Thursday, December 30, 2010

On Chant, Music, and Conversion

Jeffrey Tucker is a Von Mises Institute guy, a musician, and a convert to Catholicism. In an interview, he has some very interesting remarks and insights.

...Conversions are too big for full cognition. Too many influences hit us from too many directions to make sense of it all, and there is the element of the divine that surpasses consciousness. So I’m at the point of realizing that I do not and cannot know how or why it occurred. However, I do know this: Music played a role. I had been a lifetime musician, playing in symphonies and jazz combos and everything in between. But there was something about hearing the Mass chanted with just a few small notes — by an older priest with a tired voice — that transformed me completely. I was about 22 years old and I had never heard anything so beautiful. The total absence of ego and the total absorption in a purpose beyond time enthralled me.

...That chant in Mass that I heard from the late Father Urban Schnaus at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception exposed me to something completely new, something words and argument alone could not express. The context mattered too: This wasn’t a music history class. It changed everything. My whole aesthetic outlook changed. Instead of looking for truth and beauty in the avant-garde, I found it in music that was unbound from the temporal world.

From the chant, I moved on to listen to Renaissance polyphony, in which I heard a level of sophistication that I did not hear in much modern music, which seemed strangely superficial and simple by comparison. It’s like comparing a medieval cathedral to a trailer home. Gradually, chant and polyphony took over my brain and hardly any other music mattered anymore.

Perhaps that's a bit unfair to Mozart, or JSBach, Bruckner, or Peeters, but you get the idea.

...I realized that it is all a form of prayer, and the musical structure amounts to an attempt by mortals to touch a realm of immortality. It was all an attempt to somehow capture and characterize what the ancients called the “music of the spheres,” which is something like a heavenly sound that might be worthy to be presented by angels at the throne of God.

So the clatterwack of 'yout' Masses' is NOT the music of the spheres? Ohhhhh, nooooooo!

And here, a significant revelation:

It goes without saying that secular music doesn’t attempt this at all. It is designed to flatter the performers, indulge the composers, entertain the audience, or whatever. There is a place for this approach in the culture at large, but sacred music has a different purpose. To me, to begin to understand liturgical music is to realize this central point that appears in Christian writings from the earliest age: There is a difference between sacred and profane. Many people deny this today, which just amazes me. I consider it so axiomatic that it is not worth debating

St. Augie would agree. He did describe TWO cities, after all.

...given what Vatican II called the “treasury of sacred music,” it is shocking how absent it is from our parishes. But that’s only the beginning of the problem. The real core is the loss of the ideal, the near absence of an understanding that musicians have any serious responsibilities to the ritual.

That's a generalization which is not entirely accurate, of course; even in "progressive" parishes--or semi-progressive parishes--a good musician does take his responsibilities seriously. But in many cases, they simply don't know what that actually implies--a point which Tucker makes here:

I find it striking that most non-Catholics imagine that our services are dominated by the kind of chant heard in movies and television. But the truth is that we do not hear it in our parishes. Why not? The musicians have not had their responsibilities explained to them. They do not know that the Church has assigned a specific and brilliant piece of music for every part of the Mass throughout the liturgical year. Not one in one hundred Catholic musicians know this. They’ve never heard of the Graduale Romanum, which is the music book of the Roman Rite. They’ve never been told that there are ideals that extend beyond a weekly game of English-hymn roulette.

I demur from this, but not entirely.

During the early days of the Revolution (~1965-1975), church musicians were told, with authority, that 'all that Chant stuff' was out. Done. Finis. In great part that was due to the abolition of Latin (licit abolition or not, it was the fact.) And of course, musicians trained during that period are now "the trainers." There were exceptions, of course--Mgr. Schuler in the Twin Cities, Paul Salamunovich in LA., and a few here in Milwaukee. But most of those--who actually read the pertinent document, SC, were marginalized and then fired.

The Bishops and priests did it, folks.

Why Chant?

...There is also the need for music at Mass to unify the purposes of the gathered community. That cannot happen if the music is all about individual preferences. Notice how even four people in a moving car cannot agree on which radio station should be played. If we leave the choice solely to individual preferences, the result will be chaos. We need to use music that draws us out of ourselves and into a higher realm that unifies us. The chant tradition provides this. It is a third way, beyond liberal and conservative hymn choices.

Chilluns' Mass, teeny-bopper Mass, old-farts' Mass.....does Babel resonate here?

...the only people who really argue this way [for demographic-specific music] are old people. It’s true that plenty of young people are not interested in true liturgical music, but those same people are not interested in Catholicism either. How do we draw people to the faith? By lying about it and substituting false teaching? I don’t think so. The faith draws people when it is not ashamed of itself and when it has the ring of truth.

It is the same with liturgical music. Church music uses free rhythm that always points upwards in the same way that incense is always rising. This assists our prayer. Secular styles of music, in contrast, use rhythms that elicit temporal thoughts and emotions. Rock music points to nothing outside of itself, so it does not belong anywhere near the liturgy.

Nicely said.

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