Saturday, August 02, 2008

Fr. Paul and his St. Peter's Singers

This is a wonderful report in the Toronto Globe and Mail about Fr. Pierre Paul of Toronto, who is the director of music at St. Peter's in Rome.

Officially appointed in April (though he had already been on the job for a year), he brings fresh appeal to a choir grown tired and undisciplined in recent years. With a chuckle, one priest refers to the old group as the "St. Peter's Screechers," because they were prone to shouting.

Father Paul is attached to traditional music and is a reformer. He is a devotee of the official and pure Gregorian chant - the archconservative Pope Benedict XVI would have it no other way - and yet to get the right sound, he is using female singers at vespers on a regular basis for the first time in the choir's history.

The 45-minute performance is rousing. The 38 or so singers - priests, student priests and laymen along with the women, about two-thirds of them Italians, the rest from elsewhere in Europe and Latin America - have strong, full voices.

The small orchestra is flawless, testimony to Father Paul's insistence on regular practices. A minor miracle: Antonio Vivaldi's Magnificat goes off without a hitch, even though the orchestra had played it only once before.

The article continues to speak more about the issue of using women as singers, which does indeed depart from tradition in the Vatican but the departure is done for musical reasons. Nor is there is any theological issue associated with the change. St. Pius X had forbidden women to sing in scholas in his 1903 encyclical but Fr. Anthony Ruff's new book Sacred Music and Liturgical Reform demonstrates two very important points with regard to this prohibition.

1) The prohibition against women singers was completely ignored all over Europe and especially the United States. The encyclical itself had a huge impact on the Catholic world but for this narrow point. In fact, "indults" to depart from the letter of the law were being issued by the Pope personally just days after publication, and ever more leniency was in effect within a few years at the hands of legislative bodies overseeing the liturgy.

It was nowhere enforced, and one can tell that just by looking at pictures of chant classes conducted by Justine Ward in the United States: more than half the students were girls and women. Indeed, women were at the forefront of the movement. The tradition of women singing at Mass has always been integral to life in a convent, and there are extensive records of women singing polyphony in England. As for the Vatican itself, its practice of using only men and boys to sing reflected a long-standing tradition and not so much an adherence to doctrinal norms. Later, as is well known, Pius XII legislated in favor of permitting women to sing, legislation which didn't change the practice much either since the original edict had not had much effect in any case.

2) Fr. Ruff further demonstrates that the edict of Pius X had nothing to do with discrimination but rather stemmed from a widely held position of the Cecilian movement that the choir performed a clerical roll in the liturgy and hence it should share as closely as possible in the features of the clergy. The Cecilians believed that the singers should be men because the priesthood was limited to men; they further hoped that the vocation of schola member would be lifelong and that singers would, for example, under the ideal, receive tonsures.

And why did the Cecilians hold this view? They were responding in excess to what they saw as the pervasive low view of the choir's role as merely adding a soundtrack to liturgy. They hope to heighten the role of music to being part of the liturgical structure rather than merely an addendum to it. To push this idea further, they latched onto this idea of the clerical purpose of the singing and pushed it as far as it could go. In other words, this view stemmed from a strategic consideration fashioned into a plausible theological one.

Of course this view was later backed away from with another view that was similarly taken too far: the postconciliar view the schola is part of the people. This view led to the critical problem in modern times of viewing the choir and its parts as having no distinct role at all. Here Fr. Ruff is very strong in arguing the contrary case.

Fr. Ruff discusses this back-and-forth tendency to go from one extreme to the other while arguing that the real role of the choir does not have a literal analogy to any other role in liturgy apart from the most ancient view that the choir stands in proxy for the choirs of angels. The issue of women, then, has long proven to be a great distraction from this more substantive issue, and Fr. Paul is certainly to be commended for pushing progress here both in the direction of using the best musical forces available to him as well as fully embracing chant and the classical repertoire.

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