Thursday, April 17, 2008

Music for the D.C. Mass: The End of an Era, and the Beginning of Something New

It is the grace of all Americans to have Pope Benedict XVI visit this country. And it was to the grave embarrassment of all American Catholics that the music employed at the papal Mass at the Nationals stadium in Washington, D.C., not only represented a repudiation of everything that this pope has written on music appropriate to Mass. We can go further to say that there is no robust tradition of liturgical scholarship that is capable of defending what happened, and that is because it is indefensible.

By now the news is out—the whole world watched this liturgy—and I don't want to rehearse all the details of the pieces of music in question. It is too painful, and there will be plenty of Youtube videos around for many years to remind us more than we want to be reminded.

Let us talk about principles.

In the name of "multiculturalism," the Pope was subjected to music more suitable to dingy dance halls than Churches. The Psalms of David were distorted to the point of ear-splitting dissonance. The congos, pan flutes, meringue rhythms, the jazz and blues and rock, the swaggering vocals, the puffed-up soloing, went beyond even the most pessimistic predictions.

Indeed, when Marty Haugen's Mass of Creation finally came on at the Sanctus, it was a moment of dignity—so much so that I want to take back all my negative comments back when I thought that this Mass setting was unsuitable for a Papal Mass. I don't think anyone knew before this what the phrase "unsuitable" could really mean.

I personally feel the greatest hurt toward American Catholics of diverse races and ethnicities, who have been quite viciously caricatured here. How wounded they must personally feel by this presentation done in their name.

Blues and jazz – intended to appeal to African Americans? What about those African Americans who sing in chant scholas, are accomplished singers, are working to actually compose excellent sacred music?

Meringue and samba for Hispanic Americans? Please. Does this include the Hispanic scholar who wrote me about an hour ago with heartbreak at what saw and heard? He is an expert in the polyphonic music tradition of Latin America, and has done extremely important work in showing how the themes from chant strongly informed the construction of 16th century mass settings.

And were all those wacky instruments somehow supposed to appeal to Asians? I really can't go on here. There is grave insult at the heart of all these attempts to construct styles that appeal to all people, pigeonholing their tastes the same way a racialist writing in the 1930s or a Nazi propaganda poster might do. This is not unity but dangerous division.

I know that none of this was intended, but let us remember that we are united in Christ, united in our Catholicism. The Pope has written in his book The Spirit of the Liturgy that the issue of multicultural was confronted and dealt with early in the Christian history, as the Roman Rite developed to deal with intense diversity of early converts from many regions and language groups. The result was the Latin language in liturgy, and Gregorian Chant and its timeless and universal sound, together with the text of the Psalms that speak to universal impulses in the human person. True multiculturalism is achieved in the Roman Rite itself, a point which is still emphasized in Church teaching.

This is not inaccessible knowledge. The Second Vatican Council stated very plainly that Gregorian chant and polyphony should enjoy primacy of place at Mass. This teaching has been restated by the Pope time and again. This is not his personal taste at work, nor mine. Chant is the music of the Mass. Styles that elaborate on chant are also suitable. What the liturgy does not admit are styles that are at war with the liturgical sense and purpose of reaching outside of ourselves and into eternity. We face a choice between Apollo and Dionysis, wrote Cardinal Ratzinger.

The Church’s Tradition has this in mind when it talks about the sober inebriation caused in us by the Holy Spirit. There is always an ultimate sobriety, a deeper rationality, resisting any decline into irrationality and immoderation. We can see what this means in prac¬tice if we look at the history of music. The writings of Plato and Aristotle on music show that the Greek world in their time was faced with a choice between two kinds of worship, two different images of God and man. Now what this choice came down to concretely was a choice between two fundamental types of music. On the one hand, there is the music that Plato ascribes, in line with mythology, to Apollo, the god of light and reason. This is the music that draws senses into spirit and so brings man to wholeness. It does not abolish the senses, but inserts them into the unity of this creature that is man. It elevates the spirit precisely by wedding it to the senses, and it el¬evates the senses by uniting them with the spirit. Thus this kind of music is an expression of man’s special place in the general structure of being. But then there is the music that Plato ascribes to Marsyas, which we might describe, in terms of cultic history, as “Dionysian”. It drags man into the intoxication of the senses, crushes ra¬tionality, and subjects the spirit to the senses. The way Plato (and more moderately, Aristotle) allots instruments and keys to one or other of these two kinds of music is now obsolete and may in many respects surprise us. But the Apollonian/Dionysian alternative runs through the whole history of religion and confronts us again today.

