Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The Struggle for Ideals in Liturgical Music

Let me first apologize for the length of this review of Sacred Music and Liturgical Reform: Treasures and Transformations, by Anthony Ruff, OSB (Chicago: Hillenbrand Books, 2008). It is a partial draft of a longer piece that may appear in Sacred Music. Comments are much welcome.

The book in question is a large work of very impressive scholarship—682 pages, with 1,000 plus footnotes, and multilingual apparatus employed to its fullest—that will fully absorb anyone with an interest in the question of what happened to Catholic music in the 20th century. The author is a monk and priest at St. John's Abbey and a serious chant scholar who writes for many Catholic music publications. He takes the reader on a long, winding, and fascinating journal through the debates on liturgical music from the baroque period through the present, with a special focus on the last hundred or so years. The questions he takes up are asked by many but not often answered with his vast knowledge of the subject. Only someone very well-read in this subject would fail to learn something new on every page, and, for this reason, the book is completely engaging at every step. The author writes not with anything like a stifling academic distance but rather like a good narrative historian, which is interesting considering that the book is based on his 1998 dissertation defended at the University of Graz. He has an eye for the colorful anecdote, and his stories of prelates, composers, singers, publishers, and controversies make the book a real page turner.

There is no question of the status of this work as indispensable and required reading for anyone who takes seriously the subject of the history of modern Catholic music. And not only indispensable: it is likely to be regarded as definitive, for it is not a work easily displaced by another comparable work. For the most part, it has a balance that make his account plausible and a range of references that give it a level of credibility that we don't find in this subject area dominated by polemics about one's personal likes and dislikes. What's more, there is a solid reason to hope for a widespread readership for this book. The ethos of contemporary music talk within the Catholic community tends toward a kind of historical blindness, as if all that is good and viable is rolled into the latest offerings from the big music publishers or appears in the latest hymnal release. A grasp of the historical range of this work will help musicians to be more critically minded about what they are doing, and remind us all of the vast wealth of liturgical music that has been left behind for reasons that are very weak. .

The book also helps frame up current debates about the future of Catholic music, perhaps helping us avoid fruitless controversies of the past. Whatever views a person holds today in the current controversies has probably been held by someone in the past. And here we find what might be the most surprising revelation of the book overall: debate and controversy over text language, style, instruments, rhythm, authority, and all the rest, is nothing new in the postconciliar period, which we all tend to associate with an unusual level of controversy. What Fr. Ruff shows is that all these debates stem from unresolved issues deep in our history as Catholics. One could easily draw from his level of detail and sweep the lesson that these issues will be debated again and again, saecula saeculorum, and therefore there is a good reason to maintain a dispassionate distance from them all.

This is a lesson one could easily draw from the book, which is one reason I find myself resisting his argument, for if this book can be said to have a unified thesis it is to make a case equally weighted in favor of preserving our heritage and against what many today accept as the idealist position on sacred music, as summed up by Benedict XVI's Sistine Chapel address in 2006: "An authentic renewal of sacred music can only happen in the wake of the great tradition of the past, of Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony."

In contrast, Fr. Ruff argues that chant, though praiseworthy from a musical and spiritual perspective, has limited prospects for success at the level of parishes and cathedrals. In fact, he goes further to argue that the high view of the place of sacred music is far too limited, and even imagines that popular music of every style can have a role in liturgy. He seems at peace with the prospect the chant tradition will always live side-by-side with many other types of music, and provides evidence that this has long been so regardless of the norms that govern music at Mass. I'll have more to say on this view later.

