So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter (2 Thess. 2:15). Guard what has been entrusted to you. Avoid the godless chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge, for by professing it some have missed the mark as regards faith (1 Tim. 6:21-22).

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Dear liberal (c)atholics, can we please move the discussion concerning sacred music past personal tastes to an objective appreciation of the nature of sacred music and the Mass?

Apologies. A lengthy title for a Tuesday rant reflection.

First off, the title of this post—a question, and a loaded one at that—is merely rhetorical. If the mess which has developed over the last 40 years is any indication, the contemporary liberal mind is rarely disposed to an honest appreciation of the facts, especially facts which demand acceptance and reject the sophistry of liberal paraphrases of or their loose play with liturgical norms.

Liberal or progressive Catholics are particularly adept at confusing the issue by expressing their satisfaction or dissatisfaction regarding a given celebration of the Sacred Liturgy in highly personal terms which suggest that the Liturgy can (or must, to their way of thinking) be configured to the musical tastes of an uninformed congregation ignorant of the facts.

Exiled

Classically trained Catholic musicians, if they be trained musicians, have departed or never inhabited Catholic parish choirs because the Liturgy in most places has become an unwelcome place for their talents, talents which enable them to realize great works of art that belong in the Church's worship because beauty and goodness honour God and edify the faithful.
Note aside. Sad to say, highly skilled Catholic musicians are more appreciated in the communities of our separated brethren who present more great Catholic music on a regular basis than Catholic parishes ever do. I know of several young Catholics who are choral scholars at non-Catholic communities. Locally, a Baptist community, three Anglican communities, and a Lutheran community host entire sacred oratorios that have yet to be sponsored by any Catholic parishes. The resources are available, but the will is lacking among music directors. So, trained singers go elsewhere because their skills are not needed in Catholic parishes.
God is beautiful, so offer Him what better resembles Him: a beautiful heart, a beautiful voice accompanied by beautiful music, a beautiful Mass. The preceding thoughts are lost upon the average liturgist or pretender to the role of Master of Ceremonies or choir director. Let's face it, what most liturgists do to the Sacred Liturgy is to make it average, as in render it bland, flat, jejune... .

Appreciation of the Church's rich treasury of sacred music—from Palestrina, Victoria and Allegri to Duruflé and contemporary masters such as MacMillan—is all but forgotten among those who thrill to over amplified guitars, tambourines, djembes and such. The fan of adult contemporary muzak thinks that the music of the Liturgy should follow his or her taste for secular pablum. Never mind the fact that what presents itself as liturgical music is nothing more than pop music poorly done with heterodox lyrics that too often place a focus on the creature above a focus on God.

The fact is, from parish committees to diocesan liturgical commissions to national liturgical offices, there is little appreciation for the art of the Mass. Is it fair to say that most people consider music mere decoration and thus anything goes? The conversation barely moves forward because minds are polluted with strange notions about the nature of the Mass. Furthermore, collections of Mass music routinely omit the actual text of the Mass. The Proper chants are missing from most missalettes and hymn books commonly used in the Ordinary Form of the Mass. Most people have no idea that specific texts which "flesh out" the orientation of a given Mass are missing from the Mass on any given Sunday.

Many songs or hymns that find their way into said missalettes and hymnals are devotional or about God and His gifts, not necessarily directed to God. In many of those songs the Persons of the Holy Trinity are hardly mentioned, if at all. If the devotional text is orthodox and directed to God rather than at or around Him, then the singing of such music-lite material should, if one is so attached to said music, be confined to one's personal devotions outside of Mass. True liturgical music has the singer and listener focussed upon or oriented to God and His gifts and embodies a response of praise, adoration, contrition, thanksgiving and supplication directed to God as all good liturgical music does.

To reclaim a sense of objectivity toward the Mass and music of the Mass, the faithful Catholic can promote a restoration of a proper sense of the constituent elements of sacred music, among which are the following:
  • Order and the theological geometry of authentic harmony. True sacred music (polyphony) is perfectly configured to the hierarchy of tonality. There is a grammar to tonal music. Contemporary liturgical music of the popular kind typically violates basic tonal and compositional principles. Hence, instead of sublime order we have disorder exemplified in the sonic fare which is imposed upon the Mass.
  • Priority of the prescribed chanted text. True sacred music presents the text of the Mass, not substitutes for the Proper chants, for example. Yes, despite the rhetoric of ill-informed liturgists, chant remains the foundation and prescribed music of the Roman Catholic Church.
  • The Mass is something we receive, not something we reinvent each week. When we worship God, we enter into, not reinventing, the Liturgy wherein Jesus Christ is the principal actor. Ad orientem worship reminds us far better than versus populum celebration that we are journeying toward and entering into the Liturgy of Heaven when we approach the tabernacle and sanctuary of God. The Choir sings, or should sing, music that echos the quality of song, i.e., the beauty and goodness, of the angelic choir. Unaccompanied vocal music deserves pride of place in the liturgical choir's repertoire.
  • Instrumentation or orchestration should not obscure the sacred text. If you'll pardon the expression, how often do we hear guitarists and pianists jamming at Mass in a manner akin to spiritual masturbation? The text of the Mass, the word of God, seems almost abandoned or loathed under such conditions. There is a reason why the Church forgoes the use of instruments on certain solemn occasions, including the silencing of even the King of instruments, i.e., the pipe organ. We surrender our aesthetic needs, principally the need to indulge our feelings, in order to focus most acutely on the Holy Trinity—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—and the gift of salvation which Jesus Christ purchased for us on Calvary.
Lamentations of the Lazy

