Monday, June 14, 2021

The Campaign Against Musically-Shaped Memory

Research has demonstrated what everyday experience already knew: music is the most powerful of all memory aids. The reason we can so easily remembered twenty-six pieces of unrelated information when we memorize the alphabet as a small child is that we learn a song about it. Years after one has last heard a certain song, all it takes is a snatch of its melody for the whole thing to come flooding back. People in comas have reawakened when their loved ones sang or played familiar music to them. Music embeds itself deep in the psyche; its highly articulate structure secures for it a permanence that is often missing from mere text. It takes ten times longer to memorize a spoken poem than the same poem set to a melody.

We know that before the Council, there were still many places that, in spite of St. Pius X’s best intentions, did not use the full chanted propers, but substituted for them “Rossini Propers” or something similarly dreadful; we know that the majority of Masses were recited, not sung or solemn. Nevertheless, there were High Masses and fully chanted Propers; this cannot be denied, for many eyewitnesses and historical records confirm it. For many communities of religious, a fully chanted Mass was normative. Popular liturgical writers could confidently refer to and comment on the chants of Mass, expecting to be understood. “Ad te levavi,” “Puer natus est,” “Nos autem,” “Resurrexi,” “Spiritus Domini,” “Requiem aeternam,” were texts and melodies that enjoyed currency and, more importantly, embedded themselves into the collective ecclesial consciousness. They were the stuff of the Church’s long-term memory. Everyone knew what “Gaudete” and “Laetare” referred to, namely, the Introits of the particular Sundays in Advent and Lent when rose-colored vestments could be worn.

In his letter Sacrificium Laudis of 1966, Paul VI encouraged monks and nuns to retain chant (though in the eleventh hour Rembert Weakland torpedoed his efforts, which were never more than Hamletesque), but he certainly expected Mass everywhere else to be characterized by a lack of chant. In his infamous General Audience of November 26, 1969, right before the Novus Ordo Missae was to go into effect, he said:

It is here that the greatest newness is going to be noticed, the newness of language. No longer Latin, but the spoken language will be the principal language of the Mass. The introduction of the vernacular will certainly be a great sacrifice for those who know the beauty, the power and the expressive sacrality of Latin. We are parting with the speech of the Christian centuries; we are becoming like profane intruders in the literary preserve of sacred utterance. We will lose a great part of that stupendous and incomparable artistic and spiritual thing, the Gregorian chant. We have reason indeed for regret, reason almost for bewilderment. What can we put in the place of that language of the angels? We are giving up something of priceless worth. But why? What is more precious than these loftiest of our Church’s values?
He replies, not too convincingly: 

The answer will seem banal, prosaic. Yet it is a good answer, because it is human, because it is apostolic. Understanding of prayer is worth more than the silken garments in which it is royally dressed. Participation by the people is worth more—particularly participation by modern people, so fond of plain language which is easily understood and converted into everyday speech. 

It would be difficult to believe that the Supreme Pontiff, Pope of Rome, actually said these words, had they not been carefully recorded and committed to print and were they not readily available. Later in his address, the Pope cautiously suggests that Latin will not perish, but never says that chant will survive. The fact that he rushed to promulgate a missal in 1969 for which there was no corresponding chant book—a glaring defect that would be repaired only in 1974 when the monks of Solesmes published the revised Graduale Romanum, at which point the horses had not only bolted from the barn, but the barn had been razed and the ground unrecognizably planted over—points to the same conclusion: this pope had absolutely no intention of following one of the teachings of Vatican II that could not be called ambiguous or ambivalent, namely, the assignment of “chief place in liturgical services” to Gregorian chant, as signed by 2,147 council fathers and promulgated by the same pope only six years earlier (Sacrosanctum Concilium 116).

The loss of chanted propers of the Mass was therefore a deliberate strategy, not an accidental fallout. The appearance of the 1974 Graduale Romanum was a sad afterthought that made no impact on parochial life; the tradition had already been severed. Stories are rife of monks, nuns, friars, and laity chanting from the Liber Usualis one week, and the following week singing folksy English songs from binders or booklets, never to take up the chant again. What this means, if we go back to our opening remarks about music as a repository and vehicle of memory (indeed, of an ever-deepening memory that lives and grows while it endures), is that the Church was systematically deprived of her most precious liturgical memories in the form of the cantillated scripture verses with which her worship had been adorned for at least a millennium and a half.

