRM to prescribe the texts of the Graduale Romanum for all sung settings, but for some reason, this proposal was withdrawn. However, with the growing incorporation of Gregorian chants into our liturgies, missal publishers should now be persuaded to include both texts.

One is grateful that the place of the organ is asserted: among instruments, it is accorded “pride of place” (¶87). It is praised for its role in accompanying congregational singing, improvisation to accompany the completion of a liturgical action, and playing the great repertory of organ literature, whether for the liturgy or for sacred concerts. The recommendation of other instruments, however, raises a few questions. Instrumentalists are encouraged to play music from the treasury of sacred music, but what music for instrumentalists is meant? Is it the church sonatas of the seventeenth century, requiring an ensemble of string players and keyboard? One hopes it is not a recommendation that the treasury of organ music be played upon the piano or that secular piano music be played...

A curious omission from the document is that there is no mention of the special status of sacred polyphony, as stated by the Constitution on the Liturgy.[13] It mentions a general use of the treasure of sacred music among musics of various periods, styles, and cultures (¶30), and again, in a general statement about the role of sacred music in Catholic schools, music from the past is mentioned alongside other repertories (54), but with no hint that there should be any priority.

There are, alas, some more negative aspects to the document, most of which are survivals from Music in Catholic Worship. Perhaps the most pervasive of these is the anthropocentric focus upon the action of the congregation and its external participation, rather than being in balance with a theocentric focus upon giving glory to God. ¶125 states “The primary role of music in the liturgy is to help the members of the gathered assembly to join themselves with the action of Christ and to give voice to the gift of faith.” It must be acknowledged that this comes after having said that “the praise and adoration of God leads to music taking on a far greater dimension,” but the emphasis in the document is mainly upon what the congregation does, and how music expresses their faith; even the action of Christ is mentioned in the context of how the assembly joins itself to it. I would have said that music has three functions in the liturgy, to give glory to God, to enhance the beauty and sacredness of the liturgy, and to assist in the aedifcation of the faithful. But a quotation of the purpose of music from the council is even more succinct: “the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful.”[15] Both of these things are theocentric, the first focusing upon the object of what we do, the second focusing upon what God does for us. Neither focuses only upon what we do.

Related to this is an emphasis upon external participation. A good example is the discussion of music during the communion procession. “The singing of the people should be preeminent” (¶189). The purpose of the music is “to express the communicants’ union in spirit by means of the unity of their voices, to show joy of heart, and to highlight more clearly the ‘communitarian’ nature of the procession to receive Communion.” It is recommended that they sing easily memorized refrains, “limited in number and repeated often.” (¶192) There is no mention of Who is received in communion or the possibility of singing praise and adoration of Him. The focus is upon the attitude of the congregation. There is no addressing of the problem that a devout person may not want to be providing the musical accompaniment to his own procession, but rather be recollecting for that moment when the Lord Himself is received. “Easily-memorized refrains . . . repeated often” is a prescription for triviality. A tendency to over-manage the congregation seems to be in evidence....

Music in Catholic Worship famously proposed three judgments: musical, liturgical, and pastoral, and even suggested by placing it first that the musical judgment was prior to the other two, though not final. It made a statement about the artistic quality of the music: "To admit the cheap, the trite, the musical cliché often found in popular songs for the purpose of 'instant liturgy' is to cheapen the liturgy, to expose it to ridicule, and to invite failure."

This statement turned out to be prophetic, for who has not heard the cheap and trite regularly performed in the liturgy? who would have thought that such a statement had been made 1972? The seeming priority of the musical judgment in the 1972 document was relegated to the dustbin before the ink was dry on it. So nothing will change, because the present document denies the priority of any of the three judgments, placing the musical judgment last, devoting the least attention to it, and giving the criterion of excellence no more than the statement quoted above, this in a document ostensibly about music.

The discussion of the musical judgment is concluded by a serious misquotation of the Second Vatican Council. “The church has not adopted any particular style of art as her own” (SC ¶123), concluding that the church freely welcomes various styles of music to the liturgy. There are two things wrong with this statement: it comes from the chapter on sacred art and was said about art and architecture. The church has not adopted Romanesque or Gothic or any other style as canonical, but when it comes to music, the church has acknowledged the priority of Gregorian chant and to a lesser degree polyphony. These are styles and they do have priority.

Similarly, even though the document regularly uses terms like sacred music and sacred liturgy, there is practically nothing about what constitutes the sacred and its role in the liturgy. This would be, of course, a controversial topic, since so many of the styles now adopted into liturgical practice are blatantly secular. It seems that as long as the texts are acceptable, no judgments from this document will concern the acceptability of musical styles, however secular—until it comes to weddings and funerals....

In spite of the fact that this is a document on music, there is precious little discussion of intrinsically musical matters. Only ¶124 asserts the affective side of music, as difficult to describe, even though it is very important and should be taken into account. So much more could be said about the intrinsic musical characteristics of chant, polyphony, hymnody, and instrumental music in a sacred context.... There is even less about beauty, a crucial criterion for liturgy, in my estimation. A couple of references in passing (¶83, 118) show tantalizing possibilities, but they are not realized.

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