Tuesday, January 07, 2003

Thoughts on liturgical music

Note: Greg says that I have mischaracterized his position, which is certainly possible. So, ignore my paraphrase and follow the links to see what he actually says.

Greg Popcak and Victor Lams have been arguing over what constitutes good music in church. If both of those estimable gentleman will forgive me, I will caricature their positions for the sake of brevity: Greg says something like this:“We are a catholic Church. This means we are universal, which means we are going to have lots of schmaltzy or bad music. Sing it as well as you can, or write better stuff!” Victor says (paraphrased) “Balderdash. We are the Church of God, and therefore our music, which is intended to give glory to God, must be as beautiful as possible.” Victor throws in some good stuff on music and the theology of the body, which I recommend you go read—in short, we are body-soul
creatures, and music impacts us in the body, and so must be good.

Now, I agree with both of them to an extent. Yes, as Greg says, we need to sing the music in church. Sing it loudly and with vigor. If you are sitting in Church while there is congregational music going on and your mouth is shut, you are not participating properly in mass. I would go so far as to say not singing can be sinful. The priest has his parts, and you have your parts, and you better do your part. But I also agree with Victor that the music has to better. It is for the glory of God, after all. Abel's sacrifice was accepted because he brought his best first fruits; our music should be no less.

Greg ends his last post on the topic with a challenge: “Instead of bitching about it, sing all of it the best you can. (Or at least all of it that is not heretical, is singable, and at least is intended to be worshipful). Put your heart and mind in the right place. Then go home and write something better (or take up an instrument and lead the congregation instead of whining about the person doing it).” In the spirit of the challenge, I want to provide my suggestions for a renewal of church music.

Karl's Helpful Guide to Fixing Music in the Roman Rite

First, some quotes from Vatican II's Sacrosanctum Concilium:

“Therefore sacred music is to be considered the more holy, the more closely connected it is with the liturgical action, whether
making prayer more pleasing, promoting unity of minds, or conferring greater solemnity upon the sacred rites.” (112)

“The treasure of sacred music is to be preserved and cultivated with great care.” (114)

“The Church recognizes Gregorian chant as being specially suited to the Roman liturgy. Therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services. (116)

“Nevertheless care must be taken to ensure that the faithful may also be able to say or sing together in Latin those parts of the
Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them.” (54)

“Composers [that's you, Victor! Robot Love, indeed! Hmmf.], animated by the Christian spirit, should accept that it pertains to
their vocation to cultivate sacred music and increase its store of treasures. . . .The texts intended to be sung must always be in
conformity with Catholic doctrine. Indeed, they should be drawn chiefly from the sacred scripture and from liturgical sources.”

Now, these are the guidelines given by an Ecumenical Council of the Church, and so should be followed. Note that the first quote gives the purpose of music: it is to promote the liturgical action, bringing unity and solemnity. All music is at the service of the Mass, which is why, incidentally, applauding the musicians is a case of bad manners. The musicians are not the center of attention, Jesus is. Any beauty they bring to the celebration of the liturgy is at the service of Christ, and to applaud them shows that our focus is not where it should be. Compliment musicians after
Mass; we like that.

The second, third, and fourth quotes tell us that chant is the music of the Roman rite, and should be retained. Further, the council fathers want us all to be able to sing in Latin. If we neglect our Latin heritage, we are being disobedient. You may say “But that's a silly rule! I live in America, not ancient Rome. Why should I sing in a dead language?” You should sing in Latin if you are Roman Catholic for the simple reason that you are Roman Catholic. There is a tendency for Latin-rite Catholics to call themselves simply “Catholic”,
when strictly speaking, it isn't true. The Catholic Church consists of about twenty-one particular churches and six or seven rites, each with their own languages and musical heritages. The Roman Catholic Church is one of twenty-one churches, and each church has its own liturgical genius. If you are Roman, you worship in a church that grew out of the liturgy as practiced in Rome, in the church founded by St. Peter and St. Paul. Your liturgy has developed through 2,000 years of reflection on the traditions handed down by Peter and Paul. This includes the music, specifically Gregorian chant in Latin, which was codified and perhaps even written by Pope Gregory the Great, bishop of Rome. Live your heritage!

I have worshipped in the last seven years in Byzantine Catholic churches, first with Melkites (from Lebanon) and then with Ruthenians (from Ruthenia, wherever that is. Actually from the Carpathian mountains). Those congregations were always proud of their heritage, and sang in Arabic or Russian, in the same chant tones used by their ancestors. By this they give glory to God and also remember that they are part of a Church that includes those triumphant souls who have gone before. There is a continuity of liturgy and song. I can tell you that even for me, a Chicagoan of German ancestry, it is quite breathtaking to sing in Arabic, Greek, and Russian, knowing that I am singing the same words in the same melodies that the great saints and fathers of these churches sang. What a thrill! Roman Catholics should do the same.

Furthermore, as the council says, we are all to be able to sing the Mass parts in Latin. Why? So that all Roman Catholics have a common store of hymns that we can sing. Let me give you an example of why this is good: my wife and I traveled to Fatima this summer, and attended Mass in the plaza. The Mass was in Portuguese, and even though I have an ear for languages, I was having difficulty following where we were. But then I heard the old familiar chant of “Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, Dominus Deus Sabaoth,” and I not only knew where we were, but was also able to sing along.There I was, participating in a Mass in Portuguese! The common treasury of Latin chants of the parts of the Mass can ensure that wherever we go in the world, we can still take part. A priest friend of mine tells me that foreigners have come up to him after Mass and thanked him for doing parts in Latin, because it made them feel at home—they knew what was going on, even though their English was poor.

Now, don't get me wrong. I don't think all the music should be in Latin. I think all of us should be able to do the Agnus Dei, Pater Noster, and Sanctus in Latin. The council agrees with me. But what about other music? What should we write? I find much music today horrible not just because the melodies are bad, but because the texts are terrible. The final quote from Sacrosanctum Concilium tells us what we should be doing: the songs should take their texts from Scripture or the liturgy itself. There is no need to write such pap as “Sing a new church into being” or “Gather us in” when we have 150 psalms, four gospels, and the letters of the New Testament to sing. Composers should set the texts of the Lectionary to music and we should sing them. Wouldn't it be great to walk out of Mass humming something like “God so loved the world that he sent his only Son” or “I give you a new commandment: love one another as I have loved you?”

I have much more to write, but this post is already excessivly long. Check
back and I may write something on what Roman Catholics could learn from Byzantine music.

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