Friday, June 30
It Can Be Done
My major problem with much of the rhetoric in discussions of liturgical music is how theoretical so much of it is. In other words, everything tends to be couched in terms of a dismissal of the status quo and the call for a return to the glories of some halcyon past. Having done some historical research on the Church in America, I can testify that there was no halcyon past. Thomas Day has made invaluable contributions with his books Why Catholics Can't Sing and Where Have You Gone, Michelangelo? both of which describe the trendiness and mediocrity of music in American Catholicism before the Second Vatican Council (sound familiar?). In a certain sense, very little changed but the language and the style.
The problem, then, is both a liturgical and a cultural one. How does one reconcile a liturgical and musical tradition that comes off as very "highbrow" and "arty" with a decidedly middlebrow culture that tends to reject these things, and which furthermore tends to embrace a more emotional form of piety than that typically expressed by the chant and polyphony tradition? In other words, a culture where Amazing Grace has far more cachet than Veni Creator Spiritus.
Certainly, the Church has a glorious musical tradition, but this has almost never been heartily embraced in North America, except in some pockets of the Midwest.
How, then to bring about a positive encounter between this musical tradition, which the Pope has recently re-emphasized, with the state of things on the ground in America? The first important thing to do is not to act like snobs. One of the main obstacles that keeps chant and polyphony out of American churches is the suspicion that this is snobby music that belongs in the concert hall. The primary way to avoid snobbery is to approach the current scene with some level of understanding, both in terms of what motivates people to embrace music of, say, the St. Louis Jesuits, and how to introduce and educate about better music in a charitable fashion.
Another important aspect of this process is to be sensitive about the issue of Latin. Your parish is not going to switch from "Mass of Creation" to a polyphony Mass said entirely in Latin, and it doesn't have to. Suspicion of Latin can be ingrained, and isn't going to go away immediately. Start by emphasizing some of the better recent works by the likes of Richard Proulx and Carroll Andrews, contained best in GIA's Worship III and less so but somewhat adequately in Ritualsong and Gather Comprehensive, Second Edition. Similarly, World Library Publications and OCP are both putting out more and more decent, solid music (even Dan Schutte has gotten in the act and written a beautiful "Song of Mary" arranged for brass and organ). Over time, you can introduce a Latin Agnus Dei, and with the right choir perhaps a performance of the Mozart "Ave Verum Corpus" or a similarly easy motet. This is a way of getting people used to Latin as a viable liturgical tongue and welcoming of more of it. Key to all this, of course is doing it well. A poorly carried off attempt will simply prove embarrassing and further entrench the status quo.
Like the title of my post said, this can be done, and it doesn't have to be done so self-consciously that anyone who doesn't buy completely into the program is going to feel lost and rejected. I present as a model of this the 11:00 a.m. Mass at my own parish, Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Chicago. Our Lady of Mt. Carmel is a beautiful English Gothic church in the East Lakeview section of the north side of Chicago. Here is an example of how our typical Sunday Mass will go:
Opening or Introit Hymn (We have been using some hymns from the wonderful new "Introit Hymns for the Church Year" by Christoph Tietze, From World Library Publications. Tietze has done a wonderful service by setting all the Introits for the year to classic hymn tunes - this is a highly recommended book.)
Choral Kyrie (English or Greek, depending on the setting, which changes each week)
Choral Gloria (usually from the same setting as the Kyrie)
Choral Psalm Setting (we make use of the wonderful in-house settings by late OLMC choir director William Ferris and current director Paul M. French)
Choral Gospel Acclamation Verse
Creed (Spoken in English or Latin Credo III, depending on season)
Offertory Anthem (Usually from the polyphonic or English choral tradition, also including new anthems by the likes of Richard Proulx, Paul French, and Jerome Coller, OSB)
Sanctus/Memorial Acclamation/Amen (Not choral - we rotate between the Proulx setting of the Schubert Mass, the plainchant setting, and the "Danish Amen" Mass)
Choral Agnus Dei (Usually same as Kyrie and Gloria. Usually we chant the first two verses of the Agnus and then sing the third verse from a choral setting. This is highly recommended, especially as a way of convincing pastors a choral setting won't take forever.)
Communion Chant (There is no communion hymn - often times we use the effective method of singing the Latin chant and then recapitulating it in a short English choral interlude before repeating it. Thus, people musically get both the original chant and the translation.)
Again, we are able to do all of this within an English Missa Normativa, in a normal, territorial parish. I think Our Lady of Mt. Carmel provides a good example of how to unselfconsciously build a good music program in a normal, young, growing parish. Our congregation consists largely of young professionals and families, and seems to be growing. Thus, it is possible to do all of this and have a full church every Sunday, not full simply of people who are "fans" of this music and ideologically selected but of ordinary parishioners who understand and value it. Thus, it can serve as an effective model for how to move forward from here. Thus, while traditional music can mean an empty church, if it does done poorly, it can be an integral part of a full and thriving parish if done profesionally and charitably.