Friday, February 12, 2010

Sad music in my parish.

Our new priest has instituted a music program in which Chant and Latin hymns are forbidden and in which the music draws heavily from post-Vatican II American sources. A few months ago, fearing from things that I had heard that he would take this very step, I wrote him a letter. He seemed pleased to receive it and told me the following Sunday that he was working on a reply. I have received no reply from him in writing, but only the appearance of a new modern (pronounced "godawful") Hymnal in the pews, the almost complete abandonment of the organ, and way - way more electric piano at mass. I mean no disrespect, but if this is what he intended as his reply, I take it to be the equivalent of the raised and extended middle finger. For posterity and with identifying info removed, I reproduce the letter here. If he ever does reply in writing, I will attach it to this post. I welcome criticism from my many readers.

Dear Father
While I was unable to attend the parish music information meeting held last Saturday, it would seem that mine is one of the voices for whose return you made an appeal on Sunday. I note further your undoubted enthusiasm for the establishment of a body of some form or forms of sacred music along with musicians and singers able to draw from it for the enrichment of the liturgy. With this in mind, I hope I might offer my personal thoughts.

I have been a parishioner of St X for the last {a number more than ten} years after having attended for several years from outside the parish. As much as I appreciated in many ways the pastoral care of Fr. Y, as a music lover, the one thing that was often a source of dismay was the state of sacred music both in the parish and in the Church as a whole.

Inspired by a certain understanding of the aims of the Second Vatican Council, a rich and still fruitful patrimony of ancient sacred music had been set aside, as it seemed to me, for the mostly insipid tunes and sometimes profane or heterodox lyrics of a small cadre of 1970’s composers. Even when older hymns and chorales were tapped—a great many of them imported directly from Protestant hymnodical traditions—performances frequently were suited more to nightclub or campfire than to church. This is not to say that there were no bright spots: many examples of musicians and singers sounding truly Catholic hymns both old and new in the vernacular with voices raised to the glory of God and not to their own; just that there were these disappointments and so much of our treasured Catholic musical inheritance simply missing.

So when I was asked about four years ago to help found a choir in the parish that would have as its aim—secondary of course to adoration and worship of God—the revival of chant and polyphony and the return in that context of music truly integrated into the liturgy, I leapt at the opportunity. Since that time we have been working hard to cultivate a command of the media of chant and polyphony while at the same time striving to remain obedient to the wishes of the parish priest and respectful of the sensibilities of the congregation. It was not a case of foisting chant and Latin on the parish, but rather of slowly and painstakingly reintroducing the parish to their richness, beauty and importance and allowing them to take their proper place along side the standard English repertoire.

If the proper interpretation of Vatican II required the summary jettison of music essential—not just incidental—to centuries of liturgical practice, the constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium would not, as I am sure you are aware, have granted Gregorian chant “pride of place” as “proper to the Roman liturgy” and would not have singled out polyphony especially as “by no means excluded”. If Latin were meant to be suppressed in the post-conciliar Church, the 1967 instruction Musicam Sacram would not have provided that “The use of the Latin language is to be preserved”, and Pope Paul VI of blessed memory would not under its auspices have provided the church with the 1974 document Jubilate Deo (see allowing even small congregations to enjoy the manifold blessings of the tradition of plainsong.

As for that tradition, the value of chant in worship must not be underestimated. Its transcendental qualities are known to non-Christian faiths as they were in pre-Christian traditions. It is well known that many chant melodies predate their score-notation by many years, and it is theorized by some that a few are nearly as ancient as the psalms themselves. Certainly the roots of chant lie firmly in the Hebrew tradition of psalmody which was carried into the early Christian Church.

One might reasonably argue that the remoteness and difficulty of chant preclude the “active participation” in the liturgy called for by Vatican II, by hampering the ability of the congregation to “sing along”. It must be admitted there is an element of validity to this argument for some; naturally it is desirable that there continue to be offered masses at which music is sung entirely in the vernacular with as much vocal participation as possible from the congregation. However, for many others the dynamic will be just the opposite.

The objection is answered in part by considering the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI’s writings focusing on the more important internal dimensions of “active participation”: a level of involvement in prayer, a focus on the Holy Mysteries taking place at the altar, uniting one’s intentions with the priest’s, recollecting oneself before Holy Communion and making thanksgiving afterwards. Without these and like levels of participation, singing along to the hymns is useless. It can even be maintained that as much as our joining in the singing of folk and pop style songs excites the emotions, our listening to chant—even if the words are not understood—elevates the spirit not only by the melodies themselves soothing the passions that the soul may be lifted, but by the authentic voice of the Church being raised up to God in the words. In this way chant is able actually to enhance active participation in the liturgy truly lending itself to powerful use as a sacramental.

I believe this benefit obtains even granting that understanding of the words be nil. But I would not concede that much: if Latin chant were introduced into the ordinary of the Mass in a systematic way, very quickly the words Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi would be exactly as accessible to the congregation as the words Lamb of God who take away the sins of the world. Truthfully, in either language the greater import of the words remains a profound mystery, as it must. Two advantages of choosing to enunciate the former over the latter are 1) that we speak in the mother tongue of the Church and join in her catholic voice and 2) that the Latin words and melodies of chant are so inextricably bound as to form one organic whole much as our own bodies and souls form whole persons.

A second objection that one might raise is that our particular schola was simply not accomplished enough to realize the myriad benefits of chant. This objection has a great deal more power and not a little truth. But the solution is not to suppress chant and Latin, which would clearly be contrary to the will of the Church, but to foster it: first, I would humbly suggest, on the part of the pastor both by educating the congregation as a whole and by encouraging greater participation in chant by musicians from within the congregation; and secondly on the part of the choir itself both by self study and by practice, practice, practice.

Yours in Christ,

No comments:

About Me

My photo
I'd be a blackguard and a cad, if I weren't so ineffectual. The less said "About Me", the better.