Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Commanding Heights of Sacred Music

The phrase "commanding heights" was popularized some years by a PBS special on the world economy. The idea is to track the dominate ideas that foreshadow the real-world change, beginning in a small but intense way and eventually coming to rest in revolutionary centers of influence and power that shape the operations of the world. The ideas grow until there is a tipping point and deference to a once-radical idea becomes the norm.

By "commanding," we are not talking about troops or force or external dictate as such. We are talking about something more compelling: the cultural power of an idea whose time has come.

This is precisely what is happening in the world of Catholic music. Two decades ago, the notion that the music heard in Catholic liturgy should be native to that liturgy was held by only a handful of people. Most everyone else went on their merry way treating liturgy like a tree that they would adorn with their own homemade ornaments. The industry boomed, folk artists proliferated, and every hotel-bar reject found a happy home and an audience to listen at the local Catholic parish.

But the wiser ones persisted and taught others and their students continued their work. Their journals were read by few but they were influential. Steadily their influence grew as the prevailing paradigm no longer provided satisfaction for people who were serious about their liturgy and serious about music. The intellectual case has been made and largely won: as far as one looks, one no longer finds strong arguments against sacred music. What remains is the universal implementation, and this is a matter of time and hard work.

Within the last five years, the ground has shifted dramatically. A number of books and institutions provided the catalyst: the Sacred Music Colloquium (CMAA), the Parish Book of Chant (Richard Rice), Summorum Pontificum (Benedict XVI), the continuing efforts of parishes such as St. Agnes in Minnesota, St. John Cantius in Chicago, and the work of the Byrd Festival in Portland.

These outposts were once considered a kind safety valve for a dying breed. Today, their status is rising higher and higher. Only ten years ago, to favor Gregorian chant in Masses as the prevailing musical paradigm was to attach oneself to a cause that seemed to be lost. Today, it is different. Pastors are asking for chant. Singers wish to sing it and are signing up to attend seminars on learning how. Every single teaching course offered by the Church Music Association of America has sold out months in advance.

The change has been difficult to discern Sunday to Sunday but if you back up just a bit from the sequence of time, you see huge change in process. Among the most impressive pieces of evidence comes from the tremendous progress made at the Vatican (Fr. Pierre Paul), the North American seminary in Rome (Parish Book of Chant), and, in the United States, the sleeper case of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (Peter Latona).

Earlier this year, the Basilica cooperated with the John Paul II Center and the CMAA to sponsor a teaching pilgrimage on chant. At the final Mass, in the extraordinary form, the Shrine Choir sang the most beautiful motet by William Byrd. It was remarkably well done – a choir as seasoned and effective as any in the world. This repertoire was clearly not unfamiliar to this group, not something put on for the occasion and otherwise dropped. This is a specialized choir – specialized in liturgical music.

After that event, I listened to the live recording of this choir singing Vespers during the Pope's visit. It remains of the most inspiring CDs I own. I recall that at the time, many observers pointed out that this Vespers service was the single greatest liturgy of his visit, the one in which he felt most comfortable at truly at home.

It has to make any American proud of what "we" demonstrated at this occasion. America is not only about huge stadiums and goofy attempts at "diversity in music" with competitions to see how many different styles of music we can stuff into one Mass. On that contrary, this Vespers service had a signal voice, the voice of Catholic sacred music. It was integrated, coherent, prayerful, and absolutely beautiful.

It turns out that this was not just a one-time event. The Shrine choir is working to build up an ever larger repertoire of music, and record it for distribution as a paradigm for choirs around the world. The newest effort is a gem called "Mosaic" that features polyphonic music for the entire liturgical year. This isn't a clichéd mix of "old and new." This is 100% great music, mostly from the golden age of polyphony, but also including innovative and striking improvisations by the director himself, Peter Latona.

The National Shrine, then, is now setting a national standard. If the news is not yet permeated to all parishes, it is increasingly obvious where the direction of change is taking us. The National Shrine has embraced sacred music. The Vatican's choir at St. Peter's is training in singing all the Gregorian propers for the ordinary form. More and more cathedrals are turning in the right direction. Seminaries are changing and training in chant.

I have a special interest in the professional status of Catholic musicians, of course, and here there are very good trends afoot. A friend of mine was recently enticed away from the Northeast to the Midwest to direct music at a parish. He has found a diocese desperately hungry for his singing and teaching skills. He can hardly keep up with all the requests to come and sing and teach – and these requests reach to the highest levels. There is an intense desire to upgrade and improve.

To be sure, in this same diocese, the average parish features music not much different from that which could be heard on any Sunday in the last 20 years, the same tired blend of ornamental music drawn from popular culture. What's important here is that the dissatisfaction is obvious and the desire for change is being expressed. My friend's professional fortunes are secure in ways they never would have been 15 or 20 years ago. The same story can be told of many young organists and chanters. Their skills are in demand now for the first time in many years.

I've left out of the list many hundreds of parishes where new scholas are working their way toward a Gregorian ordinary and the proper chants of the Mass, as well as many colleges with young choirs working on chant. It is an exciting time to be a Catholic music. We can all make a huge difference right where we are, helping to transition from a grim period in which secular music controlled the commanding heights to a time of restoration and true progress. These are times when to sing Gregorian chant is to be part of history in the making.

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