Monday, May 05, 2008

In Praise of Gloria XV

In light of yesterday's experience at Mass, I will say this about Gloria XV. Its effectiveness has exceeded our expectations in every way. The song is the oldest of the Glorias but it remains groovy cool right now, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me.

It is repetitive and so an excellent tool for learning the words. It travels a distance of only a few notes, so people can get used to its melodic idea very quickly. The greatest surprise comes at the very end with the Amen, which uses a note and a half-step interval that hasn't been heard before, so it leaves a great "after taste" and you find yourself wanting more.

The level of participation might even exceed what happened under the English Gloria we used for many years. This was something no one could have predicted. So what's at work here? Well, it is a challenge for people in some way, something that is required of them, and something that invests people in our heritage in a big way. They like knowing the earliest known Gloria and this knowledge connects them to Catholics of all times. This is very satisfying. No one wants to be a Catholic and cut off from the past; quite the contrary.

Also, I sense that people are fed up with being lazy and bored at Mass. Singing the Gloria in Latin is something that calls forth something extremely important from them. No one speaks Latin in regular life; but Mass is not regular life. The language underscores the point. Also, it is also not just any old song; it is part of the liturgy in a very important way.

The tune is compelling too because it does not sound like anything else heard in the culture. In the same way, the Mass is not like anything else in the culture, so it makes an excellent fit. We go to Mass for unusual reasons and now people can sing an unusual song. This way a person can take a bit of pride in what he or she does; it's no longer "oh we sing peppy songs at Mass too," but rather "we sings songs that are so old, so unusual, and so holy that you can't hear them anywhere but at our parish." So suddenly, Mass offers a cultural form that is exceedingly and overtly distinctive in its music.

Also, this particular setting is structured for easy memorization and singing without accompaniment. I've talked to people who say that they can't wait for Mass because they get to practice the Gloria, on which they are improving each week.

The few minutes that it takes in Mass are so exciting, truly. In fact, it is the pinnacle musical moment of the whole liturgy. This has had an excellent effect on the schola, so that we longer feel the pressure to carry the full load of the musical solemnity that takes place. Even our greatest motet done perfectly doesn't exceed the excitement that comes with a full congregation singing Gloria XV in Latin, so that allows us to psychologically rest a bit, a state of mind that is essential to good singing in any case.

You might be surprised to know that there hasn't been even the slightest bit of controversy about this. Not one complaint. Not one expressed regret about the abandonment of English here. Not one word from anyone about how we are turning back the clock etc. Nothing.

Now, part of the reason is the following. Before we made this change, our chant director had a meeting with the pastor. She emphasized the utmost importance of his role here. It is critical that he, and not the cantor, be the one to intone it. She gave him a recording and showed him that he can do it. We now give the pitches during Mass, just the first three. His part lasts only a few seconds. But it amounts to an invitation to everyone to sing. He provides the example. And everyone responds.

So there are a number of factors here in the success of Gloria XV. It is great music. It is part of the Mass. It is unusual and challenging. But also, the celebrant has led the way in showing people how to do this.

Now, I know that not everyone is so fortunate as to have a celebrant who is willing to intone the Gloria. But perhaps we should all make greater efforts here. We are, after all, talking about four words and three notes. This is not difficult. But it makes an immense difference for everyone.

Finally, let me say that we might all have a bit more faith that what the Church tells us to do is also effective and proper for the Mass. We too often depend on our own human judgment to assess the merit of liturgical change. The problem with that approach is that it rules out small miracles. And I would certainly count the success of this Gloria as a small miracle in our parish.

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