Sunday, August 23, 2009

They sang the propers in Atlanta

I was thrilled to be invited as a presenter to the Southeastern Liturgical Music Symposium in Atlanta, Georgia, and give four hours of training in chant and parish music (of course we ran out of time; we could have sung from the Parish Book of Chant all day). It began with a Mass assisted by the Office of Worship for the Atlanta archdiocese. This Mass alone gave the meeting a wonderful start, and if I were going to summarize why and how it would be this way: they sang the propers!

It began with the entrance antiphon sung in plain chant. The communion antiphon was sung the same way. I believe that the Paul Ford collection Flowing Waters (Simplex in English) was the source book, and it was very effective. Even the Offertory chant was sung, and it is quite possible that this was the first time that most people there had ever been exposed to something called the Offertory antiphon. Most people think it is just the intermission of the Mass. There were, in addition, two English hymns plus a post communion Salve Regina. The Gospel was sung, and the Pater Noster was sung. The prayers of the faithful were also sung.

There is no question that the organizers of this Mass have tapped into the new consciousness concerning the musical structure of the Mass, with a special focus on the propers. They were not using the Graduale Romanum (yet) but the music was derivative of the structure that one finds in the actual chant books of the Mass. This stands in radical contrast to the usual parish experience of singing four hymns and calling it a day.

The difference was notable. The music was thematically and structural related in an intimate way with the action at the altar, providing an elaboration and lifting up of the liturgy itself rather than merely providing a musical accompaniment to it. No, it was not the ideal but it was on the right path and headed in the right direction, with a goal toward the future.

This example proved extremely important for the conference. During my sessions, it became quite clear to me that most if not all of the attendees are in the same position I was some years ago. They are serious musicians, completely committed to the faith. They work very hard in their parishes to do what is right and do it with excellence. But they had never really been clued in to the basic musical demands of the rite. Despite all the training and all the documents, they had never had it clearly explained to them what the five ordinary chants are and what the five proper chants are. They did not know that the actual music of the rite is also selected and contained within an official book of the Church. They could not clearly distinguish between the people's parts, the priest's parts, and the schola's parts. The core structure had never really been mapped out to them.

As regards their main parish practice, in many ways, it is as it was before the Vatican Council came along to correct the problem. People are singing hymns at Mass rather than singing the Mass. Forty years after Sacrosanctum Concilium and we are still struggling with the major problem of giving the chants of the Mass the primary place within the musical structure of the Mass.

So I was very pleased to be there to provide the sort of introduction I would have loved to have received ten years ago, an introduction to the musical responsibilities of the parish musician, a framework for understanding the ideals and how to achieve them. It was especially great that the liturgy at the conference itself provided the illustration of the content of the presentation I gave.

Honestly, I'm quite certain that we would not have seen an archdiocesan conference a few years ago undertaking this level of effort toward musical coherence. Anyone who thinks we are not living in a time of great progress hasn't opened his eyes to the new reality. We are living in a time of transition, and it is very exciting. We are far from getting there, but with a focus on propers, a lifting of the taboo against Latin, an emphasis on music that is universally meaning, we are already getting to where we need to be.

Other musicians on the programs were Lee Gwozdz, who was speaking on childrens' choirs, but who also happens to be one of the great Gregorian organists alive today. Another speaker I enjoyed meeting is Rory Cooney, a sincere servant of the faith who is, like all of us, is open to learning and focused on improving the liturgy. He also has a wonderful sense of humor and a gentle demeanor. We enjoyed sharing perspectives and I was especially touched to be singing Salve Regina next to him at Mass and improvising harmonies on hymns.

I further appreciated meeting people with the Archdiocese of Atlanta and some seminarians too. One really made me laugh. I asked what he thought about the Parish Book of Chant. He said, "oh, it's great but right now I'm really into the Graduale Romanum." Chant Jock alert!

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