Monday, August 19, 2013

"Don't Let the Best Be the Enemy of the Good"

How often have we heard this saying? When it conveys the value of patience in implementing change and the value of incrementalism as a prudent method, it expresses ageless wisdom. When used to justify stasis or stagnation, as it too often is, one might wonder if it functions rather as an excuse.

A case in point would be the reaction of many to those who advocate a serious return to the plainchant tradition, whether in its original Gregorian form or in vernacular adaptations that mirror the modes and rhythms of their model. “Are you serious?,” they say. “You don’t know what it’s like on the ground; your head must be in the clouds. The Catholic faithful have no idea what chant is, they’ve never heard it, they can’t sing it, and the music ministers don’t know how to navigate it, either. And besides, it’s hopelessly out of date. Sure, you can point to popes who recommend it, but that was then, and this is now. We have a new style of music that suits the contemporary Church, and who are you to say that it’s bad or harmful? Maybe, just maybe, chant’s artistically superior, but you’re in danger of judging by art, not by pastoral needs. And besides—don’t let the best be the enemy of the good.”

You see, all of this is an elaborate dodge or feint. It skirts around the real questions by taking refuge in that infinitely malleable concept “pastoral.” The real questions are, however, as follows:

(1) Is there a type of music that the Church teaches should have pride of place in the Roman Rite? Yes, of course, and we know that Vatican II and subsequent popes have said it quite clearly—not at all limiting themselves to liturgies in Latin (as some minimalists have attempted to argue on the basis of isolated texts that do not match the general pattern of magisterial documents). Here is not the place to argue why chant is the optimal sacred music for the liturgy; one can read about that in many places (such as, for starters, here, here, here, and here). The point is that chant is put forward as a baseline to start from and an ideal to work towards. One can see this from the very layout of the current English Roman Missal and the revised General Instruction, not to mention a host of other documents.

(2) Given that this is so, is there a Roman Rite liturgy on the face of the earth where it would not be most fitting to use chant? Leaving to one side the necessity or desirability of a quiet “low Mass,” where there is no intention of having any music at all, the answer is a resounding No: there could not be such a sung liturgy in principle, although due to poor formation there are too many such liturgies in practice.

Young men singing the antiphons at Tenebrae
(3) Can everyone learn to sing chant, or is it very difficult to do? This is, in many ways, the strangest question of all, and deserves a fuller response. Over the span of a thousand years, thousands of chants were passed down by oral tradition, long before musical notation was invented. That shows the “sticking” power of this marvelously melodious, infectiously singable, and truly popular music. As a music teacher, I have taught highschool students with no prior musical background to read, sing, and enjoy chant in the course of a few days. Its simpler pieces are vastly easier to sing than most Western art music or the contemporary schlock employed at many a Mass today. As a College professor, I have seen students graduate familiar with dozens of chants, not because they made a study of them, but because they regularly attended Mass in our chapel, where we sing a lot. And as a parent, I have heard my children, well before they could read or write, singing with gusto the Kyrie of Mass XI, the Gloria of Mass VIII, Credo III, the seasonal Marian antiphons (Salve Regina, Alma redemptoris mater, Ave regina caelorum, Regina caeli), Ave verum corpus, and still other chants, which they learned by hearing them sung at Mass or at Compline.

Okay, you might say, but you are a musician yourself! It may come as a surprise that I was not born equipped with musical knowledge, but had to acquire it, often by difficult and circuitous routes. In high school, I stumbled on an old copy of a Graduale Romanum in the library (it was a school run by Benedictine monks who, alas, no longer sang the chant) and found it interesting and wanted to be able to read it. No one could explain it to me, and the internet was hardly functional at that time. My solution was to go to the local record store and buy a CD of monks singing chant, then locate the chants in the book using the index, and then listen over and over until I could see how what they were singing matched the squiggles on the pages. It was a rough and ready approach, but it got me going, and helped me fall in love with these achingly beautiful melodies.

