Tuesday, March 25, 2008

This post is copied from a thread I started at the MSForum boards, regarding the efficacy of the current state of the Pope's chapel singers-

Realizing excessive loquaciousness has derailed me before, I will risk broaching this subject with an audacious hope (or should that be "bodacious pope"?) with Ian W's (from the Musica Sacram Forum)quote:

"I was involved in that discussion. I can only speak for myself, but my take wasn't quite how you describe things. As far as my limited experience of the Sistine choir goes, I agree with you that they're not a good advertisement for Catholic liturgical music. As you say, there's a tendency to the soloistic. Also, they have problems with intonation. But ... we shouldn't throw out the baby with the bathwater. There are distinct choral traditions other than the 'English' sound. It should be possible for a choir director to work within one of those traditions, to develop a balance that respects liturgy, place and resource. Any move to uniformity would not only be unnecessary; it would impoverish us all. "

As Mike knows, I like Francis, have heard the capella "live" here in the states, in my city almost a couple of decades ago. They were on "tour" in the states during Lent, if I recall as late as the week prior to Palm Sunday. They were under Msgr. Bertolucci's direction. The concert consisted solely of the Palestrina settings of the Songs of Solomon. Prior to that, my only serious consideration of them were in masters seminars where recordings, both audio and video, were used as pedagogical examples of what a choral experience should NOT consist of. "Nuff said" there.I think it telling that we, at least, can agree that this group is not a "good advertisement" for the Church. This sentiment has just the slightest amount of benign tolerance among catholic musicians, that despite themselves (and I really try to not include the singers individually in this culpability) we credit their continued contributions and efforts to their legacy as the pope's personal ensemble, replete with the legends of Josquin, Lassus, Palestrina, Allegri. And I know, Mike, you have no reason to fret over their performance practice in those eras by comparison to that of the last two centuries. If they suffered internal problems, they certainly were behavioral like every other contemporaneous choir well into the Baroque. But I digress.Ian's criticisms also seem a bit bridled and measured: "soloistic" which, of course, breeds issues with "intonation." Not mentioned was the obvious lack of solid vocal development and care the boys should receive (which I saw in living color from the front row.) I'll try to be brief here: it could be argued that the capella does not meet the basic criteria of being a choir, other than it performs only for liturgies in church. This is a grand opera chorus in cassocks and surplices, in my estimation. And yes, one may argue that type of ensemble does fall into the category of a "choral tradition." But I believe an overwhelming majority of choral scholars would regard this "choir's" product as dysfunctional in all major areas of CHORAL proficiency, no matter what western tradition nuances would color the other various regional "sounds."Would we endorse the indigenous choral tone of lowlands' Mississippi shape-note singers, or the Bulgarian Radio Women's Chorus, or Ladysmith Black Mambazo as the "baby in the bathwater" and worthy of keeping IN TACT simply because they happened to be ensconsed in five centuries of service tradition at the Vatican?I have, through 25 years of ACDA membership and convention attendance, been privileged to hear most of the finest ensembles likely assembled in history, if you measure competence by evolving scholarship keeping pace with the natural human inclination to improve upon performance in art, athletics, invention etc. The Swedish Radio Choir under Ericcson was not a final terminus; what they achieved spawned even more stunning choral ensembles. The Kings College "sound" of Sir David Willcock has yielded many progeny, and in agreement with Ian, not all identical or xerox copies of each other's tonal properties. The bold richness of the Stuttgart Kammerchor under Bernius is full bodied, vibrant but never lists toward an aural assault upon the ear. The purity of some Asian choirs, the Dale Warland Singers, Chanticleer, St. Olafs and Brigham Young University choirs is breathtaking.No one has suggested that these schools of thought (choral philosophy ala Howard Swan) move toward bland uniformity.But the irony of the notion of moving toward uniformity while discussing the Sistine Chapel Choir is too much to ignore. Their leadership's insistence upon maintaining this clearly chauvinistic approach to corporate singing is deliberately antithetic to the very concept of "uniformity," which has to be the first foundation of truly choral excellence in any genre! It is also antithetic to the successful negotiation of the two native art forms that it is called to serve: chant and polyphony, as any reasonable choral scholar understands them. (Another irony- the fete celebrating the lifelong contribution of Msgr. Bertolucci in which both he and the Holy Father pounded into the collective consciousness the dire need to return to these forms universally; well, yes, the capella under the monsignor sang all Palestrina, all the time! They just did a Gawdawful job of it!) And lastly, as long as this ensemble is not fundamentally revamped to reflect universally understood standards of choral beauty, it remains antithetical to the very principles of beauty that Cardinal Ratzinger proposed as a necessary step in returning "beauty" to sacred worship in THE SPIRIT OF THE LITURGY.I haven't googled anything prior to these thoughts, but I remember reading in someone's blog that the new Marini has plans in place to initiate such a revamping of this singularly unique ensemble. I hope sooner than later. I would love to hear precision in beauty eminating from them even if via an EWTN/CTV broadcast. Were they such a compelling choir, perhaps the commentators would then keep their traps shut during the communios.Thus endeth the rant.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

