Sunday, June 29, 2008

“Pastoral Musicians” Embrace Chant?

The June-July 2008 issue of Pastoral Music, the journal published by the largest Catholic music organization in the US, devotes its cover story and two additional articles to the issue of Gregorian chant. This is a milestone, no question. Browsing the archives online, I’ve not found any issue in decades that has so prominently and (somewhat) favorably looked at this subject in some depth.

I’ll provide my summary reaction. The articles are interesting and worthy, and cause for celebration. The authors are experts who are worth reading. They make some good points and some points that I personally find weak but this latter point is a matter of opinion.

But in another way, the issue and these articles miss the mark and this is not the fault of the writers so much as the editors here. This issue does not sufficiently address the top questions that Catholic musicians have about Gregorian chant: how to read it, how to sing it, what to sing, and when to sing it. These are the practical points that vex musicians all over the country when they think about this subject. In fact, only one of four articles addresses some of these points, and even in this article, the author doesn’t quite speak the language of parish musicians.

This is a magazine that is devoted to such practical issues in every other area they cover. They specialize in this service, never forgetting the needs of parish musicians. This is one reason this magazine has been such a success. It is not focused on pronouncing from on high. It deals with parish realities above all else. But when it comes to chant, the editors took a different direction, dwelling in high theory and arcane debates that have no relevance to new chanters in any way.

The lead article is by Fr. Anthony W. Ruff, a monk of St. John’s Abbey who lives and breaths the chant as a schola director. It surrounds him day and night and it is his true love. Few scholars can compete with his knowledge. In the chant world, he is known both for his expertise and also for his dispassionate approach, seeing the merits of chant and also expressing broad tolerance for every manner of praise music in liturgy in just about any style.

So, characteristically, Fr. Ruff writes a two-handed article, literally using the motif of “one the one hand” chant has pride of place, while “one the other hand,” there are many situations that argue against chant. He cites many reasons not to attempt chant: “it will be rather difficult for us to reconstitute world of sung liturgy”; “the acoustics of our modern churches all too often inhibit sung liturgy”; “lay involvement in Catholic worship, centuries before Vatican II, generally took the form of vernacular hymnody”; “there is a bewildering range of options for ritual music in the Roman Rite, and Gregorian chant can no longer claim to be the uniquely appropriate choice in all cases”; “liturgy is always affected by local cultures, and its must always draw on the unique strengths of those cultures for the sake of engaging the assembled worshipers”; “the goodness of all creation…overturns any notion of holiness as being opposed to the secular or the profane.”

I’m not going to argue against these points, but rather point out that the article doesn’t really speak to parish realities. Musicians these days do not know how to read the notes. They are terrified by Latin. They fear the people’s reactions. They are dealing with skeptical pastors and Bishops. They have weak singers who use instruments as a crutch. Also, Catholic musicians tend to be a bit too satisfied with doing the same thing week after week, and there needs to be some inspiration to bring about change. To introduce chant is a major step. It takes work and there is a risk here. The musician will be called on to provide a serious defense. He or she has to believe. Doubt will lead to failure.

I’m not entirely sure that our author understands this dynamic because he lives in a world in which chant is taken for granted, as much part of the fabric of his life as mealtimes and the rising and falling of the sun. Perhaps he doesn’t see either that musicians need inspiration to enter the world that is already is or perhaps he doubts that it is possible? I’m not sure. But I can easily see a musician reading his piece and concluding that taking the risk and doing the work is just not worth it. His article just isn’t enough to provide the intellectual breakthrough that will cause a change in the status quo, and that status quo is that chant is not part of the lives of American Catholics.

The next article by William Tortolano provides an excellent look at the formation and development of Gregorian music, from its roots in Jewish Psalmody to the Solesmes restoration. It is all very interesting, and all very historical. Again, I have no criticisms against what is written here—it is an excellent article—but only desire to point out that that this history has no real bearing on what parish musicians should sing next week or next year. The magazine might have profitably published an excerpt from the chant tutorial he has written.

