Thursday, November 20, 2008

Winter issue of Sacred Music

The Winter 2008 issue of Sacred Music is going to print, and it has turned out to be one of the best I can remember. William Mahrt opens the issue with a detailed and compelling argument for the existence of sacred music - a point which you might not think is necessary except for the vast literature that attempts to debunk the idea that there is any real distinction between the sacred and secular in art.

He speaks of the relationship between the two forms by revisiting the history of the chasuble, which was a normal outer garment in Roman times and later became obsolete but for religious use. "In the process of sacralization of the garment," he writes, "it takes on more sacred characteristics: its form becomes more ample, the materials chosen for it become more precious (traditionally silk), and it takes on sacred symbols. This is, then, a matter of the evolution of a gradual reception, a transformation of something secular into something unambiguously sacred."

In music, the transformation of elements of our ordinary world conveys the message that our ordinary lives can also be transformed. The hitch is: what if the incorporation of music into the liturgy does not involve a discernible transformation? What if the use of styles clearly identifiable with worldly and secular purposes retain their identity in liturgical use? Is the message, then, that there is no transformation? that the secular life-styles are all that there is? I would contend that this is the danger of the present use of secular styles, since the instruments they use, their vocal styling, their simplistic musical construction all retain their secular identity. Rather, it is crucial that whatever musical styles are used in the liturgy, there be clear elements of their sacralization, that their incorporation is unambiguously for the sake of transformation into something sacred.

Michael Lawrence addresses a fundamental issue with an issue that in its brevity and clarity is one of the most powerful cases I've seen for why we need to care about music at Mass at all. "What happened during so many events of salvation history? Singing. Miriam sang on the shores of the Red Sea after the Exodus. David sang the psalms in the temple. There was Hannah’s Song, which foreshadowed Mary’s Magnificat which was sung at her Visitation. The Angels sang at the birth of Christ, and the Book of Apocalypse depicts the singing in the heavenly liturgy. Christ and his apostles sang a hymn at the Last Supper, and, though this observation may be a bit unconventional, Christ, while he did not sing, 'cried out' on the cross the words of Psalm 22: 'My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?' If music has had such an intimate relationship with salvation history, then why should it not have an equally intimate relationship with the Mass?"

I wish I could go through each piece. Martin Baker offers a detailed essay of the experience of the choir at Westminster Cathededral. The Lectern in Liturgical Culture is discussed by Miklós István Földváry. Jeffrey Ostrowski offers a brilliant analysis of the Vatican Gradual and proves, beyond any doubt, that this is a rhythmic edition, and he shows how to read it (William Mahrt commented to me that this is one of the best essays he has ever seen on this topic). Aristotle Esguerra provides a rich and well-cited argument for why composers should be setting propers (following the model of William Byrd).

We are not even halfway through the issue. There is commentary on beauty by Fr. Robert Johansen, a tribute to Msgr. Schuler by William Sanderson, a guide to preserving your choir's history by Mary Jane Ballou, a homily by Richard Cipolla on Leisure and Liturgy, and two excellent repertory pieces: Br. Jonathan Ryan on Messiaen, and Jennifer Snodgrass and her students on John Taverner's Tyger and the Lamb. I have a piece on the difficulties confronting the current generation of chanters, and Kurt Poterack writes on his experiences dealing with students who never encountered chant before. Finally, there are several workshop reports.

Incredibly, no one involved in putting this this journal together is paid specifically to do this. In times when print journals are collapsing all around, it is something spectacular that this one is going strong. You can subscribe today and receive this issue when it comes off the presses.

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