Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Three Paths to Sacred Music


In conversations over the years with people who have caught the sacred music bug, I've noticed certain patterns over how they initially came to fall in love with Gregorian chant and polyphony, the music codified as proper to the Roman Rite.

There are patterns that emerge in one's life experiences that correspondent in an interesting way to Church teaching on the marks of sacred music itself, and I seriously doubt that these patterns are a coincidence. You might recognize yourself in these patterns.

I'll start with my own story because of its familiarity. My own background in religious music was in a Baptist church that spared no expense in putting together over-the-top production numbers. We had a well-paid music minister, a choir of 50 voices, and we frequently hired full-scale orchestras to play on Christmas and Easter. These productions came complete with t-shirts and advertising blitzes. We sang Handel and Mendelssohn, and our ideal was driven by visions of brass choirs on balconies and hundreds of voices singing praises. The more the better was our motto.

Then one day in my early 20s I stumbled into a Catholic Mass in which a single priest who was in his 80s chanted the Mass from the altar. There were no instruments. His voice was weak and old. His pitch was uncertain. There was no choir, no pomp, no advertising, no t-shirts, and the people who attended—mostly poor people—mostly just knelt and prayed as the simple notes were chanted by the celebrant.

What struck me was the overwhelming humility of the entire exercise, and how it achieved something that could not be bought or achieved through purely human efforts. It buried the ego completely. It was holy. That was the key. It actually arrived at the place that sacred music was striving for, and did it without any accouterments or pomps. The sound of it touched me to the very depths of my heart and I came to understand the place of music in the faith in a completely different way.

I returned for many weeks with a tape recorder and recording this priest singing the Mass, and listened all weekdays, morning and night, striving to understand how it was that something so simple and so humble could be so powerful, so real, so authentic, so salvific.

Moving on to a second case, I have a friend who grew up in the Midwest in a medium-sized town in which the 1970s ethos of tie-dye-and-sandals Catholicism took hold. The preferred form of art was that phony folk music of Peter, Paul, and Mary, a time in which no music was considered true and human unless it was accompanied by guitar. Organs were considered "high Church" and therefore inappropriate for a "peoples' Church."

This ethos brought us "Earthen vessels" since gold was seen as a rich man's metal, and it gave rise to felt banners and homemade signs all over the walls of the church. Nothing was too casual. Jeans, t-shirts, torn shorts, unkempt hair—these were the preferred garb. The music was amateurish and awful, to be sure, but this was seen as something to be preferred. The experts had to be tossed from the seats of power in order for the true voice of the people to emerge.

But then my friend discovered something else. He heard some renaissance polyphony with its incomparable beauty, its glorious drift upwards toward the heavens. This music wasn't about the "people" and their grungy ways. It was about the majesty of God! Yes! This is what is missing in this whole tie-dye ethos: an awareness that end of liturgy is not ourselves but the throne of God. In this case, the approach has to change completely away from ourselves and our needs to the real task at hand. In this case, earthen vessels are not suitable when gold is available. In this case, felt banners are not appropriate when glorious art is in the corner. And in this case, the music too must reflect the purpose.

My friend gradually explored the whole genre of sacred music, moving back in time from Palestrina to Josquin to medieval organum to chant and back to the very origins of Christian song in the Psalter. It was all directed to that single end of giving glory to God. It was all marked by that form that constitutes that Christian idea of beauty: orderliness, harmoniousness, excellence. Music that is true art.

A third case is of a person who grew up in a multilingual household at a time when multiculturalism was an idea propounded in liturgical catechesis. But the odd thing about the practice of multiculturalism is that it tended to divide people into segments. We had some forms of art and music for Hispanics, some for Anglo-Americans, some for various ethnic groups from here and yon, and a small sampling designed to reflect the needs and desires of immigrants to the United States.

It was a smorgasbord of identity sampling that tended to pigeonhole people into some group or class and keep them there, and it sent the message that it would be a violation of personal integrity to seek to transcend this identity. The marks were typically found in the rhythm used for music, since this is the clearest expression of national and ethnic attachment.

It is true that liturgy should have a universal voice, this person realized, but this tendency toward group segmentation was not making progress toward this idea. Actually it was doing the opposite, emphasizing differences rather than finding unity in Christ. And there was another problem. All of this music was time bound: it was from the 1960s, or 70s, or 80s, tending toward the evocation of a particular time and place here on earth.

Then chant came along and revealed something that this person had long been seeking but couldn't find. This was music in Latin, a language not used in the vernacular by any single group, so that it meant a special language of liturgy for all groups equally. The rhythm is not of a single national origin but rather came from a period in Christian history in which the worshipers sought a form of music that was directed towards a goal higher than itself. And even after all these centuries, even after a millennium and a half, the music still sounded fresh and brilliant. The music not only transcended nation and identify but also time itself. The same cannot be said of other forms.

So here we have it, what St. Pius X identified as the three marks of sacred music: holiness, beauty, and universality. In each case mentioned above, the person (including me here) came to appreciate the other marks beside that which attracted their initial interest and drew them into a deep attachment to sacred music. But I do find it interesting that people tend to "get the bug" based on some aspect of music that has long been taught as the identifying marks of sacred music.

Maybe readers can reflect on these stories and see how it is that they were personally drawn to the chant and sacred music generally as the ideal expression of the highest liturgical aims.

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