Thursday, November 12, 2009

Is Chant a Necessity or Luxury?

A tendency I've noticed in the Catholic music world is that many musician proclaim love for chant but draw the line at actually using it in regular life. In this way, they regard chant as they might regard monasticism: something they love and favor but isn't quite right for them. This position is a step up from outright opposition but it doesn't get us where we need to be. In fact, it is no better than the status quo.

We need to realize that chant is not one option of many, something to be tolerated and even celebrated when and where it appears but otherwise left to experts, specialists, and chant geeks of various sorts. Chant does not have this status in history or Church law. On the contrary, it is the ideal music of liturgy, given first place, because it is intimately linked with the liturgy itself, growing up from within its structure and developing in parallel with the liturgy itself.

Chant is not a color of paint on the wall, something that can be changed according to taste or the fashion of the day. Like the Mass itself, chant is timeless and native to divine worship. Its beauty is unsurpassed. Its holiness as music is unmistakable. It's universality stretches beyond national borders and the boundaries of generations, so that its age does not weaken but strengthens its power.

No matter where or when you dip into the chant books, you are going to find something spectacular. Just consider, for example, the communion chant for this coming Sunday: Amen, dico vobis.

You can listen to this here.

It begins with a perfect fifth, a kind of royal call of the trumpet. Amen, I say unto you. This signals something out of the ordinary, something magisterial and profound, and it causes the ears to perk up and listen carefully and seriously.

And see where that opening phrase is headed, to the La or the dominant of this mode. This is the precise point where the chant returns again at the beginning of each phrase, so that you hear the note again and again. The melody has an assurance about it just like the text itself: "whatsoever you ask when ye pray, believe that you shall receive: and they shall come unto you."

Then notice that each phrase has a descending motion to it, coming to rest each time on successively lower pitches: La, Sol, Fa, and finally Mi Re. It's a beautiful structure, framed up perfectly to indicate security and assurance of a promise, the very one that begins in the chant in majesty. So we can see that this is a brilliant composition. And it is not only that: when you sing it, the words fit flawlessly into the musical phrase, which was itself crafted to adhere to the text.

It is a short piece of work, easily extended by adding Psalms:

Hear, O God, my supplication:be attentive to my prayer.

To thee have I cried from the ends of the earth, when my heart was in anguish. To a high rock thou hast conducted me.

For thou hast been my hope: a tower of strength against the face of the enemy.

In thy tabernacle I shall dwell for ever: I shall be protected under the cover of thy wings.

For thou, my God, hast heard my prayer: thou hast given an inheritance to them that fear thy name.

Thou wilt add days to the days of the king: his years even to generation and generation.

He abideth for ever in the sight of God: mercy and truth shall serve him.

So will I sing a psalm to thy name for ever and ever: that I may pay my vows from day to day.

This is communion chant for a day in which the Gospel reading tells of a time when Jesus is speaking to his disciples of the difficult days ahead at the end of time, when the Son of Man will return in glory. This is a day of which no one knows the hour or day, no one but the Father. Given this, comfort and assurance on this earth is precisely what we need, and the music of the Mass is structure to have us affirm the great promise.

It is true that something else can be sung at this point in the Mass. The text can be sung polyphonically, which is a marvelous idea. But if you use some other text, you end up presuming to be the architect of a new form of liturgical structure. It is permissible. But is it something we should do? Do we really want to take on the responsibility for shaping the liturgy according to our own intellectual prowess or aesthetic preferences?

There is an additional point to consider. Chant integrates not only with the Gospel and hence the homily and other readings, as well the liturgical day. When you sing this chant, you have integration in both text and music with the rest of the structure of the liturgy. It is not an add-on or a "special music" or a mere selection from the top forty religious hits. It is integral to the experience of Mass in every way.

This is why Church norms grant chant first place among all music. Even if the there are circumstances that make it difficult to sing or otherwise, its status as the preeminent music of the Roman Rite is not affected. But can it retain its place if it is not sung? Are we really giving chant first place if we are forever choosing some other option because we want to "appeal to the youth" or because something else is easier to sing?

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