Sunday, July 05, 2009

Towards Synthesis: Chant

Now and then one reads an article which contributes significantly to the ongoing discussion. Such is that of Fr. Mark Daniel Kirby in the Summer '09 volume of Sacred Music. It's an adaptation of his thesis (Oxford, '02), and eventually, the entire piece will be online here: --look for Summer 2009.

Fr. Kirby marshalls works of Kavanagh, Kovalevsky, Meyendorff, Ratzinger, Vagaggini, Stravinsky, and a number of others from both the Roman and Orthodox branches--which is why I refer to the work as 'towards synthesis.' Not too surprising, insofar as he defends the proposition that Chant is theologia prima, or 'sung theology' in his work.

"It is only natural that the worship of God is to be expressed in song. ...praise cannot be reduced to the 'language of this world,' stripped of all balance, rhythm, and harmony. The word of God and man's response to it not the reflection of an 'ordinary' conversation. As soon as the word becomes identified with the contents of its message, it calls for order (rhythm) and melos (arrangements of pitch), i.e., a musical form. In this way, the perfect word, the fully developed word, most always has the nature of song."--quoting Drillock

A reflection of this thought is easily available to anyone familiar with good poetry reading, and is further reinforced by the knowledge that epic poetry such as The Odyssey was always sung, not read.

Kirby distinguishes "liturgical art" from 'other' art:

...liturgical art mediates a communication between the faithful and the... Transcendent, being at the same time a vehicle by which the... Transcendent intervenes in the life of the faithful...

And, further, (quoting Ozoline):

"Without any doubt, the liturgy represents for us the ultimate vocation of the arts, because the meaning of their common effort--their function--is to suggest the anticipation of the Kingdom."

This, of course, is part of the the 'set-aside' familiar to many: sacred time, sacred space, sacred language, sacred music (outlined by Vagaggini). Sadly, the "music" part of that grouping is not so familiar to today's Catholic, whose concept of 'sacred music' is hymnody. After all, that's what one sings at Mass, no?

Well, no, for:

Rooted in the Incarnation and in the law of sacramentality established by it, 'psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs' participate in the 'descending' and 'ascending' mediation of the God-Man, the High Priest Jesus Christ.


The teleology of Christ's eternal priesthood is at once soteriological and doxological. ...sacred music and, in particular, the art of liturgical chant, carries the saving initiative of God into the worshipping assembly; [and] mediates the assembly's glorification...

The Council reminds us that 'the musical tradition of the Church is a treasure...[pre-eminent because] as a combination of sacred music and words, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy.'

Reminding us that Stravinsky distinguished between 'song' and 'instrumental forms'--with song 'assuming as its calling the expression of the meaning of discourse,' Fr. Kirby asserts that

...the vocation of liturgical precisely 'the expression of the meaning of discourse.' The liturgy invests the words of human discourse with a certain sacramentality, and this, by reason of their referral to the Word (calling to mind Ratzinger's discourse.)

Fr. Kirby also notes that common English translations of Roman documents on the liturgy mis-translate the Latin cantus as "song," rather than "chant,"--a portentous change, indeed.

Fr. Kirby also makes note of the 'great war' between the 'ministerial/collective' and the 'art/capella' groups, best shown in the 1967 Instruction Musican Sacram, which offered a compromise definition of sacred music acceptable to both parties; but Kirby is not satisfied with it; not because it leaned 'art,' but because it included 'simply religious' music (hymnody.)

While Kirby accepts (ad arguendam) Gelineau's use of the term "sacred music" as 'all music which, by its inspiration, object, destination, or use, has a connection with faith,' he accepts it only to distinguish Chant from popular religious song, which

...rarely borrows its words and inspirations from the liturgy itself. It arises outside of the liturgy and favors subjective content over objective biblical and liturgical texts. [Whereas l]iturgical chants reveal their full meaning only within their proper ritual context.

Kirby then cautions:

Elements of popular religious song, especially hymns, are sometimes adopted as a temporary or even permanent replacement for the chants of the liturgy itself. This practice, a departure from Roman Catholic tradition, needs to be critically evaluated and remedied.


