Friday, October 30, 2009

What the Vatican Singing Norms Imply

You have to know the back story to understand why the Vatican's change of policy on guest choirs is so important. For years, there has been a revolving door operating with regard to St. Peter's concerning guest choirs. Some have been great. Many have not been. Some have offered deeply regrettable performances.

Who was running the show? It almost seemed as if the Vatican lost control over this. It became more of a tourism project than a liturgical one. This was a tragedy that had to be addressed.

After all, if liturgical music is music of a special kind, it stands to reason that the Vatican should have special requirements for those who sing at St. Peter's Basilica. It can't just be the run-of-the-mill praise band, fresh off the bar circuit and only two months out of the garage. They should know Gregorian chant, at the very least. They should know the parts of the Mass that the Church has long said that singers, indeed, all people must know.

The problem in the age of youtube is that a bad choir that knows no liturgical music can record a video that can fly around the world in minutes, and send a devastating message to parishes that are in a transition from the age of hippy control to genuine liturgical music. The "praise band" then has a video it can show off, as if to say: what's good enough for the Vatican is good enough for us in this parish here at home.

The new norms set standards: a Catholic choir that sings at St. Peter's must at least know how to sing Catholic music.

Therefore they read as follows:

"The liturgy is celebrated in the Latin language, according to the Roman Rite. Gregorian chant has first place. The guest choir is expected to chant the Ordinary of Holy Mass in alternation with the Musical Chapel of the Basilica."


"The guest choir may sing: at the Entrance procession until the moment when the celebrant reaches the altar (the Gregorian Introit is sung by the Musical Chapel of the Basilica), at the preparation of the gifts and relative offertory, at Communion, after the Gregorian antiphon has been sung, and at the end of Mass, after the Blessing. The program of music must follow the Liturgy of the day and will be agreed upon with and approved by the Choirmaster."

And what should the choir sing? It is not complicated:

Sundays of Advent: Missa XVII Credo IV
Sundays of Christmas: Missa IX Credo IV
Sundays of Lent: Missa XVII Credo IV
Sundays of Easter: Missa I Credo III
Sundays of Ordinary Time: Missa XI Credo I
Feasts of Ordinary Time: Missa VIII Credo III
Feasts of the B.V. Mary: Missa IX Credo IV
Feasts of the Apostles: Missa IV Credo III

There we go: Catholic music! In other words, the choirs that sing at the center of the Catholic Church, in its most revered space, must be made of members who know how to sing like Catholics. I know that this should be a given. But it is not, and it has not been a given until recently. Needless to say, the flow of choirs coming and going has slowed to a trickle but those that do make the cut have been magnificent.

In terms of U.s. choirs, especially impressive in recent times has been the performance of the Madeleine Choir School in Salt Lake City, Utah. This program is one of the great Catholic programs in the country and among the least known. Here we have a full school that is dedicated to the right ideals and has the highest artistic standards. The Cardinals that heard them sing were astonished and thrilled at what they heard.

In general, the spirits among the clergy are very high concerning music and the old anxiety and fear is gone. The spillover effects of this change could be huge for American Catholics, as choirs work to actually achieve something great before going to Rome. It means that singing at St. Peter's will actually mean something again, and glory be to that!

But here is what I like most about the new norms: the translation.

"Gregorian chant has first place." Clear as a bell, and strong.

It is a rendering of the words of Vatican II: " Ecclesia cantum gregorianum agnoscit ut liturgiae romanae proprium: qui ideo in actionibus liturgicis, ceteris paribus, principem locum obtineat.."

The official English says: " The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services."

What does "pride of place" really mean? It's too vague.

A better translation is "principal place" but even that is not quite right, since we don't usually use the word "principal" in this way. We don't hold the "principal" place in line. We don't earn the "principal place" in a contest.

The word first works here. First place. It makes sense to our ears. This phrase is now among the approved translations of paragraph 116.

Then also we can make more sense of what at first seems to be a proviso: "other things being equal." What ceteris paribus actually means is that the condition holds regardless of extenuating circumstances. Even if you can't sing chant because you lack singers or books or time or whatever, that in no way diminishes its first place at Mass. In other words, this phrase strengthens rather than weakens the role of chant at Mass.

But what matters most here is not legislation or even translation but what the Church practices and enforces as its practice. Here is where the difference is really made. And on this score, St. Peter's in Rome is improving in ways that are spectacular and for all the world to see. At last, it is becoming what it always should have been: a model and expressive of the ideal of Church music.

Everyone knows that there is more to do. There are sectors within the Vatican that are deeply entrenched that persist in a variety of terrible singing habits. But the writing is on the wall. It will come to an end. The model for the future is now clear. Legislation reflects it. That legislation is easy to understand. And it is being enforced. And the results are beautiful to behold.

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