Saturday, September 17, 2011

Fr. Guy Nicholls on Chant and Mass Propers

This is the September 17th 2011, inaugural address by Fr. Guy Nicholls for the Blessed John Henry Newman Institute of Liturgical Music, which is certainly one of the more important musical and liturgical initiatives in the UK to appear in many years. His address is extremely valuable, and demonstrates a growing consensus on these issues in all English-speaking countries.

Your Grace, my brother Oratorians, and all brothers and sisters in Christ, welcome to this inaugural event of the Blessed John Henry Newman Institute for Liturgical Music.

The Founder of our Oratory, Blessed Cardinal Newman, is better known in the modern world as an educationalist, writer, theologian and philosopher than as a musician and liturgist. Yet to ignore these latter aspects of his life would seriously distort our understanding of his personality and of his vocation. It is true that Newman did not write a great deal about music and liturgy, but he practised them both a great deal. He played the violin from an early age and to a high standard of proficiency, and we know that he was happiest at Littlemore when he was teaching plainsong to his schoolchildren with the aid of his violin. When he came to Birmingham, he set up and even at times conducted, the Choir at High Mass – for whom his rules are still extant; and the story is still told how in his advanced old age as a Cardinal, it was his custom to sit by the door into Church, at the back of what is now his shrine, in order to hear and enjoy the singing of the choir at High Mass. As a priest, the central act of his vocation was the offering of the Sacrifice of the Mass and the fostering of a more dignified worship of Almighty God. Just like his pastoral concerns as a priest, much of what Blessed John Henry did from day to day is now only known to God and to those who benefited from his ministry. That we do not know much about them is not because they were unimportant, but because they were not the matter of his vast body of writing which he has bequeathed to us.

Let us go on then, simply acknowledging that this great Oratorian priest knew and made use of the power of the Church's liturgy to sanctify souls and prepare them for heaven. This is exactly what we also aim to do in our own time and place.

Why, then, should it be desirable to set up an Institute for Liturgical Music now? In the first place, we want to help as many people as possible, priests and laity, musicians and congregations, to come to know and use freely, the resources of what the Second Vatican Council Fathers called “the Treasury of Sacred Music” , and described as “a treasure of inestimable price”. This needs explaining. In what does such a treasury consist? It is not simply the sum total of everything musical ever composed for, or used in, the Liturgy. The Council makes explicit that it is talking here principally about two kinds of music: first, as “proper to the Roman liturgy”, Gregorian Chant, which should therefore have first place in liturgical actions; then secondly other types of sacred music, but especially polyphony. These are, of course, sung forms of music. Instrumental music is not dealt with directly under this heading, though it is important to note in passing that the Council fathers single out for special mention the Organ, whose sound can “add a wonderful splendour” to the Church's ceremonies and “powerfully raise minds towards God and heavenly things”.

Keeping for the moment to the matter of sung sacred music, we note that the Council recognises that the entire liturgical assembly has its proper roles, its proper repertoires. There is music for the celebrant, the ministers, the choir, the cantor and the congregation. None of these excludes the others. The crucial bond that unites then all is that they should all foster “participatio actuosa”, a well known phrase, but notoriously difficult to render well in English. It has been generally translated as “active participation”, and as such has been taken to mean that the entire congregation should be actively doing something if it is to be actively participating. But deeper reflection on this phrase and on its context within the liturgical aims of the Council Fathers suggests another meaning altogether: “actuosa” should mean “actual”, a real engagement of the whole person. Sometimes, indeed often, this will involve some form of activity, such as singing or speaking or a particular posture or gesture. But it need not require all of those at all times. Anyone can be said to be “actually participating” in the liturgy who is quite simply engaged by it. That person may be doing nothing – yet participating at a deep level through being caught up in the entire experience of what is going on, and of which he is not a mere spectator, but a member of a body involved in an action which both unites and transcends all the individual persons present. So, for instance, “participatio actuosa” can equally be ascribed to a sense of awe at what one is immersed in: the beauty of architecture, art and vesture, of the dignity of the movements of the sacred ministers, of the sight and scent of the incense “rising like prayer to God” , of the singing by those who have the necessary skill and training of elaborate and moving settings of the sacred texts, just as much as it can be ascribed to congregational singing. In fact, allowing always for the importance of congregational singing, it is still possible to say that the presence of those other expressions of beauty may enhance the congregation's participation yet more than their own singing alone could do.