The Place of Art in Liturgy

The tone is set at the outset with the author's disagreements with Joseph Gelineau and Gino Stefani, both of whom argue that progress in the human arts is not a purpose of liturgy. Fr. Ruff argues, in contrast, that "it is appropriate to ascribe to liturgical music the purpose of fostering cultural and artistic goods" (p. 16). This is necessary for a "healthy interaction between liturgy and human culture." He like the phrase "ritual music" and attempts to "liberate the term from its captivity to the 'progressive' element in the Church" (p. 24) by pointing to the many movement favoring chant precisely because of its intimate link with the ritual taking place in the liturgy. However, he contrasts his preference for this term with the "proponents of traditional Catholic church music" who generally prefer the term "sacred music." He says that this is "inadequate as a comprehensive term for Catholic worship music" (p. 36) because the phrase itself is 19th century in origin, because the sacred/secular distinction doesn't hold up under closer investigation of the repertoire, and because insisting on it can potentially work against artistic excellence (so we are back to his view that Church music has a cultural goal as well as a liturgical one). At the same time, he is not drawn to the term "pastoral music" with its low association with parish use only; he fears that it too is too narrow. His final preliminary marks will be much welcome by those skeptical of claims of advocates of multi-cultural claims for their tendency to dream up rationales for ruling out the exclusion of all music that has made the great contribution to the experience of the Roman Rite throughout Christian history.

Is There Such a Thing as a Treasury?

With these preliminaries out of the way, the author investigates the history, and here his material is enormously revealing. Again, his judgment running through all his analytics is that the search for a treasure of sacred music is more elusive than one might suppose. He begins with the Carolingian era and the tension that developed with the rise of polyphony. He demonstrates "that the inherited chant was preserved alongside new additions suggests the conscious cultivation of a historic repertoire. The attitude toward liturgical chant represents, in a sense, the first case in the history of Western church music of the cultivation of a treasury." It was not merely a matter of preserving a form of music. Chant was considered to be of divine origin, intimately connected with Christian ritual (p. 61-62). The same was true in the 17th and 18th century, when polyphony and chant were both preserved as liturgical forms, though here Fr. Ruff restates his continuing judgment that there were no "conscious cultivation of a treasury of sacred music" – but the reader is given enough evidence to come to a different judgment.

Fr. Ruff's section on the 19th century Caecilian movement (p. 72-107) this reviewer finds to be one of the most intriguing in the entire book. He shows them to be the most powerful force in the world for influencing the direction of Catholic music in a fundamentalist direction. The author has affection for what they were attempting with their avowed liturgical conservatism, though he points out their two largest failings: first, their severity over form led them to set themselves against modern compositional approaches of even masters such as Anton Bruckner and Josef Rheinberger while not offering much of the same quality as a replacement. Second, they were wedded to the degenerate post-Trent Medician editions of chant that had mangled the chant repertoire. Both their opposition to artistic development and their attachment to corrupted chant editions led to their failure as a movement.

His treatment of the Solesmes chant revival relies heavily on published resources, but his account provides an excellent overview of what the monastery was attempting to achieve. New to this reader is Fr. Ruff's account of how Solesmes founder Dom Guéranger himself sang the chant. His reading was soft, quick, and supple in contrast to the prevailing method of signing slowly and heavily. It was said that he "knew how in his monastery to give the Gregorian melodies an accent, a rhythm that would not have occurred to anyone else. It appears as revelation." (p. 111). In fact, his emphasis on style was so strong that he said it would accomplish nothing to restore purer editions if nothing changes about the way people sing.

Two departures from the main account are offered by the author. He explains the advent of a new school of Lutheran hymnody in the 19th century that foundered on its uncritical embrace of modernity (he says that has lessons for today) and he takes note of the revival of early music and authentic performance in late 20th century. He finds the lesson in the latter movement of how the revival of past forms and repertoire can provide a way for tradition to renew itself. He points to chant as an example of music that was successfully preserved and renewed: "The reason for such stability is probably to be found in the canonical nature of the chant repertoire… the more a musical repertoire is considered integral to the rite, the more likely it is that the repertoire will remain in use even when it becomes 'old." (p. 189).

The Liturgical Movement

Until the 20th century, the Solesmes revival was considered to be part of a more general liturgical movement that sought more attention to the liturgy both within the Catholic Church and as a evangelical tool for transforming culture. Among its fruit must be included the work of Justine Ward in pushing for congregational chant. She receives high praise in Fr. Ruff's account. However, the development of the Liturgical Movement in the middle of the 20th century led to a conflict that I had personally never really understood until reading the chapter on the topic. The movement was dedicated to involving people more directly in the liturgy through action, word, and music, and he shows that much of what they advocated came to fruition in the Second Vatican Council with the emphasis on simplifying rites and introducing the vernacular. The conflict with musicians came when the agenda of having people more involved showed a lack of appreciation for the inherited chant repertoire that was making huge strides. The musicians and liturgists eventually came to blows in a war of words during and following the Council. This is covered in chaptere 12, one of the most revealing in the book. The following chapters in this section provide a detailed examination of 20th century legislative documents and chronicle their progressive emphasis on people's participation, while acknowledging the that emphasis on chant and polyphony remained a constant theme.

