Sunday, August 31, 2008

How to deal with the hymn police

This morning an email arrived from a choir director in Canada who reports making progress in her parish with a small schola of ten people. They are nearly rid of silly hymns and sing-songy Mass parts and have replaced them with simple chant-like settings.

But now she worries that a crack down is coming and suspects that the tool will be the regulation that concerns the Catholic Book of Worship. Unless it is in there, says the Conference of Canadian Catholic Bishop, it becomes suspect, and the burden of proof falls on the choir.

Part of the move to come up with a list of approved music is all about hymns. Hymns have been the hot-button issue ever since they came to dominate Mass, and the propers and ordinary chants were largely left aside. If you have complete freedom of choice for hymns at a hymn-dominated liturgy, you are going to end up with something like the current malaise, which is a disunited Catholic world in which going from parish to parish is like traveling up and down the FM radio dial.

So of course there is an ongoing struggle to push for approved music as a means for stopping the ongoing jukebox approach to Catholic music. Many people favor the idea of an approved list but then struggle with what should or should not be included in the list.

I’m personally very skeptical of these moves to create a white list. The process is certain to be captured by the biggest market players, the existing cartel of Catholic music publishers who own the copyrights and can spread their royalty checks around enough to buy influence with the committees making the picks. The process itself invites petty corruption of the most absurd sort, but it can also do lots of damage, freezing artistic creativity and further entrenching the existing problem.

You only have to ask yourself what is more likely to be on the list of approved music: Catholic hits from the 1570s or the 1970s?

But let’s say that the people who favor the crack down actually get their way with an approved list that will end up pleasing no one. What is the choral conductor to do? Think of it as an opportunity to do what you should have already, namely stop relying on hymns and sing as much of the liturgy itself, while allowing either silence or organ solos or traditional motets to fill the rest.

In other words, the best way to avoid this problem is to use music for the propers and ordinary from music that is embedded as part of the Mass itself, thereby surrendering your sense of discretion over hymnody and avoiding the problem completely.

For a choir just starting out, I would suggest that you choose a very easy English and Latin ordinary setting and use Psalm tone propers in Latin or English. The "Anglican Use Gradual" is a wonderful source here and is free online. The language of these propers are antiquated but dignified. Anyone can sing them.

Remember that the translations here are not a problem since there is no officially approved translation of the sung propers. The propers that appear in the Missal are for spoken Masses, not sung Masses. As for the music, the tones in the AUG are the foundational tones of the Roman Rite and unquestionably sound.

For the Psalm, go to Chabanel Psalms and use a setting there. The ones we favor are simple Psalm-tone settings that are unmetered.

The same is true for ordinary settings. For English, you can use something like this or this.

For Latin, you can have your choice of 18 settings that are part of the Graduale Romanum, which is the music book of the Roman Rite. There is no music committee on the planet that can legitimately deny that all the music in this book is approved.

Be sure to read the Frequently Asked Questions on Sacred Music, several times, so that you have a fix on what is what, and are in a position to make all the arguments.

Finally, the music in the Parish Book of Chant is all some 1000 plus years old, at least, and all of which is as much part of our liturgical structure and history as the prayers themselves.

By making this music the foundation of what is sung week to week, you avoid the whole problem of bullying committees and white-lists of music that is at best incidental rather than central to the Mass in any case.

From the pastoral point of view, it very much helps that most all of this music is free, so that parishioners are not being charged for music editions. The pastor will appreciate this fact very much, and will be inclined to look more skeptically on some interloping chancery official who demands that the parish should shell out the big bucks to well-heeled publishers.

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