That brings us to another most important consideration: since liturgical music is pre-eminently sung music, what is it that should be sung? We have grown used to the style of celebration in which singing is something done during the liturgy, it matters less so what and by whom it is sung. In this country, generally speaking, the Mass is treated as a series of words and actions that are, at least by default, intrinsically spoken. If music is required, it is often inserted into the gaps left between words and actions, such as long pauses caused by processions and the distribution of Communion. It may be that the texts of what is sung are drawn from appropriate scriptural or liturgical sources, but that is often not the case, nor is it considered to be a fundamental criterion in choosing such music. When seen against the backdrop of a predominantly spoken liturgy, music is a “filler”. Nothing could be more distorting of the true nature of liturgical music. Music is not something to be added on to a liturgy that could actually do just as well without it, it is of the essence of the liturgy itself. Yet one can still ask: why should this be? Why should we consider music to be essential to the liturgy?

The truth of this claim for music to be intrinsic to the liturgy rather than an extra added on, however desirable, lies in the nature of music as an expression of the human spirit. If you want to understand what I mean, try saying the words of two familiar, yet contrasting texts: “Happy birthday to you” and “God save our gracious Queen”; how ludicrous and indeed highly unnatural it would be to recite these texts! The melodies which we associate with them are not simply “add-ons”, nor do they merely “belong” to the words, they both carry the words and enhance their expressive power. They help us both to assimilate and to communicate something contained in the words, yet at a far deeper level than the words alone can do. How much more important, then, are the words of the Liturgy! In the texts of the Mass, in the psalms of the Mass and the Divine Office, we are employing words which place us in contact with divine realities that transcend the limits of human language.

Singing the words of the liturgy enhances their power to thrill us, to move us, to mould us into a living unity in the Body of Christ. The sacred texts of the Mass are an expression of a reality that is far deeper than we can know, but we can touch it, we can express it, we can enhance our receptivity to it by the power of the music that belongs intrinsically to it.

It is a wonderful providence that the setting up of this new Institute of Liturgical Music should take place at the same time as the introduction of the new English translation of the Roman Missal. Many comments have been made concerning the character of the translation, and it is still unfamiliar to most of us. But what we need to note here are two central facts which are being presented to us by this new translation.

First, there is a new kind of expressiveness about the texts. They are richer in vocabulary, and more elaborate in sentence structure than were the old ICEL texts, as I shall call them. This obviously poses an initial challenge since these characteristics are in marked and deliberate contrast to those of the old ICEL texts. Yet I am confident that we will find that these qualities lend the new texts a greater power to convey a sense of the awesome difference between what we hear and say at Mass, and what we hear and say in everyday life and conversations. They come across as more lapidary, almost like inscriptions incised on stone, rather than as words simply used on the spur of the moment. This means that the liturgy will no longer sound, as it often has done, colloquial, even chatty. It is raised to what is technically called a higher “register”, a level of discourse that reflects and draws us into a higher state of communication. The liturgy, after all, transcends the limits of time and space and unites us with the angels and saints around God's throne. The language that we use in it must therefore reflect that awesome context in which we place ourselves in the celebration of the Liturgy.

The second fact central to understanding the intended effect of the new translation on our worship, is the direct encouragement given to us to sing these texts. As Mgr. Wadsworth, the Executive Director of ICEL has pointed out, the new Missal is the most musically well-endowed in history. The texts of the Mass: greetings, prayers, acclamations, readings, meditations on the sacred word, all these are intended to be sung. This intention is made clear in the fact that all these musical settings are placed, not in an appendix at the back of the book, as frequently heretofore, but in the body of the book, exactly where it is used day by day.

