Saturday, August 16, 2008

Polyphonic Propers, Chanted Ordinary

This was a first for me. The Pontifical High Mass, August 15, Church of St. Stephen, Portland—Bishop Basil Meeking, Celebrant—was celebrated in the extraordinary form as part of the Byrd Festival. The propers for the day—introit, gradual, alleluia, offertory, and communion—were all sung to polyphony settings by William Byrd, while the Mass ordinary (IX) was sung by the people in alternation with the choir. This is inverted from everything I had previously heard.

The Mass was the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, some of the most wonderful Gregorian propers, so these were always in the back of my mind as I listened to a scaled-down choir of Cantores in Ecclesia sing: Gaudeamus, Propter veritatem, Asumpta est Maria, and Optimam partem.

Byrd scholar Kerry McCarthy directed the choir and when I asked her yesterday about the relationship between the chant and polyphony, she suspected that there was none, though I thought I could hear it. It might have been my imagination, and I wondered whether the congregation in Byrd’s time could hear it too. But there seems to be some controversy as to whether the Gregorian propers were known among English Catholics in 1605 after all those years of liturgical undoing. In addition, the Sarum rite offers slightly different settings from the Roman Gradual.

Whether there is a relationship or not, it hardly mattered for the beauty of these propers which stood alone in their stead. It was an interesting thing to hear the introits and the period of reflection following the readings to be sung in these elaborate but short polyphonic settings. It somehow brought a special “highness” to the liturgy, and seemed to actually heighten the importance of the propers as critical to the liturgical structure itself. It seems that during times when the propers have been all-but forgotten by Catholics, these settings serve the important role of saying that they are critical and not something we can casually set aside.

It goes without saying that they were sung perfectly, which is what I’ve come to expect from this remarkable choir, which is surely one of the most experienced and consistently excellent ensembles working in this country—and it continues to mystify my as to why it is not more extensively recorded and better known.

As for the ordinary setting, I’m not sure that I had ever experienced Mass IX in real liturgical time before. They are bright and beautiful but very difficult. Director/organizer Dean Applegate holds the unusual view that the harder the setting is on paper, the easier it is for the congregation to master, because the more difficult settings have more of a melodic quality that congregations can really learn well.

And while it’s true that people sang the ordinary with gusto, there was an additional factor here that helped. The Kyrie, Gloria, and Credo were all done in alternation between choir and congregation, with the switch taking place at the double bar of the music. A cantor intones the piece, and the high-voice choir sings the first line. Then the congregation picks up. The choir continues to sing the next phrase in the higher octave. And so on, with everyone singing the Amen.

The wonderful thing here that I had realized before is that the choir tends to keep the congregation singing correctly – keeping things moving in terms of tempo and maintaining the pitch. If the congregation falls apart on one phrase, the schola puts it back together on the next phrase, and so on. This serves a very important pedagogical and performance purpose. It made me realize that sometimes we expect to much from the congregation by insisting that it sing the entire piece all the way through. This is too intense a demand for some of these pieces.

This is something that regular parishes should strongly consider doing!

As for the Mass itself, there is no ceremony quite like a pontifical high Mass in the old form. It was a special pleasure for me personally to see William Mahrt take the role of subdeacon here. It was enjoyable too to visit with Bishop Meeking, who is so knowledgeable about the Gregorian repertoire.

Oregon is unusually hot right now. The Church was sweltering, and it amuses me how Oregonians don’t know how to deal with the heat. They are all in panic mode, not knowing whether to open or close windows. They complain incessantly about it all, as if they have been hit by a plague. Even so, the place was packed with standing room only, and many people stood throughout. It helps to have a huge crucifix on the wall to remind these poor sufferings souls of what true sacrifice means. In any case, to be there was to be completely transported to another realm, so that even these wonderful people could stand the heat to hear this kind of music.

I suspect that there might have been several pirated recordings made of this event, and if one lands in my inbox I will certainly pass it on!

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