Saturday, October 31, 2009

Women and Chant

I've been putting off writing this article for several years, and mainly because it is sad and embarrassing to me that this should have to be written at all. What is at controversy here is not really a controversy at all, just as it is not controversial that the moon is not made of Roquefort cheese. And yet, when a claim reaches a fevered pitch, not matter how historically uninformed it might be, someone needs to step up and say something about it.

The claim in this case is that women may not sing Gregorian chant at Mass.

Now, on its face, this claim is preposterous since there is no history whatsoever of a pastor shushing up women in the pews during the singing of the Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, or Agnus. In the entire history of Gregorian chant in which these people's parts were sung—and they were sung throughout the middle ages and into modern times, and continue to be today—I know of not a single case in the entire history of Catholicism in which a woman in the pews was told not to sing because of her sex. If there were a strong bias against women singing chant, surely we would know of some cases of this happening.

The same is true of chant hymns such as Marian antiphons or medieval poetry that Anima Mea or Jesu Dulcis Memoria. These are beloved hymns sung by everyone, men, women, and children. The same is true of Sequences like Lauda Sion and Veni Sancte Spiritus. These were once beloved by and sung by every person. This was the music of Mass and the music of life itself, and it was and is universally sung by all Catholic people.

Between the ordinary of the Mass and the chant hymns at Mass, this covers the major portion of what people think of as "Gregorian chant." So the controversy, such as it is, cannot touch of any of the repertoire in the Parish Book of Chant, the main book for chanting today in most parishes that use it.

To the extent it is a question it all, then, it concerns only the propers of the Mass, that is, the parts of the Mass that change day to day and week to week and involve the most intricate and difficult of the sung parts carried by scholas alone.

By way of providing further context here, this controversy does not affect the ordinary form of the Mass. It relates only to the extraordinary form of the 1962 Missal. The existence of the question is largely a result of the 40-year space between the living presence of the extraordinary form and its current revival. Not having a living memory of the "old Mass" people find themselves in the position of having to "reinvent" a tradition by recourse to old documents and instructions.

It is perhaps not a surprise that this issue, which involves only a tiny but noisy sector of hyper-traditionalists, is limited to the American context. As a "people of the parchment" Americans have a particular attachment to the idea that all reality can be subsumed within legislation. Wherever any controversy appears, we have a tendency to go to the law books and find our marching orders. This practice is made more dangerous by the absence of a continuous tradition to draw on, so that there are no alarm bells that go off when a literal reading of a text contradicts all real history.

The pertinent document here is Tra le Sollecitudini of 1903, by Pope Pius X. It is a beautiful document and of continuing relevance. Some parts are of their time, however. Paragraph 13 speaks not to a matter of liturgical theology or doctrine but a matter of practical discipline for the period: "singers in church have a real liturgical office, and that therefore women, being incapable of exercising such office, cannot be admitted to form part of the choir. Whenever, then, it is desired to employ the acute voices of sopranos and contraltos, these parts must be taken by boys."

In the last several decades, I've seen this passage yanked out and highlighted by "progressive liturgists" who are anxious to discredit the whole of the sacred music tradition. They point to this passage and observe its supposedly dated and crabby conservatism and sexism. So far as they are concerned, this one passage is all you need to know about Gregorian chant: it carries with it a reactionary agenda to duct tape the mouths of all women, turning Catholic liturgy into the Stepford Mass.

In some ways, I find that passage painful because it distracts from the profound doctrinal and theological content of the document that has been cited and praised by every Pope since. The passage provides a convenient excuse to dismiss the theological and liturgical teaching that still applies today. Disciplines change but sacred music and its rationale are timeless.

Now, people should know that this discipline was decisively change by Pius XII in 1955 with Musicae Sacrae: "Where it is impossible to have schools of singers or where there are not enough choir boys, it is allowed that 'a group of men and women or girls, located in a place outside the sanctuary set apart for the exclusive use of this group, can sing the liturgical texts at Solemn Mass, as long as the men are completely separated from the women and girls and everything unbecoming is avoided. The Ordinary is bound in conscience in this matter.'"

What most people do not know is that this was not as abrupt change as it appears. The 1955 document was a recognition of the reality that existed already, for by that time, the widespread interpretation of the original Motu Proprio was that it was intended to restrict singers in the sanctuary in a clerical capacity, not in a loft such as is more common. The 1903 document was speaking of the liturgical ideal of singers as a clerical office: in this, he was under the sway of the German Caecilians who imagined the goal of liturgical singers holding a clerical office complete with tonsures.

This why this portion of the document was never literally enforced as written in the United States or most places around the world. The magazine Church Music in 1909 (issue 4) reported that Pope Pius X issued permission orally to a complaining Bishop soon after the Motu Proprio came out. Moreover, the implementing legislation of 1908 contained an interesting contradiction, or so it seems, affirming the ban and then urging that women singers be separated from the men singers. Or perhaps it was not a contradiction if we imagine a "clerical" choir in the sanctuary vs. another choir standing outside or in a loft.