This may well frighten some people. Music, they may say, is for the experts, for the choir or the music group, but not for the priest, deacon, lector, or even the entire congregation. Some may object that it is simply too difficult or too unfamiliar, but if you look closely at the Missal without prejudice, it is possible to see that the music written there is not designed to be sung by experts, but by anybody. It is designed to be an ordinary and familiar expression of the faith of the Church in action. It may seem unfamiliar at first, because we have long since grown to be unfamiliar with the idea of singing the Mass, as opposed to singing during the Mass. What the Church invites us to do in receiving the new translation is to learn to recognise it as something “beyond the prosaic” . Music, even very simple chants, help to achieve that end.

Which brings us to consider the chants themselves. This morning we are going to experience the new translation of the Mass in its musical form. We are, of course, familiar with what I may call the “flow” of the Mass, its regular exchanges between ministers and people, its alternating texts which are listened to with texts that constitute a reply, its statements of faith or expressions of sorrow, worship, adoration, praise and thanksgiving. Now we are being invited to take that familiar “flow” and make it deeper, more profound and, perhaps, more poetical. Familiarity with what may come across as banal and prosaic can only fail to feed the hungry soul. Familiarity with what is beautiful and rich in expression can stand the test of repetition and continue to disclose ever new depths of meaning. The chants of the Missal, which we are about to hear in their proper context and flow from beginning to end, may seem at first rather remote. Some of them are couched in a musical style that will be unfamiliar. They are not rhythmic. There is no sense that the texts are being forced to take on the shape of an independently existing melody. The melody flows out from the words themselves and takes on the patterns of speech. Most of us are not used to this kind of singing. Yet it is the bedrock of all liturgical singing over the ages. We call it plainchant to describe its relatively unassuming character. Yet it undoubtedly has the power to enhance the word.

So much for the words of the Mass which remain relatively unchanged from day to day. Yet there are others words which also belong to the Mass, and with which we may be less familiar. These other words, or texts, do change from day to day, to express the character of the particular feast or season. They are familiar as, for example, the short sentences which are usually read out at the beginning of Mass and at Communion time: the Entrance and Communion Antiphons. These texts are just as much a proper part of the Mass as the unchanging ones. Yet they are often omitted at a Mass which is sung, because they are not considered important. Instead, they are usually replaced by hymns or songs. It is a great loss to the effectiveness of the liturgy on us as participants that these texts are lost so often because they have usually been associated with the day or the season for as long as that feast or season has been celebrated. The chants for these texts belong to the liturgical book known as the Graduale. It is in itself a treasury of wonderful ancient chants, Gregorian Chants as they are usually known, generally sung by a choir rather than by a congregation. This morning we will use settings of these words to Gregorian chants which are simple enough for the congregation to repeat after the choir who will lead us. I hope you will see what a positive difference they make to setting the scene for the Mass which opens with one of them.

I will begin to try and draw a few threads together before concluding. In what direction does all that I have been saying point us? The work that the Blessed John Henry Institute is designed to undertake is the enhancement of Parish Liturgy. The sung liturgy is not intended to be the province of the professional choir alone, much though the Council Fathers emphasised that professional choirs should be carefully fostered wherever possible. But such things are not possible everywhere. Yet good liturgical music which aims to achieve all these ends which we have considered is both desirable and possible in any parish. Great musical skill and expertise is not necessarily required. What is needed is the desire to raise the mind and heart to God by celebrating the Liturgy itself in the most dignified and elevated way possible with the resources available. The words of psalm 46 serve as a guide: “Sing wisely”, or “with understanding.” In his book “A New Song for the Lord”, Pope Benedict interprets these words as “Sing artistically for God”. Such artistry, according to the Pope, is not meant to be understood as mere skill, but as what is done with the aim of bringing those who share in it closer to God. Pope Benedict's understanding of the power of beauty in Christian art and music is rooted in the disclosure of God's beauty through our humble and conscious attempt to co-operate with the Creator in our own acts of making and doing.

