Thursday, October 16, 2008

How admirable are these songs

One of my favorites things to do when there is time is settle down with a Gregorian proper and try to discover its magic, particularly in the way the words are related to the music in so many (but not all) chants. Sometimes you find very explicit tone painting in which you can discover through the notes another version of the same story you find in the words.

Sometimes the music tells you features of the story that aren't even in the words, so that you get an extended elaboration on the story, almost like a soundtrack. There are other times, however, you find just pure musical drama so that the melody is somehow linked with an emotion, such as we find in the following communion chant for this Sunday.

The text is "O Lord, how admirable is thy name in the earth." Here is a song of awe, and it is a joy to sing too, especially the word "admirabile" and to see how the word accent follows the pitch in a way that rolls off the tongue. Notice use of the figure from the first word Domine: it appears again on noster and also in tuum. The last phrase is different, using the note ti for the first time.

Perhaps we can say that the beginning of that phrase is so low because we are speaking of the earth, and that the melisma is so extended because we are describing a big expanse of the earth. But none of that is necessary to believe or understand to see what a masterful presentation this is. From a purely musical point of view, the tune itself suggests awe and majesty, and that is enough.

A more interesting question is why we should care. After all, the point of a chant like this is not to somehow strike people in a cognitive sense. People will be praying and receiving communion during this, and no one will be thinking: "I love the way that communion chant, with its soaring highs, expresses the sovereignty of God over the whole earth. What a lovely piece of art. I've learned from it."

The chant is not didactic in that way. And if it is not designed to convey some cognitive understanding, we might ask what the point is. Indeed, many people will just listen to this and not take notice at all. Why then should its artistic depth really concern us? Why not just replace it with lesser art?

Somehow a decorating analogy occurs to me. Let's say you have an opportunity to choose paintings for a room, knowing full well that guests won't be able to tell an original Raphael from a fake or from a print from Hobby Lobby or even from something you picked up at a garage store.

The guests will come and go in any case. If you have the choice, why display the Raphael? It is a matter of integrity more than anything else, and the knowledge that everything in the room will stand up to close investigation. You can be a more confident host in that room, knowing that even with the widest diversity of guests, the paintings are something that are the real thing.

From the point of view of liturgy, Catholics believe in integrity. We embrace the Real Presence. We use the authentic words of Christ. Our relics are truly part of salvation history. We use real candles, not fake ones. So it is with music. The real music of the Roman Rite accords with a general emphasis on authenticity. It expresses confidence and conviction.

It remains true that people will notice the details. It is the same with all art. You can of course listen to Beethoven as background music, just as you can always walk through a museum without taking a long time to study the pictures. You still benefit from the ambiance.

But if you go through the same museum at a later date, and you take the guided tour, painting by painting, you develop a deeper appreciation for the meaning of each work of art. The next time you stroll through, you can relive the experience on a deeper level.

In this way, Catholics are always free to examine the contents of their liturgy very closely or from a distance, or from different angles. It holds up to any level of scrutiny. No matter how long you look or in what way you look, you discover something new, something living, something that speaks to our heart and soul and carries us out of the everyday and into a spiritual Presence.

This is what great art permits. Great liturgy allows for this also.

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