What appeared to be the exception then quickly became the rule. As the London Tablet reported on January 6, 1909: "There really would be no difficulty in bringing all Church choirs within the rule laid down by this decree: intermixed choirs of men and women are forbidden; separated choirs of men on one side and women on the other are not forbidden." And even here, the rule would only apply for propers sung by the schola exclusively where it makes the most sense to separated singing by high and low registers in any case.

Fr. Anthony Ruff (Sacred Music and Liturgical Reform, Chicago: Hillenbrand Books, 2007) adds more context here: "As difficult as it is for us today to understand such exclusion of women, the teaching should be understood in its historical context, and within the liturgical worldview of its proponents. The goal behind the exclusion was to make the choir more property liturgical, and that the assumption was that the choir's ministry was a clerical one." (pp. 279-80).

Therefore the ban on women in a strictly liturgical on paper only followed from the ban on women serving in the clerical capacity of major and minor orders. In this sense, it is a mere tautology, following by definition. Since clerical orders for singers – except in monastic settings -- are not even an issue today, the ban on women would make no sense in either the ordinary or extraordinary form.

It only takes a few minutes of thought to realize this. After all, women have been singing all chants for the whole history of the Church, in convents in particular. Where there is a tradition of boys choirs, that is one thing. But we do well to recall that the very first composer in Christendom that is known by us by name is the 11th century mystic Hildegard von Bengin, who composed settings of prayers and proper texts and were beloved for centuries. William Byrd's editions of polyphonic propers from the 16th century England have signatures of women singers within mixed choirs.

Going back to the Patristic age, chant scholar Mary Berry has variously pointed to St. Blesilla, one of the Roman nobles directed by St Jerome in the 4th century. He in a letter praises her for her rendering of the Alleluia at Mass.

In more modern times, Justine Ward taught Gregorian chant all over the country, with many thousands in classes and singing at Mass. Not once in the history of her apostolate did this issue come up. Her conventional practice was to have chants sung by all girls or all boys. It was never a controversy, and she not only taught the world of the time to sing chant; she was the standard bearer of liturgical ideals insofar as they affected music in light of the 1908 Motu Proprio.

By 1967, the language of the discipline had come full circle: Musicam Sacram, paragraph 22, says: "The choir can consist, according to the customs of each country and other circumstances, of either men and boys, or men and boys only, or men and women, or even, where there is a genuine case for it, of women only."

Every so often the Vatican gets this question from people who don't know that the issue was long ago settled, and the response is exasperated and reaffirming of the existing practice.

Most recently, Ecclesia Dei issued a letter in response to one correspondent, who asked concerning the extraordinary form in particular: "If a men's schola is available, should a women's schola be permitted to sing the Mass In preference to a men's group?"

One can imagine the parish political environment that led to such an inquiry! After all, it is not a "preference," for example, to let women sing the introit and men sing the communio except to the extent every choice reveals a preference. To suggest that such conventional musical programming amounts to a political statement of some kind is to infuse secular and politicized notions of sexual politics into the liturgy.

The sensible response from Ecclesia Dei, refusing to take the bait, came July 16, 2008: "If a parish is so well provided for as to have both a men's and women's schola cantorum, that would seem to be a true 'embarrassment of riches' and surely some way could be found for them both to contribute to the singing of the sacred liturgy."

In the Vatican today, women and men sing propers, which is a recent change from a very old tradition of men and boys choirs only. These are simple matters of tradition and practice. In the United States, a mission territory, this tradition has never been fixed.

In the age-old problem of conflating discipline and doctrine, the interpretation of the 1903 text becomes a potent weapon when it is invoked without understanding or nuance. It is used by the "left" and the extreme "right" to foil advances in sacred music in our parishes.

It is a demographic reality that women are among the best singers and teachers of Gregorian chant in this country. Women were the real energy behind the chant movement during most of the 20th century following the Motu Proprio of 1903. The same remains true today. It is a fantastic trend that multi-form parishes that are cultivating men's scholas, and there cannot be enough of these.

And yet there are also great women singers in the same parishes that sit on the sidelines, wondering whether it is even legal for them to sing at all. It is one thing to overcome an entrenched bias; it is something else to cite liturgical law without the slightest understanding of context, history, and subsequent legislation as a way of justifying a bias.

Many of these women have been given a great gift of singing. That this gift would be banned from use based on ignorance of history and relevant legislation is pathetic and deeply embarrassing to everyone attached to the traditional Mass. Moreover, the persistence of this bias is like handing its enemies the club with which to beat us. In addition to be insulting to women musicians, excluding women diminishes the beauty that is possible in our parishes.

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