Thursday, February 07, 2019

A Pair of Insightful Books on Sacred Music

NLM readers are sure to recognize the name of Aurelio Porfiri, who through his compositions and publishing has done so much to promote authentic sacred music in the Catholic Church. Among his other accomplishments, Maestro Porfiri was the primary author of the "Declaration on Sacred Music Cantate Domino" which appeared on the 50th anniversary of Musicam Sacram, March 5, 2017, with editions in nine languages.

Porfiri's publishing company, ChoraBooks, has brought out a number of interesting titles in recent years, such as David Fagerberg's Liturgy Outside Liturgy: The Liturgical Theology of Fr. Alexander Schmemann, and Singing His Song: A Short Introduction to the Liturgical Movement by NLM contributor Fr. Thomas Kocik.

Today I would like to announce the publication of two more titles: a collection of Maestro Porfiri's best writing on choral music, Less is More, and an intriguing book by Giacomo Baroffio, Re-tractationes: The Spirituality of Gregorian Chant.

Porfiri's book Less is More focuses a great deal on the philosophy of interpretation and the art of singing communicatively and movingly. He speaks with an almost Zen-like concentration on the value of simplicity, of understatement, of allowing music to speak for itself, and the origin and end of music in a divine silence. Barbs against romanticism, individualism, and idiosyncratism add zest to a text rich with literary, musical, and theological references. Of particular weight in this collection are the chapters "For a Theology of A Cappella Music" (pp. 31-41), and "Making Music in the Dragon's Land: An Italian Priest and Macau in the 1920s" (pp. 57-87), an absolute must-read for those who are interested in questions of inculturation, evangelization, and the universality of the Catholic sacred music tradition. Porfiri sums up the aim of this book as an attempt to say why we sing choral music, not just how it can be done with technical success.

Baroffio's book Re-tractationes is reminiscent of Guardini's The Spirit of the Liturgy, inasmuch as it articulates a vision of liturgy that is at once cosmic and personal, public and interior, formal and playful. "The liturgy is a mystical path," he writes (9). I will admit that I got a bit lost in the first part (pp. 2-16), but in the second part (pp. 17-30), devoted to "singing the faith," the author reconnected with me powerfully. "The song of psalmody ... reawakens the desire of Tabor: to see Jesus, to be with Him. It is the desire of Mary to remain seated at his feet, to look up, to offer a song" (18). "In the liturgy we sing because we are in love with God" (21). "The word that surfaces on our lips frees itself from its limitations and expands into song" (23) -- a saying that reminds one especially of the melismatic chants of the Gradual and the Alleluia. "Liturgical prayer teaches us to put ourselves on a wavelength independent of worldly chaos" (25). And perhaps my favorite statement: "Indifference towards sacred music is all the more blameworthy since this attitude actually hides a total lack of interest in the liturgy as such" (27).

As the book proceeds, the author focuses more and more on plainchant. "Gregorian chant has the power to sing, to divert the heart from preoccupations, because it orients itself to God in adoration and silence" (33). "It is music that infuses deep spiritual recesses with words and breaks the limits of lexical meaning by expressing with sound the ineffable vibrations that otherwise would not be able to free themselves from the human heart" (37). "The marginalization and expulsion of Gregorian chant from the liturgy have encouraged the spreading of cackles and mawkishness that, beyond their artistic inconsistency, are not able to direct hearts to God" (42). "Iconoclasm -- which sometimes prevents any polyphonic or Gregorian choral presence in the name of the active participation of the people -- is a tragic and ridiculous lie. Certain deep fibers of man's being can begin to vibrate only if prompted by certain musical pieces whose execution transcends the possibilities of the assembly" (54).

I won't quote all of the best lines in the book; the above samples well represent the insightfulness of Baroffio as he warms to his subject. My criticisms of the book are minor. The custom of always writing "G-o-d," which I have seen in Jewish authors, seems out of place here. The occasional lapse into talk of God's "fatherly and motherly" love, while capable of an orthodox interpretation, is surely distracting in our age. There are occasional moments of utter diffuseness and opacity, as well as a few random thoughts that do not seem to fit in with the context. Nevertheless, on the whole, the book gives much food for thought, and I recommend it for those who are keen to probe the spirituality of Gregorian chant.

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