The result? A rupture or dissolution of memory that, at least as far as individuals and communities are concerned, would be comparable to severe amnesia or to Alzheimer’s, with a superficialization of the meaning and content of worship. It is not that one treasure was substituted for another, but a treasure was lost, and in its place was put a random collection of vastly inferior items that enjoyed neither diachronic nor synchronic universality. The power of music to retain and transmit the Faith was fragmented, atomized, and fluxified.

The replacement of the annual reading cycle with two-year and three-year reading cycles; the abolition of many priestly prayers in the Mass (at the start, at the offertory, before communion), the distension of the integral one-week psalter to an expurgated four-week psalter, the optionitis and opportunities for presidential improvisation—all of these moves run strongly against the formation of memory by continual repetition. Together they guaranteed that almost no Catholics—including, tragically, the clergy—would be able to internalize the liturgy to such an extent that it became bone of one’s bone, flesh of one’s flesh. Or, at any rate, what was internalized would be inadequate compared to the inheritance of the Faith. Instead, due in part to the sheer quantity of text and in part to the assumption of recited liturgy as normative, the clergy would have to remain largely at the level of reading texts out of “official books.” This reinforced legal positivism and cut off Catholics from an ingrained, intuitive sense of what is and is not liturgy, what is and is not in keeping with tradition. If one has the liturgy within oneself because of its stability of form, relatively narrow compass, rhythm of language, and most of all its standard assigned music, then one attains much more readily that experiential knowledge called by St. Thomas Aquinas “connnatural knowledge,” that is, intimate acquaintance of something’s essence not by reasoning but by sympathy. One would therefore be in a position to tell when a note jarred against this harmony, when a word or phrase grated against the ear.

In short: the ancient liturgy is capable of planting itself within, while the reformed liturgy is spread out in so many texts and books, and multiplied by options, that it would be well-nigh impossible to “have it” within. This makes its user less offended by deviation and more pliant to officialdom, from which the books are handed down.

The Introit for Pentecost, from the Codex Gisle (ca. 1300)

Imagine Roman clergy from the Middle Ages who had somehow been transported to our time and had sat through a parish Novus Ordo Mass. Their first question would be: “Where was the Ad te levavi?” or “Where was the Puer natus? We didn’t hear it anywhere.” They knew what the Roman liturgy was not because it had been dictated to them by a pope or any conference of bishops, but because they had it in their ears, their mouths, their hearts. This was true, be it noted, well before and well after 1570, since the text, music, and ceremonial aspects of the various Latin rites and uses enjoyed considerable analogy with one another and a stability of form akin to the massive stone architecture of their churches: they were recognizably from and for the Catholic Church. Nothing substantial in the Roman rite had changed or would be changed until 1907 when Pius X laid hands on the Breviary, and after World War II, when Pius XII disfigured the Holy Week ceremonies.

The worst part about loss of memory is that, after a certain point, the one suffering from it no longer realizes that he has lost it. Traditionalists in the Church today are like nurses trying to remind a patient of who she is or where she came from or who her relatives are, showing pictures from the past, singing a bit of chant, trying in some way, in any way, to reactive the memory of a beloved mother.

Thanks be to God, not all hope of recovery is lost. For indeed the Church is not a monolithic entity with merely mortal powers but is composed of many members united in their Head. The Head of this Body has never lost His memory and never will; He sends the Spirit of truth to remind the disciples of all that He has taught, not only in His lifetime but in the lifetime of the Church that He governs from heaven, and on which He has bestowed the treasures of liturgical rites and their traditional music. The memory is present in actuality in Him, and in a mixture of act and potency among us, as in a body with some healthy limbs and some diseased or damaged limbs. With the prophet we can say: “Strengthen ye the feeble hands, and confirm the weak knees” (Is 35:3). The rigor mortis of legal positivism is giving way to the warm love of tradition for its own sake.

To change metaphors, rebuilding a bridge that has collapsed is difficult but not impossible, if there is a willingness to reconnect the two sides over the abyss. I have been singing the proper chants for the usus antiquior for thirty years now, and have reached a point where they are totally ingrained in me. Every Sunday of the year, practically every holy day, the chants are right there in my soul, brought up instantly when the singing begins. And the same is true for many of my friends around the world, a growing number that includes new recruits, new reverts and converts, cradle Catholics who have been driven by a longing for more to seek out a worship that has and is more. The memory of the Church that was thought to be obliterated has, by the grace of God, returned to the Mystical Body; a bridge, even if a narrow and rickety one, has been erected again, joining the past to the future by way of the present. What a privilege to be a part of the rebuilding—part of the reactivating and transmission of beautiful, noble, gracious memories.

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