Sunday, April 27, 2008

Singing and Central Planning

Someone sent me this pre-Mass video interview with Thomas Stehle, director of music for the Washington Nationas Mass. It is very interesting because it allows us to compare theory and results. He tells the reporter some of his own perspective of what he hoped to achieve:

What I am most looking forward to is hearing the entire stadium, not just listening to some excellent music, which we hope we will have, that they will feel inspired to join in. And that unlike any other thing that might happen in that stadium ever again, you might have 46,000 people singing their hearts out, which will be an amazing thing.... So that's what I'm looking forward to, just having the whole stadium erupt, and have the Pope go, wow, this is the American Church. This is a beautiful thing.

The sincere conviction and hope here is a familiar one. In fact, this hope of unified action in song is the defining ambition of the ethos of Catholic music for the last several decades. The idea is to turn the Catholic people of God, who are legendarily unwilling to sing at Mass, into something resembling what you might see in a Quaker meeting house or a Baptist Church in the old days. This hope, desire, ambition, aim, has been the top priority of mainstream Catholic musicians. You can read about it in nearly every article in the mainline liturgy publications dating back a very long time.

At times, the people who talk this way sound like old-time Soviet central planners and their prediction concerning next year's grain production, when all the workers and peasants will join together in harmony, under the wise leadership of the revolutionary vanguard, to achieve a production miracle that will impress the world. The next year comes and grain production falls. Again and again and again.

It's about time we ask whether or not the goal of the people's bursting into song has been achieved or even it is achievable as an intended goal. If we look at the Papal writings on music from all history, actually, there is not a word in here about the goal of causing every living soul to burst into song. There are passages that refer to certain liturgical texts belonging to the people but no insistence that every living person present belt it out. The priorities for music are a different sort: to ennoble the liturgical text, to inspire with beauty, to increase the penetrating power of prayer, to heighten the dignity of the occasion, to add an additional layer of interpretative understanding to the text, among other goals.

Now, perhaps we have been in worship settings in which we have seen the Catholic people burst into song. We've seen such videos posted on NLM, when, for example, at the recessional we see hundreds in a congregation sing Salve Regina with amazing gusto. At such events, what we might notice is that absence of a song leader urging people on. In fact, this kind of singing, when it does happen in the Catholic Church, is rarely intended as the primary purpose. The action is more spontaneous, a result of inspiration resulting in human action and not of human design as such.

And what has come of the movement to get the people to sing as if that's all that "full, active, and conscience participation" can mean? We see the results in parishes all over the country. There is a song leader. There are persistent demands to sing. There are pre-Mass rehearsals. But mostly people do not respond. This truth is the number one source of kvetching in issue after issue of the mainline Catholic music periodicals.

I wasn't at the Washington Nationals Mass of course, and every report says that the television rendering was misleading. To the viewers, it looked pretty much like a performance venue for a variety of groups to demonstrate different styles of music. There were a few hymns that everyone could sing, but none of the people I have spoken to mentioned these as being particularly inspiring. The music, they all said, was something they tuned out, mostly out of habit because this is what they do in their parishes too.

Another point that people mention was how beautiful the sanctuary was, especially given that it was a stadium.

Of the half dozen or so people I've spoken with, the number one thing that people mostly mentioned about this Mass had nothing to do with the music. They speak of the miracle of the silence. They talk about the spiritual comportment of the tens of thousands of people, that you could have all those people gathered in a space and that there were moments that were so still and so silent that you could hear a pin drop. This was what moved people. This was the unforgettable thing that happened.

One priest noted that this silence could not have happened were it not for good formation that is taking place in the parishes. People knew why they were there, and it wasn't to impress the Pope with their singing. It was to be in the presence of the successor of Peter and to experience the real presence of Christ. When you think of that, awe-struck silence seems like an excellent response.

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