Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Bridging the Gap - Music for Entertainment That Speaks of the Liturgy

If we are to evangelize the culture, we need creative artists in all disciplines who connect with people today. This is the primary and achievable aim, in my opinion, of the study of the arts as an academic discipline. It is not so much to develop the consumer’s taste and create a market for the traditional approach, as it is to form the creators of new works that participate in the traditional principles in new ways. The goal of these newly-formed creators is then to connect with “the many” - to use the phrase of Benedict XVI in this context - through the power of beauty expressed in such a way that even the untutored may respond to it.

This is, as far as I am aware, the way it was always done. The number of people who formally study Christian culture in school or college is not great today, but it is still probably far greater in number than ever before. How many of those who converted to Christianity in the days of the early Church within the Roman empire had a liberal arts education, I wonder? I do not know, but I’ll bet it wasn’t many. Yet once it was given freedom to flourish, a Christian culture emerged from a pagan cultural foundation, just as it can emerge again from the neo-pagan cultural background that predominates in the West today.

If those who animate, design, direct, paint, sculpt, write and compose get it right, then their work will engage people today and stimulate their receptivity to God. Ultimately that most likely happen in connection with the artistic forms that are used in the liturgy, and in an encounter with God in the Eucharist, but it might also happen via intermediary aspects of the culture that derive from and point to the liturgy. This is like the layers of an onion, or the spheres in an Aristotelian universe, in which the outer ring directs us to the next inner ring, and so that by degrees we arrive at the center.

To illustrate with the example of music, we still need composers of three-minute popular ditties as much as we need composers of highly elevated music or liturgical music. In today’s fragmented culture, we need a whole variety of different forms that will appeal to different types of people at a superficial level, and which in turn stimulate in them the beginnings of a desire for something greater. At the heart of the diagram below, at the end of the Christian’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth, is the Eucharist. Christ is the node through which we pass and which connects us to the outer Prime Mover from which all of this originates. (Incidentally, I would say that looking from where we sit right now, the earth is the center of the universe, as it is quite reasonable to consider the place of the other heavenly bodies relative to where we view them from...but that’s another debate!)

The measure of such modern creativity’s quality is the power and nature of the effect it has on those who hear it. The best music will be accessible to its intended audience, which not be all people, but most likely a particular section of the population, and stimulate in them a desire for something higher. The highest forms are those which are connected to the liturgy, and the function of these is to lead people to God Himself in the Blessed Sacrament. This is why, however popular Christian “popular” music might be, and however many people might attend Masses with such music in the context of the liturgy, there is no place for such musical forms. (In fact it usually isn’t really all that popular, despite what people may say; see my article here on the subject.) Just because people are listening to something and enjoying it, doesn’t mean that it is doing the work of directing people to the Eucharist as powerfully as it should.

We need exclusively liturgical forms, with chant having preeminence, which have the highest potential to open hearts to God in the context of the worship of Him. Even here we must have new compositions too. I would not want to displace the canon of chants for the Mass, but there must be, I believe, newer compositions that participate in this tradition, for the overall impact to have real power with the greatest number of people.

As mentioned, while there is no place for superficiality in the liturgy, superficiality does have its place outside the church! There is a place for superficiality, and that is to engage people on a superficial level and prime them to engage with something deeper. Therefore we need inspired composition and creativity across the whole spectrum of entertainment in wider culture too.

The argument applies to all art forms, not just music, even to those art forms that have no direct place in the liturgy, such as film and video. Creativity in these areas ought to stimulate the potential for receptivity of the forms that are in the liturgy. The drama of movies, for example, will prime the viewer to be receptive to the presentation of the human story of redemption which is realised in the Mass, as explained here. Movie-makers who do this will not only do the greatest service to mankind, but will also make the most popular and lucrative films!

Recently, I was sent this video of a performance of Schubert’s Ave Maria for the Italian senate by the Italian trio, Il Volo (h/t Gareth Genner, President of Pontifex University).

Here is evidence that beautiful music can be very popular if performed well. By all accounts, these three young men (whose pop-star good looks no doubt draw in a few additional admirers) speak without inhibition of the importance they place on family values. It is a good thing that such music is still popular, but we can not rely solely on the good music of the past to do this..

While Schubert can be heard occasionally in the context of the liturgy, it is not, I suggest, genuinely liturgical music. Rather, it is highly elevated profane music that bridges the gap between the sacred and the mundane; its true place is the concert rather than the liturgy. This particular piece of music was not originally written for the Latin prayer at all, as it happens; it was a setting for the German translation of a poem by Sir Walter Scott, beginning with the same words, “Ave Maria.” For all the power which it still has, it will have been most powerful in fulfilling its function with the original text and for the ears of its original intended audience, the Austrians of 1825.

We need Schuberts for today too, who will compose this “bridging music” for us today in the concert hall. To my mind, such a person is the American composer Frank La Rocca, whose music has its place in that first concentric ring outside the strictly liturgical. Unlike Shubert’s Ave Maria, much of his music is inspired directly by sacred texts and themes, and so is certainly not out of place as meditative or devotional music in the context of the liturgy; but it is as likely to be as effective, and therefore popular, in the concert hall. May there be more like him!

Frank has a newly composed piece, Ne irascaris Domine (“Be not angry, O Lord”), that premiers in a variety of locations in Europe and the US in April and May. There are concerts in Galway, Ireland, and Oakland, California on April 29th, and in London on May 7th. Judging from the regularity of concerts of his music taking place, as indicated on his website, Frank is steadily gaining ground in connecting with people today.

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