He accepts Wellesz' thesis that both Byzantine and Roman chant is derived from a common (Jewish) source--really, synagogue rather than Temple--and posits that by the 4thC., chant had become pervasive in Christian worship. This chant was cantillation, a form of heightened speech or ekphonesis, halfway between recitation and singing. In addition, (and in contrast) ...more elaborate forms of chant also evolved, ranging from the syllabic and the melismatic.

Further, in a point repeated by all authorities (but rarely heard or understood), he again says

Liturgical chant does not "accompany" the liturgical action; it is an integral part of it. It is not an embellishment of the celebration, superimposed on a rite deemed complete, adequate, and sufficient without it.

Put another way:

Unlike religious music and popular religious song, liturgical chant cannot stand independently of the total liturgical action without its meaning becoming obscured.

The Orthodox view it exactly that way:

"In the Orthodox tradition, both Eastern and Western, the music is provided by chant. Consequently, it is closely linked to the word; it is at the service of the word; it is the vehicle of the word." --quoting Lossky

And, of course, Ratzinger's elegant metaphysical understanding of the term "word" comes into play:

"One ....would have to add that 'word' in the biblical sense (and also the Greek sense) is more than language and speech, namely, creative reality [In Hebrew, 'dabar']. It is also certainly more than mere thought and mere spirit. It is self-interpreting, self-commuicating spirit. At all times the word-orientation, the rationality, the intelligibility, and the sobriety of the Christian liturgy [contrast THAT to the subjective, feel-good noise, folks] have been derived from this spirit and given to liturgical music as its basic law. ...For "word" in the sense of the Bible is more than "text," and understanding reaches further than the banal understanding of what is immediately clear to everyone.



The identifying function of liturgical chant is, then, to dilate the sacred text and render it more penetrating "until we make contact with the presence with which the texts are filled."

It is not "merely" music. must not be forgotten that it was composed in the creation of a complete way of life, the performance of the opus Dei...--quoting Hiley.

Relying then on Kovalesky's thought that there is an underlying unity at the level of musical structures common to the most primitive liturgical traditions of Christianity, Kirby shows that those theological principles are 'breath, interiority, and freedom.' He also reminds us that music is a "chronologic art....[which] presupposes before all else a certain organization in time..."

The intimate connection between music and memory links both the performance and the audtion of music to the spiritual dimension of human nature. reaches into the depths of the psyche, and rouses the most diverse human potentialities...[it is] co-creation achieved by the composer, performer, and auditor.

That said, the form of ritual music is shaped by the metaphysics of the religion it serves.

In Chant the form consists of three attributes: Breath, interiority, and freedom.

And from there, Fr. Kirby works to the conclusion that chant is a means to that "full, conscious, and actual pariticpation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy."

Fr Kirby's perspective is both re-affirmation and synthesis. Liturgical Chant consists of many parts--the Proper chants, the Ordinary chants, and the 'dialog' chants, or simple responses. Clearly, the faithful are not expected to sing the Proper chants; but just as clearly, they are expected to sing the Ordinary chants (when those are used) and the dialogs.

This is not a matter of preference; it is a matter of essentials. It certainly does not rule out a well-trained schola, nor for that matter, a kapelle-chor. In fact, it rules them "in," insofar as they are necessary for solemnity and/or a heightening of that 'co-creation' and "dilation and penetration" into the soul of the sacred text which only the trained singers, using music which is "holy, universal, and beautiful" can do.

But 'lump-on-a-log' faithful are not contemplated in Vatican documents, period. It's about time we moved toward the ideals voiced there and by dozens of Popes.


Chironomo said...

An excellent analysis. I wonder, though, about the practical value of academic arguments. The current status-quo of wretched music is not sustained by academic principles, but rather by emotional sentiment combined with consumer based promotion.

While it is certainly important that there be a greater understanding of the theological foundations of Chant and Polyphony, there is probably a greater need for strong (official) criticism of the consumerist aspects of the bad music currently promoted. Or, better yet, a combination of both arguments.

Dad29 said...


But the academic foundation generally precipitates action.

What makes this article interesting is that it clearly lays the groundwork: that Chant is mandatory, not "personal preference" or "taste."

And, by the way, it does not have to be Latin--another interesting bit derived from the article.

I suspect that we'll see more and more positive developments as time goes on. The CMAA has 200++ people at its Chicago event for a reason.

"Brick by brick", as FrZ says.