Next we have Columba Kelly, a Benedictine monk, and I found this article especially engaging and interesting. He delves into the rhythmic controversy between the old Solesmes school, which posited integral structures of pulses, and the newer Cardine school, which argues for text-driven structures that rely more heavily on the interpretation of the chant master. My question is: what does any of this have to do with whether the choir is going to introduce chant into the parish? I would say that it has essentially nothing to do with the question.

Let’s say that you are speaking to a group of high schoolers about the glories of classical music. This is what they expect and want. Instead you give them a long disquisition on the various controversies about the correct tempo for the last movement of Beethoven’s 5th symphony, or on the various upsides and downsides of using valved vs. valveless frenchhorns. Would they be inspired to throw themselves into the repertoire? No, they would probably suppose that you are some out-to-lunch fanatic who can’t see the forest for the trees, obsessing on arcania and blowing an opportunity to make a difference in their lives. In fact, the more I learn about these rhythmic controversies, the more they seem like a major distraction to me that has no bearing at all on parish life. It strikes me as a sad thing that novices would be force-fed all this material when they can’t even read the notes or pronounce the words.

The final article by Peter Funk of the Monastery of the Holy Cross in Chicago is entitled “Using Chant Repertoire in Today’s Parish.” This is the one designed to address the issue of how to do this realistically. Mercifully, this article is free of skepticism and doubt. Fr. Funk loves the chant with his whole heart. He points out the challenges but believes they can be overcome.

“Chant is an ancient musical form,” he writes, “developed in a era far removed from our own. It takes time to growth to appreciate its peculiar modes of expression. That said, chant’s beauty and effectiveness as a means to prayer are so broadly attested that we can be confident of great spiritual discoveries in the repertoire if we approach it with an open mind. … When we chant, we enter into a musical meditation on the Word of God in our midst, spoken to and through us.”

He recommends starting with ordinary chants: Kyrie, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. For the schola he recommends the communion chant and the introit. This is fine advice. He further points to the simpler chants of Jubilate Deo as excellent for parishes, as well as the seasonal propers of the Graduale Simplex. A curious omission, however, is the most obvious one: the chant hymns that are especially suitable as peoples’ music, the melodies that have been known and loved by Catholics for many centuries and that can be easily “plugged in” at offertory or post-communion time. If I were starting over in a parish, I would do these first before even approaching the ordinary chants – but I’ve noticed a tendency among the experts to overlook the chant hymns for reasons I can’t entirely grasp. There is a sense in which chant is the authentic folk music of Catholic people, and it makes no sense to bury the most loved chants as if they do not exist.

A major disappointment in this article is that it no where provides a sample of music that people can sing, and when it comes to the critical question of how to read the music, he goes no further than suggest that people buy method books from Paraclete Press. So the “how to” article turns out to merely point to other “how to” books, which might suggest that the search for basic answers to universal questions is perpetually remote.

Another problem is that readers are likely to go to Paraclete and buy the book called “Chant Made Simple” which is not really a simple intro to reading chant but rather an introduction to the ancient staffless signs of the Graduale Triplex. And there the journey into chant will likely come to a stop. It would have only take a few paragraphs to explain right in this issue how to read the clefs and discover where the whole steps and half steps are and how the rhythm works.

My fear, then, is that the novice will read all of these articles and still not have a strong rationale to take the next step or anything like an intellectual apparatus that will prepare them to pick up a single piece of music and sing it with their choirs and congregations.

Let me conclude by assuring readers of this issue of Pastoral Music that it is really not that hard, not that weird, not that objectionable, and not that controversial. Chant is the fundamental music of the Roman Rite. It belongs as the core music of every single Catholic parish in the entire world, without exception. All the qualifications you can dream up can’t change the fact that this music more than any other constitutes the universal music of Catholic people.

As for how to, you can read it the same way that you read modern music, remembering that the clef sign indicates the C or the F, on the line below which the half step occurs. As for as counting, you can’t go wrong in making each note receive one pulse.

As for tutorials, have a look at the Parish Book of Chant, which provides a pronunciation guide, a guide to reading the neumes, as well as 11 ordinary settings, the Mass ordo in the ordinary and extraordinary forms, as well as a core hymnody of 71 pieces for the whole parish to sing.

Finally, let’s issue a strong congratulations to Pastoral Music, and hope that this is just the beginning and not merely a token bow to authentic sacred music.

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