Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A Balanced Take on the Music of the Mass

A couple of excerpts from a lecture/essay delivered at the CMAA conference in Pittsburgh. (Happy to note that I was at the first of these conferences, held at Christendom College---AND at several of its distant antecedents here in Milwaukee and Omaha.)

Mgr. Wadsworth:

...In our Catholic tradition, liturgical chant is first and foremost cantillation, a song which arises from the text, a song which is essentially a heightened proclamation of a verbal message and which takes its emphases from the natural accentuation of the text and finds its melodic rhythm from the cadence which is already within the words.

...I have outlined what I believe to be the characteristics of the liturgical song of the Catholic Church. It is, I would hold, not merely a subjective formulation on my part, but an accurate description of the character and function of liturgical song as inherited by the Church from the People of Israel, in an unbroken tradition and set before the Church by the Magisterium in every age up to and including our own. The challenge I wish to make is to ask if this is how you and most members of the Latin Rite experience liturgical song, and if not, why not?

...The first reason why this is the case, is that many of our people remain essentially reticent when it comes to singing at Mass. A number of years ago, there was an insightful study by an American academic, Thomas Day, entitled “Why Catholics Can’t Sing”.

He goes on to identify a “liturgical post-modernism” which he suggests has resulted in noisy and forced participation from the laity, and encourages a kind of church-wide narcissism that can represent a serious threat both to individuals and the institution of the Church.

(That 'narcissism' is also evident in a lot of Church musicians, who seem to think that one of the purposes of musica sacra is to 'glorify the musician,' a point confirmed later in this essay.)

...It would be a mistake to characterize this dilemma purely in terms of what has happened since Vatican II. Advocates of chant in particular have an annoying tendency to rewrite history in relation to what was common praxis in our parishes until the late sixties, thereby contextualizing the debate in an unreliable ‘nostalgia’ for something which was never the case.

For English-speaking Catholics, I think it is fair to say that a predominantly ‘Low Mass’ culture in which music is essentially an addition to the liturgy rather than intrinsic to it, was already a centuries-old tradition at the time of Vatican II...

He's absolutely correct.

...In this respect, the current enthusiasm for chant, and a growing competence in its performance, particularly in celebrations of the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, is not so much the recovery of a recently lost tradition, but rather the realization of the authentic principles of the Liturgical Movement as canonized by Pope St Pius X in his motu proprio of 1903, Tra le sollecitudini, underlining the centrality of Gregorian Chant, guidelines which were largely unimplemented both at the time of the Council and in its wake.

Again, dead-on observation.

...Some sixty years later, the Pastoral Liturgical Movement, as it had become, had largely abandoned the principles which motivated Dom GuĂ©ranger and the renewal he initiated, in favor of influences which are more broadly ecumenical and introduce into the Roman Liturgy elements which are more commonly found outside the Catholic Church. Nowhere was this influence more keenly felt than in the realm of liturgical music, for the principle that a repertoire of liturgical chant which had been proper to the Mass, at least in its most solemn celebrations, was largely and almost universally set aside in preference for music which might be most accurately described as ‘non-liturgical’ in character, given its frequent lack of dependence on liturgical or biblical texts and its introduction into our liturgical celebrations of a voice which is in many ways alien to the spirit of the liturgy.

It gets even better.

It is vital to grasp that this is not only true of much music which is contemporary in style but it is also evident in hymnody which is so often of a devotional rather than liturgical character and which was transplanted into the Mass from non-catholic forms of worship which are constructed on entirely different principles. This is the modern-day inheritance of the ‘Low-Mass’ culture which envisages a largely spoken liturgy punctuated at key moments by congregational singing.

By the way, it's also the case that the Extraordinary Form "High Mass" attendees very often view liturgical music as "add-on" decoration. The people in the pew are dead-silent--which certainly was not in the mind of Pius X (or XII, or John XXIII, or Paul VI, or JPII, or B-16.)

Mgr. Wadsworth is of the opinion that the new translation, coming in Advent, will be another inflection-point for the Mass which will reverse the dreadful course of the last 50 years.

Let's hope so.


Badger Catholic said...

Why Catholics Can’t Sing was probably thee most influential book I've ever read when it came to liturgy. It articulated what I've felt my whole life.

Unless the new translation comes with new instruction (ie ad orientem) I just don't see much changing.

GOR said...

Recently I attended Mass in a neighboring parish. The ‘cantor’ (who is also probably the ‘Director of Liturgy’) had a soprano-like voice and the impression I had was that the singing was all about her. The Responsorial Psalm soared into the stratosphere and, consequently, was a solo performance – hardly participatio actuosa for the congregation but certainly participatio virtuosa for the soloist…

As to reports on High Masses in the tradosphere, it irks me to constantly read effusive accounts of the music (Missa de whatever, by Palestrina, Bach, Bruckner etc.), the Schola, the ministers and the accoutrements. One has the impression of a ‘performance’ – which is exactly the criticism of many Novus Ordo Masses. Are we not missing the forest for the trees?

Dad29 said...

...Schola, the ministers and the accoutrements. One has the impression of a ‘performance’


In the ideal, EVERY trad-rite Mass should be a sung Mass. So if they'd do one with Chant (and have the people sing along) and one biggie as you describe, that would be ........acceptable.

But in the ideal, EVERY new-rite Mass should be sung. Not "hymned-at"; sung.