Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Musical Hope of the New Missal

There has been so much controversy about the new translation of the Roman Missal in English, but very little discussion of the music embedded as part of this Missal. If we are going to evaluate the possible effects of this Missal on the look, sound, and feel of Catholicism in America, I might suggest that the musical change could be even more significant, and more hopeful and wonderful, than the textual change, as important as it may be.

For the first time since the 1969, all priests in the English-speaking world will have in front of them a Missal with chants of the Mass clearly given as part of the liturgical structure, presented not as an add-on but rather as an integral part of the liturgy. The music is of good quality, an excellent attempt to capture with spirit of the Gregorian tradition in language that is not native to that this chant. I find it very persuasive.

The notation is not Gregorian and not perhaps what Catholic music scholars would have preferred (it uses a 5-line staff), but it is not ridden with typos and was clearly set by actual musicians. Perhaps this doesn't sound like much to those who have not looked carefully at the current Sacramentary, which will join the post-Trent Roman Graduals as an archetype of botched music reform. The fact is that the current books are perhaps not entirely unusable but they seem to punish any attempt to sing the Mass.

The ambition of the Second Vatican Council is that singing at Mass would be about the texts of the Mass, with Gregorian chant holding first place. A vast chasm separates that wonderful ambition from the reality that emerged at the end of the 1960s, with a celebrant book that offered little in the way of holy, beautiful, universal, chant-inspired music. In some ways, the book made possible precisely what happened, the onslaught of the musical montage drawn from every pop source, in both text and music.

And so what do we find in the typical modern parish? Not chant in English or Latin. It is mostly leftovers drawn from forty years of haphazard playing by come-and-go bands. The band that stuck around the longest has the most influence, because their sheet music is strewn around the folders, and it is their music that the people believe that they know and so it gets requested in the casual and conversational polling that takes place during coffee and donuts after Mass. It is repeated and repeated again, with mix and match ordinaries and dialogues.

Every parish has what might be called its default music. I'm not talking about the hymns that forever gather us in to the table of plenty to become one bread and body. I'm talking about the Mass settings used during holy days of obligation or the evening Masses where the instrumentalists come and go. The gears that make up this default setting are found in the inauspicious spots of the Mass like the acclamations after the consecration, the preface dialogues, the post-communion chants. Instead of coming together to make an integrated whole, they come across like tiny commercial spots on AM radio.

And of course there is the ever-problematic Sanctus, introduced by the celebrant's verbalized observation that this song is sung by angels: words that certainly prove the triumph of hope over experience. Here, for example, at some special daily Mass, when there is no cantor present, the celebrant decides to sing something. What is it going to be? Quite often it is an unaccompanied piece from the Mass of Creation (which sounds better than the accompanied one). But then what happens to the Amen? In the music, the word is sung six times. Unaccompanied, it sounds rather silly. But this doesn't match the other parts of the Mass like Agnus or dismissals. These come from anywhere and everywhere. The result is this peculiar hodgepodge of mix-and-match material that feels strange, unintegrated, hit-and-miss, faked, babelish, all adding up to the ghastly embarrassment that Catholic music has become.

This problem is even greater than the problem of bad hymns, American-Idol soloing, and bongo beats during the communion procession. Those problems can always be chalked up to the locals and their musical incompetence and liturgical ignorance. But for the English-speaking Catholic community to lack a standardized, dignified, chant-based collection of basic dialogues and ordinary chants they share in common is nothing short of scandalous.

Many publishers have tried for years to institute such a thing but without success. The problem of the Missal has always stood in the way. Here is the root of the issue: the music in the priest's book is just substandard. The new Missal will change this. The music must change because the text will change. So far as I know, the USCCB has authorized a massive educational campaign to push this music as the standard. ICEL is producing educational videos and DVDs and manuals. All of this effort would be silly if it were just about the texts alone. But if they intend to teach the music, it will be fantastic.

Some things to look forward to include two settings of the Gloria from the Gregorian repertoire. The Our Father chant is closer to the Latin setting, with musical lines reflecting the textual content. The Credo here is my favorite. It is very singable and beautiful. It can be sung by congregations. It should be. It is an absurdity that this chant is virtually never sung in English. I do believe that the GIRM says that it should be. Now, at least, there is a chance: we finally have a good edition of music to use.

I'm also thrilled that ICEL has agreed to distribute all of this music free online. Perhaps choirs will begin to clean out their folders and file cabinets, getting rid of the all the tacky, substandard material that passes for Catholic singing today. Priests all over the country need to absolutely insist on this. All the chants of the Missal should be practiced to the point of perfect memorization before Advent 2011, when the Missal will likely become normative.

If all goes well, this new Roman Missal in English could mean the end of our decades-old nightmare of musical chaos and embarrassment. Just as crucially, it could be the beginning of a foundation that points us to the ideals that Church has given us. The music printed in this Missal is of course not an end point in itself but it at least provides a bridge to the truly beautiful and eventually to the perfect liturgical song.

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