Friday, December 26, 2008

Sacred Music and the New Evangelism

This is Part III. See Part II and Part I.

In the heyday of Glory & Praise music at Mass, the well-trained and serious musicians who favored a restoration of Gregorian chant and polyphony largely worked in alienated secrecy, afraid even to publish their own settings of Psalms and chant editions even if they could find a publisher. The old publishing institutions of the preconciliar days were long gone and the new ones were unfriendly to their work. There was a doubt about whether there was a financially viable market for their work, but that wasn't the only concern. Issues of copyright weighed heavily on them.

I can recall correspondence with some from the 1990s. These were masters of music at cathedrals and universities who lived in fear that someone would discover that they had put an episema over a punctum, or added a dot at the end of a phrase, and the fear was that these small dashes and lines were held by someone somewhere as a proprietary font, and that they would be risky lawsuits by making their editions available even through email.

What was unknown then, and what only came to be known in the last several years, is that the Gregorian editions of the past had long since passed from the proprietary stage into the open-source stage of availability. Inquiries with the Library of Congress yielded results that most any intellectual-property lawyer might have expected: the chants are the whole property of the Church, and the only editions that remain proprietary in a legal sense are those published in recent years since the Second Vatican Council. What applied to the music also applied to preconciliar texts: because most of them were not renewed in copyright, they had become the common property of all Catholics, which made them uniquely suited to delivering in the digital age.

But let's take a small step back and look at the origin of the great innovator in open-source music: the Choral Public Domain Library, or It opened its doors in 1999 with fifty or so compositions available for free download, many of them by Renaissance masters such as Palestrina, Josquin, Byrd, Gabrieli, Gibbons, and others. There were no logins, no fees, no licenses.

This interface was the brainchild of a student of Professor William Mahrt's at Stanford University. His studies into this area had convinced him that the raw and unedited editions of the masters can and should be made available to the world. And it was just the beginning. Over the last ten years, thousands of scores have been added, so much so that the site has to be constantly upgraded to prevent crashing. And when it does crash, the entire Catholic music world panics.

In the new world of digital downloads, CPDL plays a hugely important role. The whole Catholic world could sing the music recommended by the Second Vatican Council without paying the fees attached to editions from establishment publishers, who were running a fee-based closed society of locked-down musical editions. This meant that choirs could download and experiment with music, throwing out what they didn't like and keeping what they did. It meant that parish budgets could focus more heavily on paying musicians rather than paying for music – a virtual revolution in parish budgeting.

In terms of the ordinary of the Mass itself, uploaded and made available its first Kyriale in 2005, the 18 settings of the Mass that had been handed on from the middle ages, now available to the whole world, including the poorest of the poor. This was also completely new. The same was occurring for Latin propers: many editions of the Graduale Romanum were newly available, having long since past into the common property of the Church. This meant that choirs could experiment and composers could use the Church's music for composition without fearing for the police.

There were important steps taking place in the area of English propers too. Jeffrey Ostrowski of the Chabanel Psalms was the first to come forward with his settings of the Psalms for the ordinary form of the Mass. It was a revelation to many that music during this portion of the Mass didn't have to be sing songy and silly; it could be dignified and modal in character like the music of old. Many other composers came forward with their settings, and Ostrowski graciously made those settings from other composers available too.

Fr. Samuel Weber had for years circulated his English propers via email only, citing the same concern over copyright. But once the St. Louis archdiocese hired him to head their new institute for sacred music, they too took the important step of making his propers common property as well. They are now fully hosted and available for immediate download, with liberal permissions. Along with this, many other books came online: Bruce Ford's American Gradual, the Anglican Use Gradual, Psalm tone propers from the past, along with a massive number of teaching manuals and more.

Meanwhile, has become a place for the posting of new compositions too, under the Creative Common attribution license, which grants liberal use permissions provided that the source of identified. It also prevents people from homesteading new compositions and put them under restrictions.

At the same time, new resources such as The Parish Book of Chant—along with the republication of many older works—are springing up to change parish culture. This is an interesting book in particular because it compiles the true people's music from all ages, all in Latin, and provides the necessary English translations for them, along with ordos for both the new and older forms of Mass, along with a tutorial. Most importantly, this is a book for our time that brings to life music from the whole history of the Church. The typesetting is fresh. And it is presented in a way that our generation can understand, which accounts for its adoption at Received adoptions at the North American College, Franciscan University of Stubenville, Ave Maria University, Mundelein Seminary, Wyoming Catholic College, and the Catholic University of America.

In addition to these resources, there is this blog that provides daily commentary that reaches people as never before. The archives of Sacred Music are online. There are large communities of musicians are forums and blogs. There are new on-demand publications coming out constantly. The whole history of liturgical music is being scanned daily and posted, so that precisely treasures, once held by only a few, are available to millions at no charge. has posted new books and dozens of archival editions once kept only in large libraries.

All of this new activity has coincided with the liturgical flowering prompted by Summorum Pontificum, which provides equal rights to the older form of Mass and blasts open a massive and extended tradition that had been previously closed to us.

That we are living in very exciting times for the flourishing of sacred music is no longer in dispute. The attendance at colloquia and workshops, and the changes permeating through parish life, are proof of that. What is often missed here are the institutional considerations that have created a distinct advantage to sacred music in particular. Many historical and institutional factors have contributed toward restoring sacred music as an open-source community in which imitation, free distribution, widespread dissemination, and the resulting dynamism are the characteristic features.

In this respect, we are seeing a restoration of the status quo ante that gave rise to sacred music over 1600 years, and once again gave a boost to the folk music movement of the 1970s. Here we see growth, evangelism, and excitement as never before, and it stands in marked contrast to the gloomy art world of the established music companies who live off the victories of the modern past, forever selling the same tired hymns and settings and trotting out the folk performers of the past to somehow breath life into a genre of music that has long past seen its day.

A truth that the Glory & Praise promoters realized long ago is that the battle for the musical soul of the Catholic Church takes place one parish at time, and resists being imposed by large establishments no matter what their legal status and claims.

In a time when all media is being revolutionized by digital delivery driving costs of use and dissemination toward zero, we see technology being used toward the formation of a new form of musical evangelism, a new form that is very much like the old form that inspired the Solesemes monastery in its earliest years: the conviction that the music of the faith is holy and universal and should be experienced by all the faithful in all times and places.

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