Our situation today is vastly better than mine was in the mid-1980’s. There are now simple chant tutorials you can download for free, crash courses offered around the country for those who like a more personal approach, and now live online classes. There are workshops for clergy and for music ministers. There are bestselling CDs of chant all over the market. It has never been easier for everyone involved, from top to bottom, to get effective and inexpensive training. And did I mention that the music itself is either available for free or, in the case of vernacular chant, not especially pricey? We are living now in a veritable chant renaissance—a moment when it is possible, perhaps for the first time ever, to implement the teaching of Vatican II across the entire globe, from the rising of the sun even to its setting: “The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as characteristically belonging to the Roman liturgy, with the result that, therefore, other things being equal, in liturgical actions it takes possession of the first place” (a more literal rendering of Sacrosanctum Concilium 116).

The whole Church together should sing with one voice!
If in our liturgies chant really does “take possession of the first place,” we are being faithful to the clarion call of Popes Pius X, Pius XI, Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI. That’s what it means to live out the “hermeneutic of reform in continuity.

Recently, a former teacher of mine, an admirable philosopher and musician, contacted me to ask if I was advocating that Latin chant replace all other music being used today in the church. He was concerned that I might be endorsing too extreme a position. I replied that it was certainly not my position that Latin chant should replace everything else; that I love polyphony, English chant, classic English hymnody, and noble instrumental music; and that all of these can and should have their places in the worship of the Church today, in both forms of the Roman Rite. Indeed, I even think that a certain limited pluralism is a good thing: some parishes or chapels ought to become known for the quality of their chant, others for their blend of chant and polyphony, others for their addition of hymnody to chant—and still others for their quiet and contemplative Masses. There is abundant room for ancient and modern sacred music that has the requisite qualities of holiness, artistic quality, and universality; there is room for extensive silence, too, always provided that chant, which is part of the very fabric of the Roman Rite, is not marginalized or omitted altogether. (Here I have in mind the Ordinary of the Mass, the orations, dialogues, and preface, and the responses and acclamations of the people.)

The point I would emphasize is that—if I could turn the initial saying on its head—we must not let the good be the enemy of the best. The chanted Roman liturgy is our birthright as Roman Catholics; it is a privilege to be able to sing this great music; and it is an injustice and a travesty when the chant is not generously shared with choirs and congregations. The music that grew up intertwined with the texts and ceremonies of the Roman Rite, the music in which this Rite is enshrined and through which it is most profoundly expressed, is the music that Holy Mother Church reasonably expects to be the clothing of our public worship, whatever ornamentation or decoration we may borrow from other traditions or other periods.
The traditional music of the liturgy
is part of its divinely originated essence 
It simply does not help to run away from this fact of our identity, our tradition, our inheritance, and our vocation. Like all other historic rites in the Catholic Church, the Roman Rite is a well-articulated set of prayers, chants, ceremonies, and implements, structured as a sequence of chanted texts accompanied by symbolic gestures. The sacred liturgy is an organic whole, a body-soul composite, that Our Lord Jesus Christ established in its germinal form and that the Holy Spirit has brought to maturity over the course of centuries in diverse ritual traditions. Thus, as Pope Benedict frequently reminded us, the liturgy belongs to the Church precisely as a gift inherited, not as a construct to be manipulated, a container for whatever “relevant content” we may want to inject. So, too, with the music of the liturgy, which, as Vatican II reminded us, is intimately connected with the liturgical action: this music must in itself clearly and consistently bear that history, that tradition, that gift, and impress it upon the souls of the faithful so that all of us may be shaped and formed by its beauty.

So, to return to our point of departure: Advocates of the widespread restoration of Gregorian chant—or, for that matter, of any traditional element or aspect of liturgy—are not suggesting that only the best is good enough and that everything lesser must be abandoned. Rather, they are striving to implement the teaching of Holy Mother Church by correcting the bad, enriching the good, and crowning it all with the best, in accord with the given nature of the liturgical rite. And why? Because this is what Catholics do, and this is who Catholics are.

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