Today's edition of the sporadic "Notes from the Choir" feature is going to be a bit different, in that I'm not focusing in on any specific music this time. Instead, I want to talk about a concept that has to do with sacred music in general, something I think is lacking from many of the more modern publications, yet something which wasn't always guaranteed to be a part of the older pieces, either.
There is much talk about the need for reverence at Mass. Some Catholics go so far as to say that the Novus Ordo Mass is incompatible with reverence, and thus is deficient. I would not say that, myself, because I have seen Novus Ordo Masses offered and assisted at with reverence and the proper attitude. If there has been a tendency to pull away from that proper spirit of reverence and towards a casual, "folksy" attitude, it has not been due, I truly believe, to any inherent incompatibility between the Novus Ordo Mass and reverence, but has rather been due to a lamentable spirit of liturgical experimentation which persists even this long after the Second Vatican Council.
Certainly, the music at Mass can either add to the atmosphere of reverence, or detract from it. Though our attention is often focused on the hymns, there is no doubt that the musical settings of the prayers of the Mass themselves often leave a great deal to be desired. And this is a point of great difficulty for many orthodox pastors who wish to inspire reverence at Mass; there simply aren't very many available Mass settings in English (I can't speak to the reality for other languages) which foster and inspire the spirit of reverence which should pervade the entire prayer of the Mass from the opening rites to the final blessing.
To put this problem in context, imagine that a musically-minded pastor has worked with his choir director to schedule the songs at Mass. The opening hymn is, perhaps, "Holy, Holy, Holy." Listen to it here; set your choice of instrument to "organ," if possible.
A few minutes later the choir begins the Gloria. The setting is that popular one, Marty Haugen's Mass of Creation (which we use at my parish most of the time). If you go to this page and scroll down, you can hear a snip of the "Gloria" as sung by a choir.
Can you hear the difference? Can you hear what is missing?
I have finally realized what I think it is, what key component of sacred music is missing in that which fails to promote reverence compared to that which does:
The first selection, "Holy, Holy, Holy," is many things: beautiful, harmonious, stirring, majestic, well-formed and well-written. But it is also solemn; that is, it is serious, sober, grave, earnest, formal. No one hearing this tune for the first time, whether it was played on organ or piano or by an orchestra, sung by a single, well-trained singer or performed in four-part harmony by a good choir, would ever mistake it for a light-hearted frolic. It is not sad, nor is it gloomy; yet it is clearly not meant for anything but sacred use, in the sense of being "set apart" in the service of God.
The second selection, you will note, doesn't sound all that wonderful even as it is being sung by what is obviously a professional choir (even if they are also, sadly, using some sort of bells). The harmonies don't so much seem to reinforce any sense of solemnity or majesty so much as the seem to be calling attention to themselves, and the music's three-beats-in-a-measure tempo sounds a little like a waltz, and a little more like a "dance around a maypole;" it doesn't sound like Mass.
And it sounds even less like Mass when it is being sung by a group of enthusiastic but slightly off-key amateurs and accompanied by, perhaps, an electric guitar and some tambourines. It cannot produce or contribute to a spirit of reverence for the excellent reason that there is nothing of solemnity about it; it is not particularly serious, nor is it particularly sacred.
Unfortunately, this setting--the Mass of Creation--is often spoken of as one of the better vernacular Mass settings in English. There are many reasons for this; one I didn't realize myself is that some settings actually tamper with the words of the prayers, rearranging whole parts of the prayers in an attempt to make the music "work" better.
So with the best intentions in the world, a pastor or music director can schedule traditional hymn after traditional hymn, only to have the strangest juxtapositions between solemn hymns which aid reverence and light, whimsical Mass settings which tear down any notion of reverence and only serve to facilitate such Mass innovations as the "three-bench handshake lunge" at the Sign of Peace, followed by the "Let No Hand Be Unheld!" mandate at the Our Father.
We're not going to get better sacred music until we have better Mass settings. We need compositions that are solemn, that take the Mass seriously, that point away from Earth and toward Heaven, away from these temporary lives in the vale of tears and toward eternity. It is true that such settings exist in Latin, but unless we seriously believe--as I do not--that there will in our lifetimes be a greater and greater push toward suspending the vernacular and having Mass prayed and heard in Latin, we need for there to be better choices than what we have now, so much of which was composed and written at a time when the composer thought he was aiding in the singing of a new church into being. What we really need is to sing the solemnity back into being, so the Mass can return to its reverent and holy heritage; we can't do this accompanied by tambourines. Or handbells, for that matter.