Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The Problem with Options

The normative music of the Mass before and after Vatican II and the promulgation of the New Missal remained the same. It was and is Gregorian chant. Some chants were moved around to accommodate the new calendar. But other than that, the songs in the books remained the same.

The reason that this is such a surprise for people is that undeniable and shocking reality that everything seemed to change after the new Missal now called the ordinary form. There was folk music, rock music, calypso music, sweet songs from here and yon with words grabbed from anywhere and everywhere. A massive new publishing industry sprang up to publish not the music of the Church but rather new compositions with new texts for use in Mass.

How can both be true? You might at first think it was merely at matter of disobedience. There is some truth to that. Two kinds of music are specifically named by Sacrosanctum Concilium as appropriate for Mass: chant and polyphony. That is the letter and certainly the spirit of the music legislation of the Council. By jettisoning chant completely, publishers and musicians were certainly violating the spirit of Vatican II.

However, there is another factor, and it relates to the core issue that change concerning music for the new Missal. In addition to chant propers for Mass, which remain the first choice, the operative legislation now, for the first time, in the history of the faith, permitted unspecified “other appropriate songs” to replace the propers.

On the face of it, this doesn’t seem to be a big deal. One can easily imagine hymns set to the same themes as the propers, and one wonders why this should create such a stir. No one imagine that the proper texts would go away completely and that the obligation to do the propers would vanish so completely that even a USCCB document on music could appear in 1983 (now defunct) that showed no awareness that there were even such things as propers.

This was coupled with a few other destabilizing features of the new Missal. New propers were written for spoken Masses and it was these, and not the Graduale propers, that were printed in the Missal. Also the Psalm was completely changed with the addition of a new option: instead of the Gradual Psalm you could now sing the much shorter and reduced “Responsorial Psalm.” Finally and strangely, the new Missal just dropped the Offertory from the printed Missal. It still exists in the Graduale but the celebrant would never even know about it.

These were strange features of the new Missal but they are not the fundamental reason that the sound and shape of the liturgical music went through such upheaval. The core reason was the option to replace propers with something else. No guidance was given. It was left to the discretion of musicians and liturgists and fashion and anything else.

Now, this introduces an often unwelcome aspect of the human personality: the desire to use any and every venue to express ourselves on our own terms. There are times for this (Facebook, MySpace, graffiti) and times when this is not a good idea (Mass, for example). The invitation to use Mass as a time for musical creativity unleashed the musical ego as never before.

People who couldn’t perform anywhere else begin to see the Catholic Church as a place where they could have a captive audience much larger than if they set up on the sidewalk. People with peculiar personality disorders that demand constant ego stroking latched onto the new permissions to do their thing and bask in the glory that followed. It really has become an occasion of sin.

This is a serious problem since humility is a core value of the Catholic liturgy. It requires deference to an order larger than ourselves and a burying of the ego. It requires work and discipline to do what the Church is asking. If new permissions open to simply avoid the work and do whatever you want to do as an option, all ideals get ploughed under in favor of laziness and worse.

I’m coming around to agree with Lazslo Dobzsay on his argument that completely shocked me the first time I read it: the option to do something besides propers in Mass needs to be completely done away with. That doesn’t mean that you can’t sing something in addition to propers, but something needs to be done to restore the musical ordering that has always been a feature of the Roman Rite.

We don’t have to wait for a repeal of the plank that permits “another appropriate song” to replace the propers. We can sing these right now and do something about the problem. Pastors can insist on propers immediately, starting this next Sunday. There are many options out there in both English and Latin, with Gregorian propers as the shining jewel of the musical repertoire.

Mistakes were made but they can be corrected.

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