Tuesday, March 18, 2008

How to Plan Music for Mass: Step One

In the years since the promulgation of the new Mass in the Roman Rite, musicians (and others involved in liturgical planning) have developed a habit that is completely incompatible with the spirit and letter of the Roman Rite.

They have begun thinking of their music as a kind of theatrical decoration on the Mass, something to be selected based entirely on one's own judgment of what would be suitable and what the choir has prepared, as well as the overriding consideration of what is called "participation."

Instead of adhering to the liturgical calendar, every Sunday Mass, every weekday Mass, becomes a Participation Day. In pursuit of this goal, all is left to the discretion of the liturgy planners. There are a few remnants of rules remaining such as "Don't sing Alleluia in Lent" and "Sing Christmas carols during Christmas season," but otherwise, the practice is to pick and choose what you will.

How has this happened? My own pet theory has to do with a critical four-year gap that separated the promulgation of thew new Mass from the appearance of the new Graduale Romanum, which is the music book of the Roman Rite. It was precisely in these years when we lived without a Graduale, 1970-1974, that the entrenchment of this completely ahistorical and nonliturgical approach became a reality.

People simply did not know or care that the Roman Rite comes with its own music that is part of the structure of the liturgy. The New Mass was rushed out as a text alone, rather than an entire liturgical package that included music as part of the structure, as much as the readings themselves. Vatican II said that that the chants of the Mass are to assume the primary role, but, in practice, this instruction became a dead letter. And, yes, I am aware that the problem predates 1970, but the complete loss of consciousness took place within the last decades.

Many are working right now to repair the damage and recapture what has been lost, using the Graduale Romanum as the guide. But bad habits are hard to break. Musicians just aren't accustomed to considering which Mass they are instructed to do.

For example, let's say there is a funeral Mass. The family comes to us and says that they would like this song and that song. We consider the request and grant as much as possible. In doing this, we have become accustomed to think of ourselves as glorified jukeboxes, no better than a band at a bar taking requests.

So what should be the response to the request that we provide music for a funeral? The response is simple: "We will have a Requiem Mass." The music is part of the structure. It means the Requiem Mass propers and suitable ordinary setting.

Yes, there are options in the New Mass. We can do other suitable music. But there is a standard against which we are judge for what is suitable and that standard is the Graduale Romanum. The standard is not what will make people happy, what will maximize participation, what will look and sound good on Youtube, or anything else. Our job is provide the music of the Mass for the Mass.

What applies to the Requiem applies to every single Mass of the year. The first step is to know what Mass is being said and turn to the Graduale Romanum to see what music applies.

So far as I can tell, this is the great failing of those who are planning the Papal Mass in Washington, D.C., on April 17. They considered the needs of diversity, the priority of participation, the availability of resources, the need to present to the Pope the rich fabric of American musical life in all its Catholic manifestations. What is completely missing in all of this is any evidence of the Graduale Romanum, the music that is attached to the Mass itself.

Would we choose the readings for the Mass based on a criterion that completely excludes the Lectionary? If not, why should we make musical selections without ever considering the Graduale Romanum? Habit -- that's my view, in any case. This is a habit that needs to be broken.

In future posts, we'll examine what the propers are for the day of the Pope's Mass in Washington and the various options.

Coda: Here is a handy index of the Graduale propers for the Church year.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: