Tuesday, April 27, 2010

What's So Great About a Procession?

One of the difficulties Catholic musicians face today is transitioning from hymns for the processional to real proper texts and music for the processional. People are asked to sing the hymns (whether people do sing them is another matter) and that means staring at a book (or a screen). Propers sung by the schola permit people to watch the procession. The question comes up: what is so great about a procession that should cause people to want to watch it? William Mahrt answers as follows:

I am thinking of the procession at a solemn Mass, in which there are cross-bearer, thurifer, acolytes, lectors, (sub-deacon in EF), deacon, master of ceremonies, assistant priest, celebrant, and if he is bishop, extra deacons, masters of ceremonies, mitre bearers, etc., each vested in garments which are beautiful in themselves, but also which represent the hierarchical nature of the liturgy to be celebrated, and thus the church which celebrates it.

But what is moving about a procession is its motion—ideally it moves from the sacristy down the side-aisle and then up the center aisle, symbolically moving through the congregation, as if coming from it, and moving to the focal point of the Mass which is the altar, marking the altar as a holy place by incensing it, going to the chair for the completion of the entrance rite by singing in dialogue with the congregation the penitential rite, and together with the congregation, the Kyrie and the Gloria, and concluding the entrance rite with a collect. I think that it is the purposeful order in motion which is moving about such a procession.

I came to this conclusion, not in the church where my choir sings, where I have to direct the introit and mainly never see the procession, but when visiting England and attending solemn liturgies there (especially in Church of England cathedrals, where the ceremonies are done beautifully). The congregation is asked to sing a hymn, sometimes even a text from one hymnal sung to the tune from another hymnal. I would dutifully get out both hymnals, keeping the program of the liturgy up to be sure to get the page right, balancing all of this together, and looking back and forth between hymnals to match the text to the tune, confidently singing the hymn, only to realize that I had completely missed seeing the procession. Next time, I left the hymnal in the rack and watched the procession, which was much better. I concede that many of the congregation knew the hymns well enough that they were not as distracted as I (in fact, the reason fro singing from two different hymnals is sometimes that they use the same tune for several different texts, and that tune becomes quite familiar).

I do not I propose that it is an issue of any great urgency. Rather, it is a matter of a proper balance in the liturgy—Mass propers generally accompany another action; the congregation's proper participation is either to move in a procession or to witness others doing the same. It need not be their function to provide the music which accompanies the liturgical action. Shouldn't they see and appreciate the sacredness of the altar which is enacted by the incensation, rather than singing the music for it? The congregation's proper role in singing comes when the singing is the liturgical action itself, such as at the Kyrie and Gloria, as well as the penitential rite. This balance between choir and congregation, proper and ordinary in a Mass sung in Gregorian chant suggests that more effort should be placed in the cultivation of the congregation's singing of the ordinary as their best function.

This is not to say that hymns should not ever be used; a parish with several Masses in a day will certainly need to use hymns at some of the Mass. But I think that at the highest form of the Mass, the proper chants (which the hymns so often replace) should take a priority.

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