Wednesday, August 19, 2009

And a Time For Every Purpose Under Heaven

For the last few days I’ve been pondering the issue of musical styles for the liturgy…. OK, not exactly a new subject for me, but one that I’ve had to really think about lately. At some point, I think it was while pacing back and forth in my front yard enjoying a very nice Havana Reserva, I was reminded of a quote that appears in various forms in Church documents regarding sacred music:

“The musical tradition of the Universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that as a combination of sacred music and words, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy.”

What stuck out for me here was the phrase necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy. What does it mean for music to be an integral part of the liturgy? This quote (from Sacrosanctum Concilium) seems to be saying, correctly I think, that the Church’s traditional music, Gregorian Chant, is pre-eminent because it integrates with the form and substance of the Roman liturgy as it is intended to be. It is a musical expression of the ideal liturgy that we should be striving for. You don’t “add” this music to such a liturgy… the music and the liturgy are one. They belong to each other. They are integral.

And so I kept thinking… if this is true, then what sort of liturgy would other styles of music be integral to? If they are to ever claim to be a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy, they have to be integral to some style of liturgy other than that which chant and traditional sacred music are integral to. In other words, if Chant, and perhaps polyphony are “one” with that ideal liturgy envisioned by the Church, and I don’t think it is going out on a limb to claim this (after all, the Church’s documents say as much), then these other styles of so-called liturgical music must be “one” with other styles of liturgy.

A number of years ago, I attended a Life Teen conference in Mesa, Arizona (I know… I will undoubtedly spend time in Purgatory for this, although I should get time served for several parishes I’ve worked at since then…). The music for the Mass was, well, Life Teen music. A Band (2 Electric Guitars, Bass, Keyboard, Drums and Lead Singer) cranked out the “Gathering Song” at a rock-concert appropriate volume while the Priest jogged up the aisle, stopping to shake hands and share “high-fives” with some of the assembly along the way… finally running up the steps and standing at the top as the band finished the opening number. “GOOD EVENING PEOPLE OF GOD!!” he yelled out to the audience. The audience broke out in applause and whistles. Perfect integration… Rock-Concert music for a Rock-Concert liturgy.

I also recall, though not as clearly, a Mass at my childhood parish of St. Anne’s in Prairie Village Kansas. It could have been 1971 or perhaps ’72…. they had begun offering a “Folk-Mass” in the parish hall and we, for whatever reason, went on this particular weekend (I’m sure it was most likely a Saturday evening). There was a single guitar player strumming chords softly as we came in. There were perhaps a dozen or so people there, already gathering in a circle around the card-table altar with their eyes closed, some holding hands. The priest came in, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt with a stole around his neck. I think we sang “Kumbaya” for the opening, although I also recall “Blowing in the Wind” somewhere during Mass. Again… perfect integration. This music belonged at that Mass.

Fast-forward 30 or so years to a Mass at a newly renovated Church in Brockton Massachusetts… the new “sanctuary” is a raised platform in the middle of a completely circular seating arrangement. It’s a bit awkward because no matter what direction the lectors or the Priest face, they can only face a small wedge of the assembly at any one time. And so the Priest and the readers engage in an ongoing dog-chasing-its-tail motion to be able to address the faithful. The Mass is reduced to a laborious conversation between the people in the middle of the circle and the people forming the circle, with God totally shut out in the confusion. We sing “Gather Us In” as we begin… a song with 30 iterations of “we” and “us” but not one mention of God. This music belongs at this Mass. Perfect integration.

Slick,loud,commercially produced music for a slick,loud,commercially produced Mass.

Shallow, improvised, and casual music for a shallow, improvised and casual Mass.

Self-glorifying, God excluding music for a self-glorifying, God excluding Mass.

Each style of music is integral to some style of liturgy. And so the question we have to ask isn’t whether these styles of music are appropriate for the liturgy, but do we really want the style of liturgy that they’re appropriate for?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Taking the Big Step

It may surprise some of you to know that the music program at my parish is what would be considered "mainstream" by most standards. Sure, you won't find such standards as "Gather Us In", "All Are Welcome" or "Sing A New Church", and instead will find solid hymns and Psalms set to psalm-tones....even an occasional Antiphon from the Simple Choral Gradual. Things were quite different when I arrived here nearly three years ago, and they will be quite different still three years from now.

This week, after discussions with the Pastor and meeting with the two choir directors, the decision has been made to take the BIG step...we will begin using the Gregorian settings for the Ordinary at the principal Choir Mass in October, and extend that to all other Masses in November. This is a moment that I was unsure would ever happen here, and now that it has there is a lot of PR work to do.

I don't know of any other parishes in our Diocese that make regular use of Gregorian Ordinary settings, other than the token "Agnus Dei" during Lent or a chanted setting of the Kyrie from time to time. There may be another, but at the very least this is new territory around here.

I'm going to post from time to time on how this "project" progresses. We had the meeting yesterday to let everyone know the plan... it might be disingenuous to say everyone is as enthusiastic as I am, but I didn't expect that. The next step is to work with the two choirs well ahead of time to open up this "whole new world" of Catholic Sacred Music to them. I am planning two sessions for all parish musicians in September, and am even considering inviting any parishioners who would like to learn more to attend, as well as our parish Priests. The Pastor has also asked me to put together several brief articles for the bulletins in September to introduce the idea to the parishioners.

On one hand, it's shameful that it is such a major production to sing chant at the Mass... it really shouldn't be. On the other hand, that is the reality and I'm grateful that I at least have this opportunity that so many other parish musicians can still only hope for.

I was there once...have faith! And stay tuned....