Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Liturgical Musicians: Do We Act Like Children?

Every few days, I receive an email that describes some kind of egregious musical misbehavior at Mass. For example, someone will point out that the musicians played "Ode to Joy" using jazz stylings. Or the offertory hymn with a samba beat is played on the clavinova with a conga player doing his thing nearby. Or for communion, there will be a sexually provocative love song that is only vaguely religious. Others complain about groovy beat music for entrance that make people want to order a martini, not prepare for Mass. In each case, the outraged person behind the email is asking me about legislation he or she can cite to stop this pervasive misbehavior.

The correspondent is never happy with my answer. I cannot cite chapter and verse. No specific legislation prevents all of this from happening at Mass. And before you say that this is what you get with the ordinary form, keep in mind that it is true at the extraordinary form too. No legislation stops musicians from singing a Mary Haugen tune for the recessional. And at low Mass, vernacular hymnody can be played. Glory and Praise or Praise and Worship can be used here. It is a matter of discretion, to be determined by the well-formed musical conscience.

Look at the legislation in the General Instruction on the Roman Missal. If you choose the first option for entrance, offertory, and communion, you will be singing Gregorian chant. As we go through lesser options, we find suggestions for seasonal chants and chants in the vernacular. Only as we approach the end of the list, do we find that we are permitted to sing something that is "appropriate." Here is the critical term. The legislation seems to leave it up to the musicians and pastors to decide. If they choose wrongly, you end up with a package of music that is a far cry from anything resembling the Roman Rite.

If opponents of this music hope to cite chapter and verse, effectively telling the musicians that what they are doing is illegal, they are not going to have much success. It is for this reason that in my own writings, I do not rest the case for sacred music solely on legislation. There is no getting around the need for musicians to have an understanding of the spirit of the liturgy as the essential guide to what is right and wrong. If you don't understand the spirit, or have an understanding of the core aesthetic of the Roman Rite, no amount of legislation is going to work to bring the right results about.

Let's try this analogy. Let's say that the parents are leaving for an hour, and the kids are at home. Before leaving, the parents warn the kids to "behave." When the parents get home, they find that the chandelier in the dinner room is on the floor, cookie crumbs are all over the kitchen counter, sheets have been removed from beds to make a giant tent in the living room, and the hallway has been turned into a makeshift bowling alley.

The parents are outraged. But the kids protest that the parents never said anything specific against doing these things. They only gave the general instruction to behave, and, so far as they are concerned, they did behave. After all, everything can be easily restored as it was. If the parents are against all the things did while the parents were gone, they should have spelled it out in detail.

The parents hear this explanation and throw their arms up in disgust at the rationalizations used by the kids to evade what they regard as the more-than-obvious import of the general demand to do the right thing.

This is a fairly close analogy to what goes on week after week in American parishes. Rome has legislated for decades, even centuries, on sacred music, continuing to emphasize the ideal (chant), the standard by which all compositions should be judged (chant), and specifically naming the most preferred form of music (chant), and further spelling out in detail that not all forms of music are permitted but rather only that which is holy, beautiful, and universal.

The musicians, meanwhile, do whatever they want. When called on the carpet about it, they protest that no one ever said that sambas with congas are specifically prohibited, that the Ode to Joy can't be jazzed up, that rock ballads as such are not forbidden, and the like. In any case, how can they be criticized since they are sincere and performing their music for virtually no pay, and, moreover, the music they sing is published by a Catholic publishing company? If some higher authority didn't want these things, the higher authority should spell it out in detail.

Perhaps you agree. After all, if the spirit is absent, what choice do we have but to resort to the letter of the law? A year ago, Rome faxed a letter to chancery offices around the English-speaking world that said, in no uncertain terms, that the word Yahweh was henceforth forbidden. No exceptions. Within a fortnight, everything changed. Publishers released new editions of their music. Pastors told musicians to shape up. The buzz was everywhere. Now the word is no more. It happened just like that, without protests or complaining or second guessing. It was a marvel.

So I can see a case for expanding this model. There are many things that could be fixed in a day when the right wording in letters is sent to the right offices. And yet, one can see why this doesn't take place. Anymore than a parent should have to innumerate every conceivable implication of what it means to "behave," Church authorities should not have to be in the business of spelling out in detail what is forbidden to use as music at Church. This kind of legislation rarely works to accomplish its task, and even the attempt might actually end up restricting legitimate forms of artistic expression. What's more, without the proper spirit, people intent on keeping the Roman Rite at bay will find ways around the law.

Consider what I said above about all how of this music technically possible in the extraordinary form. Why is it that we never hear Marty Haugen used as a recessional hymn in the extraordinary form, even though doing so violates no letter of the law? It is because the musicians involved in providing music in this liturgical venue understand that to do so would be incompatible with the sense of the faith they have developed from understanding the rite itself.

A great danger facing the ordinary form is that it has long been presented in a musical framework that is alien to the embedded sensibility of the ritual itself. In short, the musicians haven't been properly formed. They simply do not know any better. They are like unruly kids who don't know the meaning of the exhortation to behave.

I recently browsed to a book of commentaries on the new USCCB music instruction called "Sing to the Lord." As with the document itself, the words flow and flow without ceasing. In the end, the question is: are the words instructing the musicians or merely providing a rationale for them to keep doing what they are doing, which is right now singing and playing pretty much anything that want to sing and play?

The musicians can read both the document and commentary in detail and still not know the basic musical structure of the Roman Rite. They would still not be able to tell you what parts of the Mass constituted the propers, the ordinary, and the dialogues, much less how they fit together. It is tragic to say it but undeniable: most musicians providing music for the ordinary form are deeply ignorant. This, and not a lack of legislation, is the core of the problem.

Return to the example of the kids and parents above. What we have here essentially comes down to poor formation. The parents need to start from scratch, correcting bad behavior as it occurs, slowly guiding the kids to maturity so that they can, on their own, make the right choices. This is essentially where we stand today with Catholic music. We are starting from scratch.

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