The Second Vatican Council

All of this is to set up the critical section of this book that provides what might be the most comprehensive analysis yet published of Sacrosanctum Concilium (1963) and the debates over music that followed it. He covers the various debates and drafts of that document, with the great tension between the serious musicians and the liturgists. I hadn't known before just how decisive a victory was won by the advocates of sacred music. The final formulation of the text reflected drafts favored by Monsignor Higini Anglès and Johannes Overath—the two voices for sanity on music issues, though the reader is given the impression by the author that their victory was somehow regrettable. Whether the author is fully on board with the implied conclusion is not relevant: what this chapter shows is that if we are to speak of the "will" of the Council, the advocates of sacred music, traditionally understood, clearly had the upper hand. To me it is a case study in how the Holy Spirit guides Church councils.

The contentious atmosphere continued during the drafting of Musicam Sacram of 1967. If the proponents of sacred music regret some aspects of that document, it is helpful consider that Fr. Ruff similarly considers this document to be a victory for the forces advocating sacred music. He states plainly that the document "does allow that the entire Ordinary be rendered polyphonically by the choir (and instrumentalists)" (p. 345), even if it is considered preferable that the Credo and Sanctus be sung by the entire congregation. The language concerning the Sanctus was even changed during the draft stage. It originally said that the Sanctus "is to be rendered by the entire congregation," but this language was later softened to say that the Sanctus "customarily is to be sung preferably by the entire congregation" (p. 346).

The two competing organizations following the council were the Consociatio Internationalis Musicae Sacrae, dominated by Anglès and Overath (and which with the Church Music Association of America enjoyed affiliation), and Universa Laus, which was deemed "more progressive." Universa Laus was the venue for Joesph Gelineau, Helmut Hucke, Philipp Harnoncourt, and others who believed that the classically educated and trained church musicians were "part of the problem," to quote Bernard Huijbers. This group had an influence on the thinking of two U.S. musicians that did grave damage to the status of sacred music in America: Tom Conry and Rorey Cooney. And here we get to the real source for the dramatic change in music in the United States that followed the promulgation of the new Mass. Cooney criticized traditional music as "ancestor worship," wrote that Gregorian chant was "impossibly dull," and that the music of Orlando di Lasso "doesn't belong in liturgy" (p. 369). Fr. Ruff plainly says that these radical positions "cannot be reconciled with the teachings of the Second Vatican Council" (p. 370). (I contacted Mr. Cooney about these quotations, and he says that he regrets their tenor now. His parish uses a Greek Kyrie every Sunday, and the whole parish now sings Sequences in Latin.)

Fr. Ruff is similarly if cautiously critical of the writings of Frederick R. McManus (1923-2005), who also had a huge influence in the direction of change. In response to McManus's repeated attacks on traditional sacred music, Ruff writes: "Clarifying the liturgical propriety of active listening and integrating this form of participation into the overall understanding of participatio actuosa remain unfinished tasks of liturgical renewal" (p. 381). In an effort to push the debate forward, and in response to radical claims that the choir is really a distraction from liturgy and needs to be disbanded, Fr. Ruff provides a strong defense of the idea that "the reformed liturgy allows for, and even calls for, the employment of inherited or newly composed repertoire perform by choirs" (p. 416).

