Friday, February 26, 2010

Opening the Time Capsule

It is overwhelming to think of the resources that have become available for Catholic musicians in the last few years. The latest is a glorious series of books that offer complete Gregorian-based propers of the Mass in English, by G.H. Palmer and Francis Burgess.

The notation looks exactly like the Vatican edition of 1908. The language is high, from the older translations of scripture. It isn't correct to call these editions Gregorian, since the melodies were of course written for Latin. But these editions preserve those melodies but put them in a different language.

The effect is marvelous. The editions have been time tested in Anglo-Catholic parishes where they have been in use since the 1930s, thanks to the publishing work of the Community of St. Mary the Virgin in the UK, which gave permission for their old books to be posted for use in Anglican and Catholic congregations.

When they were released, the shouts of hosanna from musicians were audible. Many parishes in the Anglican tradition had been used photocopies of photocopies of these books and they were growing dimmer by the day. The Church Music Association of America scanned originals into very high resolution so that they can be used by anyone around the world.

The first I had seen of these chants was two years ago, at the CMAA Colloquium, when William Mahrt passed out a single Psalm chant. I was amazed to see this and wonder where it came from. Then choirmaster Owen Burdick wrote me looking for them. I expressed frustration that they were not available. He went looking through the attic at Ascension in New York and turned up four full books, left behind by his predecessors. They were promptly sent to the scanners and then released to the world.

A Catholic who sees these has to wonder: is this what Vatican II intended for liturgy? I think the answer is complex. On the one hand, the documents are absolutely resolute in calling for Gregorian chant to have first place at Mass. Gregorian is in only one language: Latin. Anything else does not go by that name. So the Council was firm here: there would be no compromise on Latin propers and ordinary chants.

On the other hand, the Council permitted the vernacular to be introduced into liturgy. The extent of the translations and introductions were to be determined by the national conferences. So you can see the tension here: it wasn't entirely clear what the liturgical goal was. There were notable contradictions at the heart of the documents. To be sure, had the national conferences been faithful to the letter and spirit, that would have been one thing. But for the Vatican to relinquish responsibility over the language of the liturgy at this time, in this culture, was a recipe for the unraveling of the Roman Rite (speaking in hindsight, when everything is clear).

And guess what the U.S. did? No surprise: the U.S released editions of the Missal that were largely English by 1965. I say largely, but the results were rather confused: the ordinary and the readings were in English (strange since the people knew the Latin ordinary rather well) but the propers were in Latin that edition of the Missale Romanum. What's more, everyone knew at the time that this was a transitional Missale and not stable.

Many serious musicians saw the writing on the wall and got to work writing chanted propers in English. Sometimes they wrote new melodies that fit the text. Sometimes they wrote originals chants only slightly adapted.

It is unclear whether anyone in the Catholic world at the time understood that so much work had already been done in this area by Anglicans many years earlier. The efforts had grown out of the Oxford movement in Britain in the 19th century, with the goal of purging the puritanism of Anglicanism and making its liturgical presence more Catholic in presentation, even while preserving the English tradition. If vernacularization was the goal, the structure was already in place, ready for the taking.

But the politics and culture of the time mitigated against it. Most of the advocates of the vernacular envisioned something very different from what the Second Vatican Council actually called for. They want groovier style, a casual manner, a Mass that the people would effectively shape themselves according to their own will, culture, and desire. The language was just the starting point. What they really wanted was to tear up the entire pea patch of tradition.

Meanwhile, on the other side were those who were attached to tradition and had very little interest in seeing the amazing treasure of chant, which the Council had already stated was of "inestimable value," hacked up to accommodate the latest populist push by the emergent generation of hippies and groovemeisters. They were correct in being deeply suspicious of the vernacularization movement. They dug in their heels and defended tradition. I think often of these days and I suspect that I might have been among this group.

But here was the interesting dynamic that was generated by this great divide. The advocates of a chanted English Mass had no energy or powerful sector behind them. One might say that they were the moderates but in those days no one was much interested. In the intervening five years, the battles waged on with the clear winner emerging by 1969 when the new Missal was released by the Vatican. The national conferences got to work on their translations. Everything happened too quickly and what emerged on the other end was a template for disaster.

Recall that after the Council closed, most serious Catholic musicians were ecstatic. At last, a Church Council had definitively declared that Gregorian chant must have first place. At last, something was going to be done about the pervasiveness of vernacular hymnody at the Low Mass of old. The sung Mass would be the norm.

By 1975, however, the world was completely unrecognizable. Not only was vernacular the norm, but hymns were the norm, and not the old-time hymns but new stuff written in commercial stylings, with structures and tunes taken from sit-coms on television and soap ads on television: unworthy doesn't quite describe the music that has been pervasive since these days.

There were other factors. The calendar upheaval delayed the publication of the Graduale Romanum for the New Mass, for example. A new translation was issued by ICEL that departed dramatically from not only the Latin but the English that was used in the 1965 Missale. There was the still-inexplicable introduction of brand new set of propers for spoken Mass as versus sung Mass: a fissure that is no closer to be healed today, mainly because not even most Bishops are even aware that it exists. There was this new animal called the "Resposorial Psalm" which change the whole structure and purpose of the music between the readings.

There are probably many other reasons for the meltdown but the bottom line is that the opportunity for a chanted English Mass was entirely bypassed. In the intervening years, not much has happened toward making good on the early promise here. However, in the last two years or so, many versions of music for Mass have gone online that use English and chant, all for free download. Last count, I believe that there were seven complete sets of these available. They are all remarkable resources and should be used by every parish starting this week.

They all have musical and theological integrity and adopt the right style for liturgy. They all use music that is pointing upwards and conform to the definition of sacred music as outlined by St. Pius X. For us today, that serve as an essential means for leaving the current and mostly corrupted model and going forward with something closer to the Roman Rite of the ages. What I like most is that they all point to the ideal, which is found ultimately in the Graduale Romanum.

Thus has the time capsule been opened to reveal treasures that have always been there but we knew very little about. It is morally incumbent on our generation to make use of them, so that justice is done in liturgy and life. There are many things about the liturgical past that are regrettable but repeating these errors without end need not be our future.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: