Friday, August 08, 2008

The Sociology of the Chant Movement

The most conventional critique of the push for Gregorian chant in parishes is that chant is elitist, and not for regular people. The words are in Latin. It uses unfamiliar notation. It draws its melodies from traditions unfamiliar to the modern ear. It might be loved by “conservatory trained” musicians with high sensibilities, this argument goes. The establishment might go for it. But it is inherently alienating to the regular person, who longs for ecclesial art that is more common and accessible.

Whoever says these things knows nothing about the current music situation in the Catholic Church. The archetype of the chant director today is that he or she is a volunteer, not a professional. He or she has been trained not at conservatory but at a seminar or colloquium, the tuition for which was paid out of pocket. The singers in chant scholas are also volunteers, people who discovered this music only a few years ago and who are inspired by its beauty and role in liturgy. They do not know Latin; what they do know they have learned without formal instruction.

Think too of those who are behind the training and publishing of today’s chant music. They are not the established and big players in the market. They are decentralized, small, and unstaffed. While the big firms make their money through the buying and selling of “praise music” that is a sort of baptized version of bubble-gum pop music, the chants of the Church are downloadable online at no charge. If you look where the money is going in the typical parish, it is not toward chant and sacred music; it is to pay for the support materials and personnel for contemporary song.

Nor is academia captured and held by the chant movement. Most programs in “Catholic music” in the academy train their musicians to perform praise-style music. Even pastors have discovered this: if you want to hire someone to help with a transition to chant, you can’t rely on music graduates from Catholic colleges.

Sadly, there are only a handful of chant specialists who hold academic positions in the United States. Most the legendary professors in this field died long ago.

As for the support infrastructure, the largest and most well-heeled of the Catholic music organizations hosts thousands for annual get-togethers that push pop styles with ever more exotic beats (calypso, meringue, samba) accompanied by instruments such as electric guitars and far-flung percussion devices. The organizations dedicated to chant are staffed by volunteers and have few resources; certainly they cannot rely on an income stream from royalties and copyright charges.

The Catholic composers who make money from the craft reflect a similar pattern. They are strummers, pianists, and pop musicians who go from parish to parish convincing musicians that what people want is something jazzy and exciting, not solemn and rooted in chant. They make money doing this, and by selling their music along the way. They are sponsored in their travels by large publishers.

So we have to ask the question: who is really the elite and what constitutes the establishment in Catholic music? It is pretty obvious that it is not the chant movement. We can see from this that the widespread impression of the partisans of Gregorian chant is just wrong. We might add that the typical proponent of chant in parish life is not the rich and established interests in the parish but the young and poor. Ethnic minorities figure strongly in the mixed since chant alone serves as the truly multi-cultural and inclusive music of liturgy.

That is not to say that today’s chant movement sets itself against the elites. It seeks more music directors in cathedrals. Many young chant enthusiasts and serious Catholic organists are attending or planning to attend conservatory. Many others are entering academia one position at a time. We are working toward establishing publishing companies. We have our first fresh publication for use in liturgy: The Parish Book of Chant. Miracle of miracles, the Church Music Association is working toward establishing a scholarship fund, and is even paying its colloquia conductors.

Now take a look at the music itself. The core of the repertoire that has made the transition from century to century, inspiring countless compositions, are the popular hymns such as Pange Lingua and Adoro Te, and the Marian hymns like Ave Maria and Ave Maris Stella. These songs have been sung by Catholics of all ages, classes, and education levels in all countries for centuries. The ordinary chants are beautifully crafted to be sung by all people.

The propers that change week to week are more difficult to sing, but the more you understand them, they more you realize how much they are like folk music. In particular, the communion chants that set stories of Christ’s parables have the sound and feel of folk music. Whenever I get stuck on a chant, I try to imagine a scene from the early centuries of Christianity, with believers sitting around a fire at night, while one very good story teller sings the songs of the parables with wide eyes and great drama. This is an imaginary scene but it can help to understand that this music is not only ritual music; it is also great art that seeks to tell a story

You might note that my sociological description of the chant movement has much in common with the musicians who made such inroads into Catholic life in the 1970s. I do think there are such similarities, and this is one reason it is making such advances. It is a movement from below, which also happens to enjoy the support of Benedict XVI.

One major difference, however: the chant movement is not self-consciously a “people’s movement” so it completely avoids the soft-Marxian undertones of those who pushed pseudo-folk music that made inroads in the 1970s. It is a mistake in general for serious chant musicians to set themselves up as being either for or against elites, for or against the people, for or against the establishment. What we need to be is consistent servants of the liturgy in every way and at all levels of the Church.

The chant needs to be cultivated in both parishes and cathedrals, in small-scale seminars and the academy, through the work of both volunteers and professionals. We need this comprehensive approach in order that sacred music can again become a force in the culture and a force in our individual lives.

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