Friday, September 18, 2009

The People vs. The Trained Elites?

The most exciting, vibrant, and young movement in Catholic Church music today involves the revival of Gregorian chant, and also the old and new music that flows from its stylistic sensibility and texts. Workshops around the country are growing larger. Sales of chant books are booming, to the point that distributors can hardly keep them in stock. Membership in chant-support organizations is growing. Discover this energy is as easy as typing a few search terms.

I'll only mention one program taking place in late September at the National Shrine in Washington, D.C.. The Church Music Association of America, working with the John Paul II Cultural Center and St. John the Beloved parish in McLean, Virginia, have put together a Pilgrimage for people seeking to learn Gregorian chant. It is under the direction of chant conductor to the nation Scott Turkington.

Already one week before, more than 160 people have signed up to attend. This includes mostly young people, but also many middle-aged people seeking to upgrade their skills. Eleven seminarians are coming, along with many priests and nuns. The excitement about this event is palpable. Mass will be said in the extraordinary form in the crypt Church, which will ring out with sound of chant as we haven't heard in this space a very long time.

It's all just thrilling, and so much so that there's hardly any time to reflect on the meaning of this shift. However, let us do so now. There are things about this revival and energy that utterly smash the prevailing interpretive paradigm of the modern history of Catholic Church music.

The story goes like this. In preconciliar times, Catholics knelt passively at Mass and didn't sing a note. The celebrant was a disembodied actor who faced the altar and did all the work, speaking in a language that no one knew. To the extent there was music, it was sung by trained professionals who sang from strange books and stuck only to the masters for the rare High Mass. People were complacent and obedient but the entire machinery was stilted and stale and uninspired.

Sounds like the beginning of dystopian novel, doesn't it? Well, that's the conventional view, and I've read it again and again. Only last night I read this tale yet again in a new book on the topic (I'll refrain from mentioning the title pending a full review later.)

Ok, now comes the great tale of the revolution. The sixties were a time of rethinking and heightened consciousness. There were civil-rights struggles, men on the moon, fresh faces in the White House and the Vatican, and a new generation determined to bring life to this static world. They brought their guitars and folk music and the people's language to the cause of Catholic worship. Sure, the professionals didn't like it but to heck with them: the voice of the people rose up in song and wove the glorious ideals of the protest movement into the fabric of Catholic liturgical life.

Probably this entire story should be told with the background music of the Internationale.

I wasn't around back then, and you generally have to talk to people over 60 to get a sense of what was really going on. So I can't really weigh the relationship between fact and fiction in the above scenario. I do know that it is probably impossible to generalize the experience of Catholics at Mass before or after the Council. Then as now, a heterogeneity in quality prevail: some music was probably dreadful and some was great. The scenario as sketched above, however, just seems too clean and neat to me.

But the real danger of accepting this tale at face value is that it makes one completely blind to the reality of the current moment. In fact, if one follows the mainstream music publications or liturgy publications from the old-line publishers out there, one slowly begins to discern the presence of an appalling blindness about today's realities. The Pilgrimage I mention above should be big news. But I can promise you that it will received no attention at all in any of the usual venues. This is not so censorship at work but denial: what is happening today doesn't fit into the easy categories that have become dogma: the professionals vs. the people, static vs. active, silence vs. participation, English vs. Latin.

Those who are now throwing themselves into learning and singing Gregorian chant are overwhelming non-professionals. They are volunteers who are starting scholas in their parishes. They meet and sing on their own time. They earnestly learn to read neumes, pronounce the Latin, and discover the essential musical structure of the Roman Rite in hopes of making a contribution. Most of them are either not paid or are paid very little. They aren't coming to these workshops and programs thanks to anyone's expense account. They are paying their own money for tuition, materials, and hotel. This are doing this because they love it and believe it in.

Who are the professionals and the academically-trained Catholic musicians today? They are heading the well-funded organizations and managing the large publishers. They constitute the establishment that knows hardly anything at all about Gregorian chant. In fact, their livelihoods are financially linked up with the promotion of pop styles and industrial-style delivery systems. Contrast with the unfunded and truly grass-roots efforts of the chant movement around the country.

And are they doing this because they want to make the liturgy more static? It's ridiculous. They are doing it because they would like to see the Roman Rite come back to life with artistic forms that are native to it. Can we state the terribly obvious here? Mass with four song written in 1970s and 1980s is dreadfully boring today. It is energy-draining experience to listen to dreck.

Surely there are very few people in the world who are inspired by the 1,323rd playing of fill-in-the-blank. Singing a Gloria or Sanctus from the ancient books, however, can be an incredibly thrilling and spiritually uplifting experience. Or how about a Gregorian hymn like Ave Maria following communion? Few experiences are as invigorating as that.

And are these people coming to these events in order to get people to shut up and be silent during Mass? So far as I can tell, the impulse is the exact opposite. It is enervating in the extreme to see the absurd scene of praise teams banging and strumming away while people sit in pews with long faces and periodically look at their watches. This goes on in parishes all over the country every week. Compare to the truly meaningful experience of a gathered people who have actually work time and work into learning a great piece of chant that they sing together every week.

Finally, it very well may be true that the Latin vs. English issue was a rallying point back in the 60s but today there are many editions of chant in English that are readily accessible and free for the download. They are best rendered in light actual knowledge of the Gregorian tradition. I don't see praise bands dipping into this repertoire. Nor is it necessary to learn to give a speech like Cicero in order to understand and sing the basic chants of the Mass, which the Church has repeatedly said should be known by every Catholic in the pew. I'm sorry but the campaign against Latin increasingly looks not only anti-intellectual but even anti-Catholic.

It would be nice to see some acknowledgment in old-line publications and venues of the truth of what is actually happening at the grass roots. But so long as the old intellectual paradigms remain, they can't see that the ground is shifting beneath their feet. It very well maybe true that today there is a tension between the people and the trained elites but the what each side is seeking is the reverse of the tale we've heard a thousand times.

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