The Chant Question

The author's true specialization is Gregorian chant, so it is not surprising that his section on this topic is erudite and intriguing at every step, and offers very interesting insights. Here we find a level of clarity that marks something of a departure from the rest of the book. He clearly states that chant enjoys primacy of place among all genres of worship music. He speaks of the "magisterium's strong advocacy of Gregorian chant and the belief that Latin chant maintains its value in the reformed liturgy" (p. 472). This reality stands in contrast to the American documents on music such as Music in Catholic Worship, which reflect the "tensions and contradictions" in legislation in dropping any mention of chant and in claiming that terms like Propers and Ordinary no longer apply. The American documents from the 1980s "take for granted that the Entrance song, Offertory song, and Communion song will be freely chosen hymns or other music rather than Propers." So while it is true that Roman documents introduce some ambiguities on the place of chant, the American documents go far afield in assuming that chant has nothing to do with the Roman Rite.

Fr. Ruff's own perspective on chant is heavily informed by the semiology (science of signs) of Eugéne Cardine, a chant scholar who left Solesmes to teach in Rome. The author says that his work completely changes the way chant is sung by putting primacy on text over music and rejecting the Solesmes's emphasis on "equalist" rhythm and replacing it with something else. Fr. Ruff writes: "Perhaps it could be that the chant does not sound as 'prayerful' now: smooth melodies in gentle waves have given way to sprightly, dramatic, clearly articulated declamation" (p. 485).

He clarifies that "it cannot be reasonably claimed that Gregorian chant becomes easier to sing through the use of semiological principles. The necessity of understanding Latin for an adequate rendition has become dramatically underscored. A singer (or at least the conductor) using [the Graduale Triplex] needs to read three notations at once… The requisite amount of textual/musical sensitivity and subtlety is increased considerably" (p. 486). He further shows that semiology provides a strong case that the music of chant is driven by the text, which suggests far more "word painting" in chant than mid-century scholars believed existed, and he argues that semiology underscores the near-impossibility of adapting chant music to vernacular texts. However, he is cautious about the viability of semiologically informed performance in any setting. He prefers "pre-semiological chant sung before the Second Vatican Council for listening monks who were able to meditate on a Latin liturgical text" to "semiologically-performed chant sung today for somewhat inspired but uncomprehending listeners" (p. 496-497). He finds that Solesmes-style chant in today's setting might be "closer in many important respects to its Carolingian precedent." Unfortunately, his semiological studies have also convinced him that Gregorian propers are really too difficult for parish choirs. They are just too tender, too sensitive, too tricky, for amateurs to sing. This is probably fine because "Mass Propers were not written for every Christian community, but for particular liturgical centers. In a sense, the spirituality of chant was not intended to be a spirituality for the entire Church" (p. 496). Nonetheless, "it is important the Gregorian chant remain one of the foundations of Catholic liturgical music"; it must be "part of the formation of liturgical musicians, candidates for ordination and pastoral ministry, and liturgical scholars" (p. 505).

What To Do?

Where does this leave the average parish? What role is chant to play? He believes that a Latin ordinary is viable and even essential. Propers can also be used. The Introit can serve as a prelude. The Offertory and Communion chants "might be used as solo pieces for the sake of congregational reflection" (p. 506). The Gradual too can be sung. He rules out the Alleluia and Tract because the assembly can't really participate. And what about polyphony? "It can be stated without exaggeration that the repertoire of the polyphonic Mass Ordinary is one of the most important cultural achievements of Catholicism" (p. 516) but it is not an easy fit in the reformed liturgy because the ordinary form was not designed with this music in mind. "Use of the inherited repertoire will always represent an adaptation of sorts." He believe it is possible to use this music in settings where this music is "part of the cultural context of particular worshiping communities" (p. 544), but when musicians make this choice they are selecting one good (the beauty of tradition) at the expense of others goods such as the need for participation. He is warmer to the idea of using Latin motets at Mass, but his strong preference is for the vernacular congregational hymn, which he defends as part of the Catholic tradition in practice if not in legislative norms.