The Institute will therefore offer assistance to priests, ministers, lectors, cantors, choirs and members of the congregation, guidance on the best way to approach liturgical music. It will aim to do so, therefore, not only by giving practical training and advice, but also, I may even say especially, by giving a thorough catechesis on the theological nature of liturgical music. Music has the power to enhance the liturgy when those who are responsible for it have a deeper understanding of its proper place in the whole. Music must be the servant of the liturgy and of the whole Church gathered together in God's presence. We hope to help bring about a deeper understanding of what good liturgical music is, and how to perform it. We hope to offer guidance to all those who are interested in knowing more about the history and forms of liturgical music in the Catholic Roman liturgy.

The Institute cannot function in isolation from the wider Church. There are many initiatives throughout the Church both here in the British Isles, and further afield especially in North America, whose aims are similar to our own, and whose work may well come to be closely allied to ours. There are two specific influences on me to which I wish to draw your attention. First, it would not be right for me to omit to mention my great debt to Dr Mary Berry, foundress of the Schola Gregoriana of Cambridge, of which I was privileged to be a founder member in my undergraduate days, and of which I am now a chaplain. She strove tirelessly, though often thanklessly, for a revival and understanding of Gregorian Chant within the Church's liturgy. There are many projects now taking shape which owe a great deal to her vision, energy and her prayerful love of the Church. I also want to mention with appreciation the patient work of the Association for Latin Liturgy (ALL) with which I have had the pleasure of being closely associated for over thirty years. That Association has not only remained consistently faithful to the Church's call for the use of the Latin language in all approved forms of the Roman Liturgy , but has applied energies out of proportion to its relatively small resources to provide practical help for the implementation of that vision in parishes since its foundation. I am glad that the ALL fully supports the aims of this Institute and look forward to continuing to work with it in fostering the use of Latin in the Liturgy.

Your Grace, You do us a great honour by your presence here today. It is a providential sign to us that this new work of the Birmingham Oratory, under the protection of Blessed John Henry Newman, is fully undertaken within the unity of the local Church. That unity is expressed both by your presence here today, by your celebrating the Sacred Liturgy for us, according to the new translation of the Roman Missal and using the chant settings which have been provided for use within the liturgy. On behalf of the Fathers of the Oratory, I also thank Your Grace for kindly agreeing to be one of the Patrons of this Institute, and allowing us to work in close co-operation with the Maryvale Institute of Higher Religious Studies.

I also wish to place on record my thanks to those who have played a special part in making this Institute and its launch a possibility. First, to Fr Richard Duffield, our Provost, whose idea it was some time ago to set up an Institute for Liturgical Music here at the Oratory. I also wish to thank Mr James MacMillan, the noted Catholic Composer, who not only kindly consented to be co-patron with His Grace the Archbishop, but who has also been of great assistance in making introductions and creating links between various Catholic church musicians and proposing various plans for future development of our work. It is unfortunate that he has to be absent today, but I am happy to record that he is directing the music at the priestly ordination in Oxford of a friend of our Institute, Laurence Lew O.P., which is taking place today. Then I offer thanks and acknowledgement to those who have been most generous in their practical assistance, especially to Carol Parkinson and Graeme McNichol who have provided invaluable Administrative assistance, ably and generously helped by Philippe Lefebvre who designed the literature and the website, and to Angela Dunn, who has contributed as always most unselfishly by producing the booklets which we will be using at Mass and Vespers today. There are others, too, who deserve thanks, but I hope they will forgive me if I make my thanks to them now in a general way.

All that remains is for me to say that I hope you will enjoy the rest of this day and I will now ask His Grace to give us a blessing to inaugurate our new work.

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