Thursday, August 14, 2008

Music for Real Parishes

The Parish Book of Chant, released only two months, has already been adopted in three seminaries and several parishes, the most recent one of which will use it as the sole hymnal in the pews. Replacing the floppy throwaway with this hardbound collection is a dramatic move to be sure, but I’m convinced that no resource offers a greater hope for giving Catholic people back their own music from all of history. (Aquinas and More is the exclusive distributor)

The Missal portion of the book contains both the ordinary and extraordinary forms, while every piece of music in this book is the original Latin alongside an English translation. It contains eleven settings of the Mass for the Roman Rite, all the sung responses, and enough hymnody for the entire liturgical year.

In many ways, the book represents the cleanest possible break from the distinctive musical confusion of the last several decades of Catholic life. I’m not just referring the introduction of pop styles and beats in our holy spaces. There is a broader and more general issue: the chant offers us a chance to shelve the debate between the 19th century hymnody and Glory & Praise. People are weary of this fight.

The fights are not only over musical style but English words too. Words that some people regard as elevated and dignified strike others as archaic excuses for patriarchal imposition. There is no accounting for taste, and no certainly accounting for political outlook, which means that so long as these issues are the primary consideration in selecting music for liturgy, these fights will go on forever.

What is the resolution? Well, think of the music that takes place during Mass over which there is no real argument. I’m thinking of, for example, the Our Father. It is plainchant that is consistent with a prayerful sensibility. When a parish sings the chant version, there is a unity in the parish, and why is this? One reason is that we know that this prayer is real prayer. It is preceded in liturgy by the words “pray as Jesus taught us,” a phrase that connects to times other than our own and reminds us of our obligations. The chant also seems to stylistically cohere with the rest of the Mass. More parishes these days are adopting the Latin of this prayer, which is one step better because it permits us to sing in the holy tongue of our faith.

We can learn from this model and extend it. The music that grew up alongside the whole Roman Rite is precisely of this sort. Chants have been in the hearts and minds of Catholics since the catacombs. What we have in the Parish Book of Chant is the core of this music that has been most sung, most loved, not by specialists or trained musicians, but all Catholic people in all times. It has sustained its power through every period of political, economic, and aesthetic upheaval. It has lived from age to age, passed from generation to generation, in the same way as the Mass itself. No other music can make a similar claim.

It has integrity all its own because it is not music to be introduced into Mass but rather music that is already part of the Mass, literally and/or historically. The text advantage of Latin, in addition to being the most beautiful language to sing, is precisely that it does not live as a vernacular: it does not change with cultural and political trends. For this reason too it does not invite controversy and debate over associations with this or that word, and doesn’t call forth committees to rewrite it every few years to keep it trendy.

Now, there is no denying the one objection you hear about chant in Latin: people say that that they don’t know what the words mean. There is a serious point here, not something to be dismissed out of hand. It has been a major source of frustration for many years—and we’ve all become used to it—that many of the Latin hymns are not published with their translations in English. I find it incredible that even recent books of Latin chant published by the major Catholic publishers offer no translations. Not telling people what they are singing is an excellent way to keep this music out of parish life!

The Parish Book of Chant, then, provides a translation of every Latin word. The translations chosen are not bloodless and modernized but much older and selected to elucidate the meaning of the text. Now, it’s true that some people will still complain about the translations but the point is that the controversy is abated by the fact that people aren’t actually singing the translations. The Latin is what is audible. The Latin is the relevant text. But now we have a complete guide to what is sung.

In some ways, it is a surprising and distressing fact that this is the first combination Missal/hymnal published in the English-speaking world that contains the large core of the people’s chant music plus translations for every song. There have been a few books for reference and books for teaching but never a book for the pew. When you think about it, it seems like this would be the first book to choose. Why nothing like this appeared 100 years ago or so, and stayed constantly in print, is completely beyond me.

What finally inspired its compilation and publication was, of course, Summorum Pontificum, the motu proprio of Benedict XVI that liberalized the older former of the Roman Rite one year ago. The two forms now live side by side as part of our Catholic culture. With more and more parishes using both forms, we need printed resources that serve both, not only for financial reasons, but also to illustrate the link between the two. The ordinary form as usually experienced at the parish level is in dire need of a linkage the whole history of the rite. And the extraordinary form can benefit too by broadening the range of Mass settings used, and by reviving the use of Latin music for the people.

And speaking of finances, it boggles the mind to contemplate how many thousands of dollars per year that parishes spend on seasonal missalettes with all the tie-in goods of psalm books, choral books, organ books, guitar books, liturgy guides, indexes, and liturgy planning guides. Most all of this material is thrown away and ends up in the landfill, on a quarterly and annual basis. It’s a wonder that environmental activists aren’t surrounding our parishes in protest. Certainly those are who paying the bills for this waste have good reason to complain.

The Parish Book of Chant is a one-time expense and a very reasonable one. Looking at its quality and binding, I can easily imagine that it will hold up after decades of use. It has a look of permanence and seriousness about it that we really need right now. Even if it isn’t in your parish, it can be in your home and study, a means of connecting your private prayer life to that of saints and martyrs of all ages.

There are few people outside of a monastery that will know all these pieces. When I pick up my copy, I always find that I’m discovering new pieces, and getting a better feel for those that I think I know already. For the beginner, there is a good tutorial in the back. For others, the key is repetition and time—and it goes without saying that all this music holds up over repeated use, and probably until the end of time.

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