Thursday, September 01, 2011

Common Confusions in the Debate about Mass Propers

In the struggle for the heart of music for the ordinary form of Mass, the issue of Mass propers is suddenly gaining new attention, as this story in the Catholic Review illustrates. Typically the issue is framed up as chant vs. hymns, proper texts vs. other texts, and these choices are evaluated according to whether and to what extent propers or hymns appeal to community sensibilities and the longing of the people for inspirational music. I find myself regretting this aspect of the terms of debate because it adheres too closely to what is known about the current paradigm. The real issue is whether the core music of the Roman Rite (Gregorian chant) and the sung texts of the Roman Rite (Mass ordinary, Mass dialogues, and Mass propers) are going to be used or whether we are going to displace those elements with something of our own creation - which is to say that the issue is whether we will sing the Mass or sing something else. So far I find the following typical errors emerging in the writing on this topic:
  • Writers are leaving out concern for the offertory chant, unaware that there is an offertory chant and offertory proper text, and this is probably because it doesn't appear in the Missal. It does not appear in the Missal because it is not a text that concerns the priest; it is a text for the schola so of course it appears in the Graduale Romanum. In fact, the appearance of the offertory in the General Instruction is just as prominent as the mention of the entrance and communion chant.
  • Critics of Mass propers are variously complaining that the texts do not always match the "theme" of the day as it emerges in the readings. I can't be sure but I suspect that some people are confusing Missal propers (which were composed for spoken Masses, though they can be sung) and Gradual propers, which are the source for the sung propers of the Mass. Gradual propers were arranged for the three-year cycle at the time of the promulgation of the ordinary form of Mass. 
  • The primary responsibility for singing the propers of the Mass belongs to the schola as a matter of tradition and ritual structure. They are not primarily intended as people's song in the way of the dialogues or ordinary chants, and certainly not as hymns are used today. They can of course be sung by the people, and there is nothing wrong with that but the point of the propers is to add the sung prayer of the Mass to accompany the liturgical action. 
  • To neglect Mass propers is to ignore the entire basis of Christian music as we know it; it is simply not possible to grant "first place" to chant at Mass and neglect the propers. Further, it is not possible to have a fully sung Mass while neglecting the propers. It is not possible for the choir fully to realize its liturgical role while nelgecting the propers. They are absolutely essential and the very reason that we have liturgical days known as Gaudete and Laetare; the proper is the reason we have such a thing as the Requiem Mass. If we leave out the propers, we are leaving out an essential part of the Mass.
  • It is the most perfect realization of the ideal to sing the Mass propers according to the melodies of the Roman Gradual, but this is not the only way they can be sung. Polyphonic composers have been setting the propers for one thousand years, and even today, there are new books appearing that make singing the propers from other musical sources ever more possible, in both chanted and choral forms.
  • This is not an ordinary form issue alone. The tendency to sing hymns rather than propers was a preconcilar practice that emerged from a primary Low Mass experience, but note this important different in the older form: the propers were not actually dropped from the Mass. Instead, they were spoken by the priest. Only with the promulgation of the ordinary form of Mass did the practice emerge of leaving them out all together. The legal permission to do so is very narrow and grows ever narrower with each successive re-translation of the General Instruction. Even then, even this permission is regretable insofar as it betrays the hope of the older liturgical movement for a fully sung Mass to become the common experience. 
  • Singing propers does not mean the end of hymnody as we know it. There are still plenty of occasions where hymns can and will be sung in the Mass (the recessional is an obvious case in point).

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