Let me add here as an aside that I do not believe it is correct to describe this as a typical "American" event, illustrative of our decadence and egoism. The fact is that there are hundreds of Catholic parishes in this country that have wonderful liturgy, gorgeous music, and musicians all over the country are working very hard, at sometimes little or no pay, to learn sacred music and use it in liturgy. This is a movement of great vitality and growing numbers, and all the trends here are up in every way. This movement involves mostly young people who are seeking to do their best. They are Americans too. It is wrong to let a small cabal that took control of the Washington liturgy define the whole country and its liturgical sense.

What is the current situation in the aftermath of this Mass? There is no question that anger, even fury, is palpable. The USCCB has been deleting comments from its own website. Fr. Richard J. Neuhaus, in his running commentary on EWTN, expressed astonishment. The blogs are overflowing with bitter comments. Certain traditionalists are, of course, having a grand time, unjustly trashing the "Novus Ordo," as if the ordinary form of the Roman Rite is responsible for this.

Something tells me that this Mass is a defining moment, and possibly the end of an era. For many years, a certain tendency of liturgical aesthetic has said that we need to loosen up, use music that appeals to our sense of things as collected from the secular world, to use music that has a beat and is drawn from the world in which we live. We need to forget all that solemn chant and "classical" stuff and move on. And what we saw this morning was the result—perhaps not the intention, but once you lose track of the liturgical ideals, there are no limits. The "no limit" model was put on display for the Pope himself this morning, while onlookers cringed and hearts broke.

I can understand the outrage, but the question is how it can be turned toward the good? Now that we have witnessed the reductio ad absurdum of the pseudo-multicultural, non-liturgical approach to music, where can we turn to re-root ourselves? The answer is the same now as it has always been: The Graduale Romanum and Church legislation. The propers attached to the Votive Mass of the Holy Spirit, the Mass that was offered this morning, are posted at Cantemus Domino. You will hear in them the true music of the Church.

But can these propers and a Gregorian ordinary really sound right in a stadium? It's all the more important that they be used in this setting, as a way of infusing the place with the dignity and solemnity of the Christian liturgy. And who will sing them? There are Gregorian scholas around the Washington area. There are workshops. There are chant books and tutorials. There is a way to learn them and sing this music that is appropriate to the Mass. If it is done properly, the music not only enhances the Mass; the Mass itself dwells within the music, not as performance art but as sung prayer. This is the ideal. No effort to provide music for Mass should ever proceed without an awareness of that ideal.

Without that ideal, what are we left with? Let the Pope answer:

When the community of faith, the world-wide unity of the Church and her history, and the mystery of the living Christ are no longer visible in the liturgy, where else, then, is the Church to become visible in her spiritual essence? Then the community is celebrating only itself, an activity that is utterly fruitless. And, because the ecclesial community cannot have its origin from itself but emerges as a unity only from the Lord, through faith, such circumstances will inexorably result in a disintegration into sectarian parties of all kinds - partisan opposition within a Church tearing herself apart. This is why we need a new Liturgical Movement, which will call to life the real heritage of the Second Vatican Council.

Let us use this occasion to recommit ourselves and re-root ourselves to the Church's own liturgical language. Let us close the chapter on this event and move on. Let us stop what we have been doing to our heritage of inestimable value. We can do better. We must. Benedict's own writings show the way.

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