"But I can't understand Latin!," protests the narrow minded minion of cafeteria (c)atholicism. Latin, it must be repeatedly said, is still the official language of the Church. The fact that many Catholics in traditional parishes can and do hear and pray well the Mass in Latin, to a greater or lesser degree, proves that Latin is not an obstacle to praying the Mass. People can and do learn to pray the Mass in Latin because they understand that Latin is the language of the Church's worship of God. One need not be fluent in Latin to appreciate the melody and/or harmony attached to a text. Harmony, that is, which is theologically rich in the way it fleshes out the meaning of the text. True harmony forms the heart as meaningfully as true text, for it (harmony) shapes the heart in the form of beauty. Besides, most hand missals and hymnals of the traditional variety have Latin and English printed together. One need go no further than look at an adjacent column or paragraph on the same page to read a translation of the Latin. Harmony is text—if one has the ears to hear the theological truths "incarnated" in it.
(a) By sacred music is understood that which, being created for the celebration of divine worship, is endowed with a certain holy sincerity of form.
(b) The following come under the title of sacred music here: Gregorian chant, sacred polyphony in its various forms both ancient and modern, sacred music for the organ and other approved instruments, and sacred popular music, be it liturgical or simply religious.—Musicam Sacram
The assumption that people must be able to understand and sing every phrase of the Mass is missing the obvious. Not all parts of the Mass are meant to be sung by the congregation or even the choir. The priest-celebrant has his lines. The deacon has his lines. The congregation is meant to sing the responses, a practice welcomed by the Second Vatican Council.
15. The faithful fulfil their liturgical role by making that full, conscious and active participation which is demanded by the nature of the liturgy itself and which is, by reason of baptism, the right and duty of the Christian people. This participation
(a) Should be above all internal, in the sense that by it the faithful join their mind to what they pronounce or hear, and cooperate with heavenly grace,
(b) Must be, on the other hand, external also, that is, such as to show the internal participation by gestures and bodily attitudes, by the acclamations, responses and singing.
The faithful should also be taught to unite themselves interiorly to what the ministers or choir sing, so that by listening to them they may raise their minds to God. (Note the sense is reinforced that the internal orientation of the worshipper grounds external participation.)
16. One cannot find anything more religious and more joyful in sacred celebrations than a whole congregation expressing its faith and devotion in song. Therefore the active participation of the whole people, which is shown in singing, is to be carefully promoted as follows:
(a) It should first of all include acclamations, responses to the greetings of the priest and ministers and to the prayers of litany form, and also antiphons and psalms, refrains or repeated responses, hymns and canticles.—Musicam Sacram
The Choir has a distinct role which, these days, is a role often trampled upon by cheap Mass settings which make the Gloria, for example, "singable" by the congregation. Dumbed down settings of the Gloria are among the most baneful examples of the cheapening of the Mass.

No one in the congregation is excluded from singing along with the choir, if he or she is so moved, but the quality of the music presented by the choir should not be restrained by some misguided ideology which envisions that the Church should be sanitized of great works of art. We are not puritans, nor are we meant to dumb down the music of the Mass merely to turn the Mass into a Sunday morning version of a Saturday night karaoke competition at a local bar.

Musicam Sacram speaks repeatedly about the proper roles which each individual and/or group should take on in the Liturgy, and that those roles should not be confused.

There is little excuse not to recover the great works of art in the Church's treasury. The only excuse, it seems, is a tired appeal to some never-approved "Spirit of Vatican II" innovations which deafen many Catholics to the beauty and inclusion of chant and sacred polyphony every Sunday, for example. Of course, there are great oases where great music is here and there presented. However, the typical parish Mass is a cultural wasteland inhabited by liturgical tyrants more interested in preserving power than actually serving the true nature of the Mass.

So, if one had to choose the music of the Mass, consider the following classifications or varieties of "Mass music".
  • Goofy vernacular text set to weak composition. By 'goofy' is meant text that is trite and theologically wonky. Just say 'no', and move on.
  • Substantial vernacular text set to weak composition. The Gloria is typically a victim of weak settings. Shed tears of disappointment and propose a chant version instead.
  • Substantial vernacular text set to strong composition. English settings of the Mass written by competent composers do exist and are magnificent. Give thanks to God for beautiful music in English!
  • Latin text set to weak composition. Yes, there are more than a few of these, mostly hymns written in the previous two centuries. Many of these compositions are, however, far superior to any of the Haugen or Haas songs. Bad taste has simply blinded Catholics to the distinctions between music and something (far) less than music.
  • Latin text set to strong composition. The golden standard. Palestrina, Victoria, Byrd, Duruflé - a simple Google search reveals a host of great composers of sacred music.
The last should be first, and the first... should never happen.

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