Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Integration of Liturgy and Music

I'm pleased to be returning as an active writer at the New Liturgical Movement site after more than a year of focus on our efforts at the ChantCafe.com. I hope to cultivate both going forward. NLM has a broad liturgical focus whereas the ChantCafe has a very specific interest in music as it applies to liturgy. Both sites have made huge contributions to our times of dramatic transition in the Catholic Church.

The more I understand about this entire topic, the more it seems that music and liturgy they are really inseparable; the mark of a truly mature musician in the Catholic Church is the understanding that it isn't really about the music after all but rather the integral contribution that music makes to the overall ritual.

The day after Shawn and I had visited about this topic and renewing the musical focus in this venue, the shocking news came that László Dobszay had died. I was stunned by this, and I'm sure many others feel the same way. He was a visionary, a genius, a truly innovative and brilliant thinker who understood the Roman Rite like few other living people. He was a mentor to me through his writings and his drive. He was also a very dear man.

The presence of a mind like this in the world makes a person like me absolutely afraid to write anything at all, simply because he possessed universal knowledge of a topic that I can only hope to understand in fragments. But rather than look down on what I wrote or tell me that I should stop until I had mastered what I need to know, he was always incredibly encouraging, enthusiastic, gentle, helpful, and happy to see that so many people in his last years had taken up his cause.

He must have felt like a lone warrior for all those prior decades. A champion of Dobszay's work has been Fr. Robert Skeris, who worked to bring Dobszay's writing to an English audience. When I first read the Skeris-edited book The Bugnini Liturgy and the Reform of the Reform, I was absolutely stunned. It seemed to bring everything together for me. Here was a severe critic of the structure and rubrics of what is known as the ordinary form today who was by no means an uncritical champion of the older form of Mass. Neither politics nor nostalgia interested him.

He was passionate about the truth above all else. And the two truths that this book drove home were 1) the Roman Rite is intended to be a sung liturgy, and 2) the propers of the Mass are the source text for what is to be sung by the choir. A reform that he championed was once considered outrageous: he wanted the permission to replace Mass propers with some other text to be completely repealed. I've come around to this view. So have many, many others. In fact, it is a rather common view now, and one that even finds support in the new translation of the General Instruction on the Roman Missal.

Of course he was a master in understanding the Gregorian tradition, and a true champion of the universal language of the Roman ritual. However, he was also nearly alone, for many years, in being an advocate of sung vernacular propers in the ordinary form. For years, I couldn't understand his thinking here. Why vernacular? Well, Dobszay saw that there was a step missing in the achievement of the ideal if we expect to take a leap from the prevailing practice of pop songs with random text to Latin chant from the Graduale Romanum. That step was to sing the Mass texts in the vernacular according to a chant-based idiom drawn from our long musical tradition.

He turns out to be incredibly correct on this point. In fact, he was the true inspiration behind the Simple English Propers book that has permitted regular parishes to start singing chant for the first time. This book and so many others are part of his legacy that he left in this world. In fact, I would even suggest that the new translation of the Roman Missal that is implemented this Advent owes much to his influence.

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