His conclusion is that Pope Pius X's push for a "nearly absolute ideal of worship music" has proven to be "untenable" and is therefore "no longer advanced by the magisterium" (p. 610). His final advice is not what I would characterize as a clarion call:

In the present-day reformed Roman liturgy, one will seek out solutions in given situations that take account of many praiseworthy aims, including: structural ritual coherence; active, external, congregational participation in song; openness to local cultures; respect for local traditions; and cultivation of inherited musical treasures. What sorts of solutions might be desirable? In many pastoral situations, fairly little music of the past would be employed, but integration between music and rite would be high. In other situations, considerably more music of the past would be employed without causing undue inconsistencies in any direction. In some exceptional places and on some occasions, generous employment of the inherited repertories, though entailing considerabe inconsistencies, would be affirmed as an appropriate manner of celebrating the reformed Roman Eucharistic Liturgy. All have their place within the catholic whole. No solution is absolutely perfect; a wide variety of solutions deserves respect. (p. 611)

The Need for Inspiration

The author here seems to take for granted that choosing music for Mass is as easy as making selections from a printed page of options, but that is not the reality on the ground. Change requires hard work, inspiration, and pastoral effort. It requires something to cause Catholic musicians to leave the status quo and enter a new phase of development. I'm not sure that this prescription is going to inspire anyone to make the effort. If everything we do is treated as a praiseworthy contribution to overall diversity, why bother? A further issue that he doesn't really address is the obvious reality that Catholic music today is in a sad state, even in shambles, and this is more than obvious from any random visit to just about any suburban parish. The default position of music at Mass today is the famed "four hymn" sandwich made up of very tired, mediocre, popular hits from 20 and 30 years ago, as led by a cantor with a few people called the choir who are really just singing the melody. The musicians do their best but people do not participate as the reformers imagined they would. Our fellow parishioners cannot read music. We have few organists available to us. Gregorian chant is not sung but in a few selected, simple parts of the Mass during Lent. This is not excellence, and it reflects nothing found in the documents of the Second Vatican Council. I'm not sure that anyone reading Fr. Ruff's treatise would really have much of an inkling of this reality based on his text alone, and it follows therefore that the reader would not discern the desperate need for change and progress.

I wonder why. If I were to venture a guess, I would suggest that Fr. Ruff worries about the risks associated with serious efforts to introduce music that is truly proper to the Roman Rite. He is concerned that people are not really ready for it, that the musicians will not sing the music properly, that the reformed liturgy isn't really a suitable venue for chant, and that the existing parish investment in the status quo is too high to be abandoned without serious pastoral cost. I can see making a case for each of these points, but my own experience tells me that the overall judgment is incorrect. Choirs need a challenge if they are to be inspired to grow. The people in the pews need to connect more with their history, and they too are capable of learning and growing. The priests need to see how their sung parts beautifully integrate with the true music of the Roman Rite, and this will cause them to have more respect for the musicians. As for the reformed liturgy itself, this is a point on which my own thinking has shifted over the years. It is a suitable home for Gregorian music and even the polyphonic music of old. I've seen it happen in too many settings to believe otherwise.

I can understand the author's doubts. I had them at one point too, particularly as regards the reformed liturgy. But one only needs to visit a place like St. John Cantius in Chicago among the many dozens of parishes now inspired by the Pope Pius X ideal adapted to our times, or to attend the Sacred Music Colloquium in which hundreds gather to learn, sing, and worship. Then there are the growing numbers of scholas and parishes in this country that use the Graduale as the foundational book for music at Mass. These are not illusions. They are not rarified and strange. They are increasingly the inspiration for a growing movement within the Catholic Church in the United States and around the world. Now, it's true that the bulk of Fr. Ruff's book was written ten years ago, at a time when chant and polyphony was at a low point. "Music in Catholic Worship" (since replaced by a better document) was still the prevailing document in the American setting. There was no Summorum Pontificum. Scholas were few. But times are changing, and why? Because of the very ideal that Fr. Ruff declares unviable and outmoded.

My own wish is for Fr. Ruff in about five years to begin work another book. I believe that the hints of pessimism and exaggerated caution will be gone. He will more clearly see that the practice of Catholic music in America in the last several decades is not a norm that will persist but an aberration that could not last. Moreover, there is a strong sense in which Sacred Music and Liturgical Reform will have made a contribution to the progress precisely because this book reconnects us with our history and our responsibilities as musicians, and makes us realize just how serious the job of being a Catholic musician truly is. For that he has earned the gratitude of everyone working to improve Catholic music.

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