Thursday, August 20, 2009

Notes from the Choir, Vol. 4

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.


Dino said...

You are completelycorrect that the NO can be reverent, and that the right music can help make it that way.
However, I don't think amplified drums as I endured last week fit in this category, any more than dancing girls do.
Then there is the questonof tempo. Lately, in my parish, it sounds as if the organist is asleep to the point tht one's mind can wander between sylables of even the most familiar and traditional songs. I've attended funerals that were more upbeat than our droning Al----le----lu----ya; 45 seconds to sing a word it would seem should be a bit more exuberant.

Maggie said...

You're right-- it's about reverence. And you're also correct that certain styles of music simply lead to a more reverent atmosphere than others do. It's so frustrating to see parishes try to "update" their music to "engage people" when the music that inevitably follows doesn't remind people they're in heaven. Ugh.

By the way, I like the new layout!

LeeAnn said...

Some times it is also about what kind of musicians are available at a particular parish. In the last five years we've had three musicians total. The first can play saxophone or synthesizer. We had on occasion "Lean on me" as the recessional. The second is a guitarist who has a band. He has led the usual praise and worship (protestant) style songs as well as the Haas/Haugen stuff. However he also developed a strong devotion to Mary and has started writing his own music, which is much more reverent, although still in a performance style. The third musician we have is a pianist firmly in the Haas/Haugen/a few traditional hymns mold.

The music has improved dramatically from the synthesizer-only days, but we still have no choir (or much room for one in our tiny church) and no one with any experience in conducting a choir or teaching traditional music. So for now they pretty much use whatever the OCP music guide suggests.

There is nothing more jarring to me than having a mix of styles in Mass. "Holy, Holy" followed by the Celtic gloria and then "One Bread One Body" maybe followed by a little "Immaculate Mary" for good measure.

I've noticed the Spanish Mass has the same problem. There is only one tone for the Spanish Mass settings which seems to be "festive" or "peppy." Does reverence sound different in Spanish? I'm not sure it really does but the hymnal seems to think so. It's called Canto y Flor I think.

Dino said...

If I remember right, "Canto y Flor" is from OCP, famous for some H&H type stuff.
The last US parish in which I attended Mass, in Spanish, the music was led by a "Juanito One-Note" with a guitar. Not "festive" or "peppy". The closest he cme to this was a slow rendering of Jester Hairston's "Amen".

Anonymous said...

Thematic Mass is a concept. High Mass is another concept. So is High Holy Mass in French, or in Latin, or in German. Guitar Mass used to have a theme in the late 70's.

The point is less perhaps the degree of reverence, as seeming preponderance of 'chaos' of differences of tones and themes, such as the headache one sensitive to color and form might get on observing a grown woman attired in lacy pink argyle bobby sox, scuffed white patent leather Mary Janes, orange sherbet and chestnut brown boiled wool topper, knee-length navy skirt with box pleats, yellow chiffon blouson top, chartreuse mantilla, and candy red dangly earrings and large beaded necklace and handbag, set off with a heady whiff of Old Hydrangea perfume. One might find no offence if color blind, as the elements of one with the soul of decorum are present i.e. modest knee length, bare arm covering, loose-fitting top, no peek-a-boo blouse, and the wearing of a veil, but all in one package is a bit too much. One might even suspect, if carried out with a supercilious air that there's an element of bluster or 'making fun of' in arriving late to flounce up to the front pew.

Sure, Holy, Holy, Holy for the entrance and exit processional ties the Mass up neatly, and not too many new-fangled Glorias, but maybe the whole thing could be 'toned' down to something more auristically pleasant?

I don't think it's a matter of any maliciousness, but taste and inability or inflexibility of changing anything to make the Offertory sound more like the Creed such as using the same tempo, same key, or same syncopation.

I found myself giggling hysterically once while a visitor at Mass when my brother warned me of the local whitebreasted warbler leading everyone from her vantage point in the front row despite the determination of the booming organist; at Communion she soar to her highest during the semi-solo provided by those that chose to make the Sacrament more meditative--not that day.


Otepoti said...

I am going thoroughly to disagree with you, so I have been thinking for a day or so how best to do this politely.

Firstly, as a veteran of all too many meetings discussing worship music, I am sorry to see you succumb to the Protestant disease of trying to pin down an absolute and objective standard for reverence. There is no such thing, of course. One man's solemnity is another man's frivolity.

An example drawn from my own tradition - we often sing Psalms to settings by Louis de Bourgeois from the 1500's. Some of our young people find them all too solemn. However, in their day, they were considered irreverent by Queen Elizabeth the First, who labelled them "Geneva Jigs."

Sadly, I see no resolution to the problem of suiting all ideas of the holy and reverent in Protestant worship. For us, incompatibily in worship styles must ever remain a fertile field for the exercise of mutual charity and forbearance.

Fondly, I had imagined that tensions over worship music would much less in the liturgical churches. Surely, I thought, the dignity of the Mass could not be impugned, no matter how inadequate the settings or performances of the music.

Evidently not.


Please remember, we will worship perfectly only in Heaven. Till then, we must have charity and patience with each other, even with bad tambourine and guitar players. They're doing their best, and they, too, love God.

In Christ.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I was one of those kids that used to sit under the baby grand to 'feel' the sound of music, so voices raised in unison, is an overwhelming sense of belongingness as a joyful participant in Mass, no matter the flavor of the musical notes.