Monday, July 28, 2008

Plainsong Must Return to Our Parishes

With this post, I'm again shamelessly using the NLM readership as a commentariat for a piece I'm preparing for the Wanderer. Thank you so much for anything you can add, criticize, correct, etc.

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The liturgical buzz in Catholic circles right now concerns the new Mass translations that are being debated among U.S. Bishops and considered by the Vatican. The Mass ordinary changes will certainly affect the music we sing, and the importance of this consideration cannot be overlooked.

It doesn't matter how improved the translations are; if we sing them in a musical framework that is not fitting for solemn worship, they still won't accomplish the goal of more closely tying our liturgical experience with the embedded sensibility of the Roman Rite.

What we do not want is another round of composition that takes the common musical settings of the current texts and adapts this same music wholesale to new texts. Unless we take time to do a serious musical reexamination of existing popular material, this is precisely what will happen. It will be an intellectual improvement but not an aesthetic or artistic one.

There are two musical features of present Mass settings that weigh against the prospect of improvement. One is the assumption that people must always sing the ordinary. The General Instruction permits a choral Gloria but, in practice, the ethos assumes that people must participate in singing if they are to come to like the music. Otherwise, it is widely believed, people will resent the choir as some sort of performance troupe that is interrupting their Mass.

This typically translates to the idea that the music must be easy and simple, and this too often means dumbed down and even silly. Sometimes it means trading voices between the choir and the congregation, with the people singing a repeated antiphon. It is nearly like we believe that all Catholic people must sing something every 15 seconds or so else they will be bored out of their minds, as if we all have Attention Deficit Disorder and can't possibly sit and listen to anything.

I know that everyone can cite exceptions to the rule, and tell about that or that 4-part setting that is high quality and also involves congregational singing. But the average Catholic choir, for whatever reason, does not seem to be stumbling upon these exceptions.

Another assumption is that the idea that all music must be metrical, which is to say, must have a regular beat like a march or a waltz: 1234, 1234 (Stars and Stripes Forever) or 123, 123 (Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean). It is possible to have holy and beautiful music that conforms to this model. But it all too easy for composers to achieve this metrical goal by mimicking the style of pop music, commercial jingles, or the Broadway tradition.

So if you listen to most Mass settings in parishes today, they really do have the sound of popular song written in a manner that assumes that we must all sing a few times per minute. This creates a very strange mish-mash of a musical styles that depart substantially from anything resembling what the Second Vatican Council said deserves the principal place at Mass.

This is a very serious problem. The Gloria and Sanctus are two of the oldest and most revered hymns of the faith. Yet today the Gloria sometimes sounds like the soundtrack to a children's-hour television show. And we are all struck by the irony each week before the Sanctus when the celebrant speaks of the choirs of angels, and this is followed by some enormous crashing calamity from the choir area. You think: this is supposed to sound like angels?

What are we going to do about this problem? The ideal is to abandon this project altogether and embrace Gregorian Chant. The Church has given us 18 full settings of the Mass that are varied for occasions and achieve the perfect integration of words and text. Some of them date from the earliest centuries of the faith. Every one of them can be learned by the congregation, some sooner than others, but there are congregations in this country today that can competently sing all of them, such at St. Agnes in St. Paul, Minnesota.

And yet, let's be realistic. The American Church is not going to abandon English any time soon, so it becomes very important that we rethink the way we understand the music behind the Mass parts. Chant-like music is possible in English that eschews the metrical quality of secular music while still including the people in song. A name for this approach is called plainsong, a term that Dom Cardine never liked because the music is anything but plain.

Plainsong is music characterized by only one line of notes and follows no strict metrical pattern. The text is prose like the Psalms. You might know these English example: "Of the Father's Love Begotten," or "Humbly, Lord, We Worship You."

The early Christians favored this music for good reason: the absence of a predictable repeating metric gives it the quality of music that floats ever upwards and never touches ground. To sing it feels more like flying than walking (or dancing). And this sense is precisely what is desired in a liturgical setting that seeks to reach out of the confines of time and enter a heavenly realm.

There are settings of the current English text that use plainsong approaches. There are three in the Adoremus Hymnal, and that's enough to keep a parish happy for many years. Music directors: please try them out. One is by a "Cistercian Monk," one by Ted Marier, and one by Kurt Poterack.

Again, they are sung unaccompanied, so they are great for Sunday Mass or daily Mass or anytime. (It also means that the guitar strummers can leave their instruments at home.) They will bring about a fantastic change in the sound and feel of liturgy. Each nicely displays how it is possible to have truly "out of this world" liturgy without Latin or even formal chant, and yet all partake of the chant sensibility. These settings are so very adaptable. They can sound exuberant on days when it is fitting, and plaintive on days when that is fitting.

Another beautiful thing: plainchant is more easily adapted to new texts. So when they appear, there won't have to be an abrupt change in what your parish sings. As we get closer to the time when the texts are promulgated, free editions of all these will surely be posted online, and your parish will be liberated from the liturgical-industrial complex just in time to preclude spending thousands of dollars on new music.

Now, the first point that a musician will usually make is that too much plainsong alone is boring and lacking in artistry. I don't believe this. In fact, most people don't believe this. The truth about people in the pews is that they are natural conservatives, and are oddly happy to do the same thing every week, even if it involves very bad music, probably forever. If you give people good music, that too will stick and people will be happy with it, with very little variation, for a very long time.

Think of it this way: the priest's chants have only two or three options. We never hear anyone complain about this. People are really happy and comfortable with music they can sing and with which they are familiar.

The Church in her wisdom accommodates this with the musical structure of the Roman Rite. It gives the parts that change the least to the priest. The parts that change a bit more but still not much are assigned to the people generally (the ordinary). The parts that are very difficult and change every week are assigned to the choir, precisely because people with a musical vocation love change and variety and can handle that from a technical point of view.

So consider using the new Mass texts as a way to completely rethink the way music is used in the parts that generally belong to the people. By using plainsong, we make the transition easier, and also take a huge step to using the music that is most suitable to the Roman Rite.

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