Monday, March 25, 2019

Why Do We Sing Liturgical Texts?

In all religions of the world, we find the chanting of sacred texts. Such a surprising convergence suggests that there is a natural connection between the worship of the divine and singing the texts involved in the rites — that is, a connection based on the nature of man, of song, and of word.

The Philosophy of Singing Religious Texts

This universal practice derives from an intuitive sense that holy things and the holy sentiments that go along with them should not be talked about as ordinary everyday things are, but elevated to a higher level through melodious modulation—or submerged into silence. Authentic rituals, therefore, tend to alternate between silences (either for meditation or during a symbolic action) and chanting (which may or may not be accompanied by some other action).

Acts of public worship are rendered more solemn, and their content more appealing and memorable, by the singing of clergy, cantors, choir, and congregation. Moreover, the contrast between singing (human expression at its highest) and silence (a deliberate “apophatic” withholding of discourse) is more striking than the contrast between speaking and not speaking. The former is like the rise and fall of ocean waves, while the latter seems more like switching a lightbulb on and off.

Speech is primarily discursive and instructional, aimed at a listener, while song, which more easily and naturally unites many singers into one body, is capable of being in addition the bearer of feelings and of meanings that go beyond what words can convey, greatly augmenting the penetrating power of the words themselves. We find this especially in the melismas of chant, the lengthy melodic elaborations on a single syllable that give voice to inner emotions and aspirations that words cannot fully express.

No one has commented more insightfully than the philosopher of music Victor Zuckerkandl on the almost mystical power of song to unite singers with each other, and the subject with the object. In his book Man the Musician, published by Princeton University Press in 1973, he writes:
Music is appropriate, is helpful, where self-abandon is intended or required — where the self goes beyond itself, where subject and object come together. Tones seem to provide the bridge that makes it possible, or at least makes it easier, to cross the boundary separating the two. (24–25)
The spoken word presupposes “the other,” the person or persons to whom it is addressed; the one speaking and the one spoken to are turned toward each other; the word goes out from one to the other, creating a situation in which the two are facing each other as distinct, separate individuals. Wherever there is talk, there is a “he-not-I” on the one hand and his counterpart, an “I-not-he,” on the other. This is why the word is not the natural expression of the group. ...
       [S]inging is the natural and appropriate expression of the group, of the togetherness of individuals within the group. If this is the case, we may assume that tones — singing — essentially express not the individual but the group; more accurately, the individual in so far as he is a member, of the group; still more accurately, the individual in so far as his relation to the others is not one of “facing them” but one of togetherness.
       Whereas words turn people toward each other, as it were, make them look at each other, tones turn them all in the same direction: everyone follows the tones on their way out and on their way back. The moment tones resound, the situation where one party faces another is transmuted into a situation of togetherness, the many distinct individuals into the one group. (27–29)
And finally:
If his words are not merely spoken but sung, they build a living bridge that links him with the things referred to by the words, that transmutes distinction and separation into togetherness. By means of the tones, the speaker goes out to the things, brings the things from outside within himself, so that they are no longer “the other,” something alien that he is not, but the other and his own in one. …
       The singer remains what he is, but his self is enlarged, his vital range is extended: being what he is he can now, without losing his identity, be with what he is not; and the other, being what it is, can, without losing its identity, be with him. (29–30)
Ultimately, it comes down to this: we sing when we are at one, or wish to be at one, with our activity or the object of our activity. This is true when we are in love with another person. It is most of all true when we are in love with God. That is the origin of the incomparably great music of the Catholic tradition. St. Augustine says: “Only the lover sings.” We sing… and we whisper… and we fall silent.

In the course of this discussion, Zuckerkandl makes a point that reminds me painfully of years of growing up in the Novus Ordo with congregations reciting together the Gloria or the “Holy, Holy, Holy”:
Can one imagine that people come together to speak songs? One can, but only as a logical possibility; in real life this would be absurd. It would turn something natural into something utterly unnatural. (25)
The recitation of normatively sung texts at a Low Mass “works” only because the priest alone is saying the texts, and doing so at the altar, ad orientem. [1] He is not addressing the words of the song to anyone except God. They thereby acquire a ritual status comparable to that of the recited Canon. The speaking of sung texts is not liturgically ideal; really this form of Mass developed for the personal devotion of the priest when celebrating at a side altar with a clerk. Nevertheless, to have a large church packed with people and then to say the songs rather than sing them should strike everyone as odd. But we may leave this point aside for the nonce, as I have taken it up elsewhere.

Practical Reasons for Singing Texts

There are also practical reasons for singing. As experience proves, texts that are sung or chanted with correct elocution are heard with greater clarity and forcefulness in a large assembly of people than texts that are read aloud or even shouted. The music has a way of carrying the words and making them penetrate the listeners’ ears and souls. In ancient times, epic and lyric poetry, and even parts of political speeches, were chanted for this very reason.

Electrical amplification was unnecessary when architects sought to build spaces that resonated properly and liturgical ministers learned how to sing out. A well-built church with well-trained singers has absolutely no need of artificial amplification. Moreover, not everything in the liturgy has to be heard by everyone, contrary to one of the key assumptions behind the wreckovation of our rites.

It is hard to imagine a modern-day airport managing without speakers for announcements. It is, in contrast, a tragedy when the same technical, pragmatic, impersonal, and unfocused type of sound-production invades churches. In a church, the microphone kills the intimacy, humility, locality, and directionality of the human voice. The voice now becomes that of a placeless giant, a Big Brother larger than life, coming from everywhere and nowhere, dominating and subduing the listener. Putting mics and speakers in a church does not enhance a natural process; it subverts it. There is no continuum between the unaided voice and the artificially amplified voice: they are two separate phenomena, with altogether different phenomenologies.

When ritual texts are adorned with fitting music, their message “carries,” both physically and spiritually.

Gregorian Chant as the Ideal of Sung Text

The eight characteristics of Gregorian chant are:
  • primacy of the word
  • free rhythm
  • unison singing
  • unaccompanied vocalization
  • modality
  • anonymity
  • emotional moderation
  • unambiguous sacrality
(I have discussed these in greater detail here.)

These characteristics, taken together, show that chant is not only a little bit different from other types of vocal music, but radically and profoundly different. [2] It is liturgical music through and through, existing solely for divine worship, perfectly suited to its verbal, sacred nature, and well suited to aid the faithful who associate it with that worship and who find it both beautiful and strange, as God Himself is.

We can see better now, why chant is a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy, why it gives a nobler form to the celebration, and why it is specially suited to the Roman Rite and deserves the foremost place within it—all of which was asserted without ambiguity in Sacrosanctum Concilium.

When performed in an edifying manner, chant in and of itself “accords with the spirit of the liturgical action,” which cannot be assumed for any other piece of music. In other words, chant furnishes the very definition of what it means to “accord with the spirit of the liturgical action,” and other musical works must line up to be evaluated, as it were, by this supreme criterion — as Pope St Pius X had said in his motu proprio Tra le sollecitudini: “It is fully legitimate to lay down the following rule: the more closely a composition for church approaches in its movement, inspiration, and savor the Gregorian form, the more sacred and liturgical it becomes; and the more out of harmony it is with that supreme model, the less worthy it is of the temple.”


[1] This has come to be my principal objection to the dialogue Mass, at least inasmuch as it involves reciting those texts that would normally be sung.

[2] It’s often been remarked that the potent connection between chant and Catholicism is well exploited by Hollywood movie directors, who, whenever they want to evoke a “Catholic atmosphere,” make sure there is some chant wafting in the background. If only today’s clergy had half as much “business sense”!

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