Friday, April 16, 2010

One Hundred Years of People's Catholic Music

Last week I posted an article ("In Defense of Non-Singing Congregations"), really a series of passing observations, that concerned Catholic praxis on congregation singing. I argued that Catholic singing is not the same as one might find in traditional hymn-singing environments such as Baptists. Even the singingest Catholics vocalize at a fraction of the volume you hear at other congregations, and, when their voices do take flight, it is in specific instances of well-known and liturgically rooted music - not strophic and metered vernacular hymnody.

I further argued that there is nothing wrong with this. Catholic liturgy is not a community sing in as an end state; it is a ritual in which there is no imposed requirement that everyone in the pews sings loudly or even at all. Prayer is the aim, and singing is part of that but not an end in itself. If we trade in the priority of prayer for people-centered participation, we destabilize the ritual (as we've seen in many settings).

For this reason, the primary responsibility of singing at Mass belongs to the celebrant and the schola, not the people. Catholics know this. This is revealed in history and practice. What's more, the solemnity and contemplative quality of Catholic liturgy reinforce this history and practice, with results that are truly liturgical and not merely a religious expression of a community gathering.

Well, that little post surely did unleash fury in unexpected ways. Somehow my entire argument was reduced to the claim that people should stop singing and leave music it to the experts. This spin rather shocked me since I have explicitly embraced and obviously do embrace the dream of the liturgical movement for a chant-singing people. It is extremely important that people come to love real Catholic music again, and part of this means being encouraged to sing with the chants that belong to the people. They must be part of their lives.

Sometimes I wonder if people are simply unable to make distinctions when it comes to the people's musical participation at Mass: it's either nothing or yelling pop tunes. And so, following my posting, I was lectured on the meaning of participation with quotations by Pius X even. My good friend Fr. Antony Ruff wrote: "Sorry Jeffrey, I’m not with you on this one. I don’t think Pope Pius X or Pope Pius XII or the Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani are either. But I look forward to your next novel idea!"

Well, you know what? I've learned something substantive here. I've learned that somewhere between St. Pius X and Marty Haugen, the ideals for participation by the people have changed. When, it is not entirely clear. But there has been a shift. Having thought about this for not nearly not enough, let me try out an analogy based on the noble idea of participation in a dinner party.

Let's say that you, who have lately been something of a recluse, have an idea to hold a dinner party in your glorious estate, and you invite guests to dine with you, graciously, as in old times. The evening turns out beautifully and the company and companionship restores your sense of youth and your sense of hope. You pledge to continue this tradition.

More than a century later, long after you have passed on, your successors to the estate continue to hold parties but with a difference. The guests are trashing the place, drinking the booze wantonly, rolling skating on the dance floor, keeping livestock in the parlor, and shooting craps in the front entrance.

What has changed? The people in the second scene cite the precedent of the generosity of benefactor of days gone by, but when one looks at what has happened, one wonders. What is missing here is the comportment, the gratitude, the sense of decorum and obligation, the sense of mutual respect. The old understanding of what generosity means has been completely overthrown. Precisely when and in what respect is nearly lost to history.

If you are thinking about a movie analogy, think of that scene in Camelot when the one-time ideal of the Knights of the Round Table are replaced later in the movie with a bacchanalian feast taking place in the same room, with horses trampling on the table until it crashes to the ground. Only in the most narrow sense are these still the Knights of the Round Table. In fact, it is a world of difference - the same world of difference between the Kyriale and Gather Us In.

With that parable in mind, please consider the following thoughts on the role of the people in singing at Catholic liturgy, the first by Pope Pius X in 1903 and the other two, supposedly written in this spirit, from 1981.

"Special efforts are to be made to restore the use of the Gregorian Chant by the people, so that the faithful may again take a more active part in the ecclesiastical offices, as was the case in ancient times. ... Gregorian Chant restored in such a satisfactory way to its early purity, as it was handed down by the fathers and is found in the codices of the various churches, is sweet, soft, easy to learn and of a beauty so fresh and full of surprises that wherever it has been introduced it has never failed to excite real enthusiasm in the youthful singers." Pius X, Tra le Sollecitudini, 1906.

"The challenge at its best is for musical creativity and leadership to move the assembly into the core of ritual activity.... When people get more deeply into the mood and stance of intercessory prayer through a sung refrain, then the music becomes the vehicle for deep entry into ritual action.... It is in the best interests of the assembly, and the liturgical musician, to get where the action is, and to stay there as normative liturgical experience in song." Kenneth Smits (St. Francis Seminary, Milwaukee, Wis.), Pastoral Music, Vol. 6, No. 6, pp. 10-13.

"The musician should greet the people informally and informatively, go over any music that needs to be taught or reviewed, and sympathetically encourage the people to sing. I also feel strongly that at the conclusion of the musical preparation the musician should ask each person to greet those around him or her. It is difficult, if not impossible, to celebrate among strangers. Even if the people in the congregation know each other well, the greeting serves to reestablish bonds between people who have been through another week of different experiences." Elaine Render (Georgetown University) Pastoral Music, Vol. 6, No 6, p. 17.

If you read those carefully, you will find nothing in the first statement about greetings, creativity, getting to know each other, getting in the mood, getting where the action is, reestablishing people bonds, "sung refrains" of any old song you happen to dream up, or anything like that. Instead we hear about how people can take part in ecclesiastical offices, how singing can be "sweet, soft, easy," and, most importantly, how the music that people can sing is of a particular type: the music of the Mass. Not just any old song but liturgical song.

I'm stunned at the fury that greeted what I thought was a rather common-sense post, mainly because I had not entirely realized just how far the ideals of the "contemporary music" (substitute any designation you want) have drifted from those penned in the early liturgical movement. I would like for others to put some thought into this as well, mainly because I want to understand.

For too long, many people have claimed continuity where none exists. However: I would really like to know more. Where and why and how did the liturgical movement's ideals of a prayerfully chanting Catholic people become transmogrified into a browbeaten and weary people hounded and badgered by a vanguard clique of cantors who attempt to force people to holler out, louder louder, music whose style and text have no precedent in the whole history of the Roman Rite or of the Catholic religion? How did it happen that the beautiful vision of Pius X became nothing more than a rhetorical cover for a practice and impulse that has eaten away at the Catholic soul and wrecked the possibilities for prayer at Mass?

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