Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Why is chant making a big comeback?

I just gave a phone interview to a reporter who was asking about Gregorian Chant and the inroads it is making into American Catholic liturgical life. The documentary evidence includes the numbers of scholas in this country, which my estimate puts at about 200, up tremendously from three years ago. Chant books are now being sold by all major Catholic publishers, which is something that is new in the last three years. The circulation of Sacred Music magazine has gone up four-fold in a period in which similar periodicals are going under. Five years ago there were perhaps two or three workshops on chant in the course of a year, whereas now the number approach 20 or more.

Anecdotally, the evidence is even stronger. The typical Catholic gathering now includes an archetype known as the "chant jock," the young twenty-something guy who carries a Graduale Romanum with him in hopes of finding someone else to join him in burning through some propers just for practice. They live for chant news, post on blogs and forums, spend hours a week in rehearsals, and hang out with other aspiring singers who hope to play a big role in the future of Catholic music. As for the "contemporary" music their parents were raised with, don't even go there: it's material for in-the-know jokes and that's just about it.

The larger question the reporter asked is is why chant and why now? I think we might be able to approach an answer here, so I'm going to list some factors without attempting to weight the influence of each.

Grooviness burnout. Maybe that generation that came of age after the Vatican Council enjoyed singing music that was completely different from that of their parents. Was there was a certain thrill associated with importing styles from the popular music of the time into the liturgical setting—sort of like the thrill of tearing up the pea patch? Maybe. You can only tear up the pea patch so many times and for so long before you realize that you are just digging around in the dirt. Or grant good intentions: the new styles reflected the spiritual fashions of the day. But that was then and this is now. Soft rock in liturgy does not wear well, and the two don't mix well as either art or theology.

Battle Weariness. The other side of the coin here are the forces within parishes that prefer what is called "traditional Catholic music," a phrase that can mean anything but usually means something in the vernacular to accompany the Mass at the critical points. This type of music is off-putting to many people, and hence a battle ensues and never stops. What chant represents here is a third way, one that is intrinsic to the Mass itself and suggests not something either modern or "traditional" but timeless and identifiably holy and liturgical. People are tired from decades of struggle and chant offers a way out.

Catholic identity. It's not easy being Catholic in our society and times. It is dawning on a new generation that making concessions in our worship pop culture doesn't make it easier; it only ends up making worship less Catholic. If we are going to take the implausible intellectual leap of believing the claims of the Church, we might as well go all the way and get the real thing. No one can take away from the fact that chant is always and everywhere identified with Catholicism. It is the music that sounds like, and beautifully expresses, what we believe.

Chant lives in the culture. It is a great irony that popular culture never lost sight of the relationship between chant and prayerful solemnity. We have been through several waves of popular-selling chant CDs. We hear it at the movies. It even makes an appearance in the video games that kids play. If this music can have a live outside of liturgy, how much more so within its proper context at the Catholic Mass?

The rise of seriousness. The ethos of popular music at Mass is rather thin. It conveys a sort of contentment but does not capture more difficult human emotions associated with deep sadness, suffering, longing for eternity, transcendent joy, the expectation of miracles, the profundity of salvation through death, or most other themes that are at the core of our faith. Chant is stunningly varied in its musical expression. From Advent to Lent to Easter to Pentecost, the chant expresses and meaning and sensibility of the life of Christ and his Church throughout the liturgical year, and with all that emotional complexity that implies.

Multiculturalism. The other day I met a priest from Uganda who was visiting the United States for the first time, and the topic quickly turned to music. He sang a Kyrie and I picked up on it, then I sang a Sanctus and he knew that one too. We then turned to propers and sang some of those. It was an instant connection of two completely different worlds. There is no other music that is capable of engendering that type of total global unity. The Catholic Church is a universal Church and we need universal liturgical forms that reflect that.

It is easy to tell the difference between fake multiculturalism and the real thing. The fake kind ends up being patronizing of other cultures, a disguised form of elitist imperialism in which we conjure up what we imagine what the foreign peoples of the world—aggregating their class interests—might desire. The real form deals with reality, and the reality in Catholic music for the world is that chant is the great unifying force. And by the way, this applies to issues of age as well. It is the music that unites the generations.

Musicians want a challenge. Catholic parishes have long suffered in terms of the presence of musical talent. But it has never been worse than today. Each parish has only a few people who can read music or play a keyboard or sing anything. It is pathetic, and a major contributing factor is that in the postconciliar practice there hasn't been much to challenge musicians at all. If there is no real job to do beyond singing the melody of a pop ditty, there is nothing to inspire serious musical accomplishment.

But the chant is completely different. Here we have a massive and daunting repertoire that requires all artistic and intellectual energy. Frankly, if you are not willing to work hard and not willing to spend the time on the task, there is no use in even bothering with it at all. But if you are willing to try, there is a great result and a sense of accomplishment that comes with it. Your individual talents are going to be used for the highest possible purpose. That prospect alone attracts.

Pope Benedict XVI. Here is the most obvious factor at work. The Pope himself has been a champion on sacred music for many decades, and we find in his own books and essays a great love of Catholic music. He hasn't issued binding directives yet, and truly there is no need to, since the directives are already place and his speeches and homilies are serving to call everyone to a higher musical standard. Yes, there are issues of obedience here, and the Pope is inspiring that. But there is also an issue of education. Musicians themselves have been inspired to undertake the hard work that comes with achieving a certain ideal. Benedict XVI has made it very clear that this ideal is worth achieving.

The Motu Proprio. Summorum Pontificum, the motu proprio that liberalized the preconciliar Roman Rite, provides an impetus to re-embrace our chant tradition. But let us not put too much emphasis here. It is not the case that the Tridentine Mass uses chant whereas the Novus Ordo does not, though one can easily gain that impression. The music, in fact, provides a strong linkage between the two forms. They both have the Graduale Romanum as the normative form of music that is woven into the liturgical fabric itself. The introits, the communions, the ordinary chants – these are all the same in both forms. A great contribution of Summorum is the gravitational pull it creates that links the ordinary form more closely to its predecessor.

Forty Years. Someone said to me a few years back that Catholics were about to leave the liturgical desert, and that he knew this because of the significance of the year forty in holy scripture. I'm not sure what to make of this, but it is generally true that it was forty years ago when we Catholics lost their way in liturgical music and wandered off to the point of being lost. We are finding our way out, and making our way to the musical land of milk and honey, the name of which is the Graduale Romanum. Or to extend the analogy to the Gospels, we are making our way to the true cross, the very source of our salvation.

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