As a brief prologue to my response to the commentary “The Furious Power of Music” by Fr. Anthony Manuppella in the current issue of SACRED MUSIC (Spring 2008, v.135, n.1,) I would commend Jeffrey Tucker for continuing this very important dialogue and discourse of these last two issues, that have benefited me personally through the offerings of Professors Stump and Mahrt as well as the reasoned Ms. Ballou. Fr. Anthony’s title took me aback somewhat, reminding me of the scenes in the film “Pulp Fiction” wherein the hit man Jules, as played ferociously by Samuel L. Jackson, quotes Ezekiel: “The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he, who in the name of charity and good will shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother's keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy my brothers.”
The zealous tone of Fr. Anthony’s commentary resonates with a righteous sort of menacing glare to my eyes as did those of the characters Jules was about to dispatch to perdition.
It is not the self-evident premises of the ecclesial documents that he re-iterates that are irksome to me, nor the rhetorical device of quoting an atheist’s paean that extols the unfathomable power of music. It is the cavalier, though heartfelt and not entirely untrue, insertion of code words full of innuendo and short on specific indictments, as well as stating the litany of “the usual suspects” that have smokily seeped through the stained glass window panes of post-conciliar, primarily American Catholic worship, and polluted the possibilities of a pristine, perfect atmosphere.
Here is my list of the irksome:
*Musical forms in currency today at many churches are interchangeable with lounge music.”
*For those who think narrowly, music in church is a kind of mood setter, cute but irrelevant. The more ample Catholic mind recognizes that music in church ought to act like an earthquake upon the soul, unleashing the powerful forces that make it crave intimacy with the Blessed Trinity.
*Our Catholic faith does not rest on such gauzy sweet nothings, or the musical equivalents.
*If a soul is fed on musical sap, its soul will turn to sap.
*Music at Mass should make us tremble. At least a bit.
*Man is never so intoxicated than when he is surrounded by sacred music (which immediately and ironically followed citations of criminals at bus depots being mollified by soft classical music, loud and percussive nightclub music-is that lounge music?- which produces emotional abandon to purchase liquor and give in to sexual license, and the heart-racing effect upon aficionados of John Phillip Souza’s marches!)
*Do you really feel that Kumbaya could inspire such words (as those of St. Augustine praising the Church contemporaneous’ “hymns and songs.”
*Mother Church….has felt it her grave obligation to protect (sacred music). After all, she recognizes that man’s soul hangs in the balance. If the music is wrong, the teaching of the church will be wrong, and men will go wrong….She (in this century, presumably the 100 years that span the 20th and 21st centuries) stood as a mighty wall against subjectivism and sentimentality.
Sacred music transports us beyond the stars to the throne of the Blessed Trinity. Beware of music at Mass that leaves us only Dancing with the Stars.

It’s really difficult to take all of the tentacles and emissions of this pulsating nebula of indictments in, and subject each of them to scrutiny. The filthy lucre of lounge music is certainly proffered here, there and everywhere among many parishes whose musical impoverishment likely predates the arrival of the first guitar-slinging crooners with ditto sheets of “Where have all the flowers gone.” But why give lounge music the low-lit evil eye alone? Aren’t there hordes of churches where one would swear they’d landed in Jalisco, Mexico on December 12th to the strains of mariachi and ranchera, and whose currency is measured by Pesos, Latino indeed, but not Latin? Aren’t there churches where one might expect Oktoberfest from the accordions and oompahing euphoniums? Aren’t there churches where the ukulele strums swing in concert with the lithe arms of hula dancers and slack key guitars? And how could Father forget the mother of all atrocities, the Broadway musical, which was borne from yet another T. Day identified defiler, vaudeville. Currency, whether as in commerce or as in connectivity, has never been a stranger hanging around the narthex doors throughout the last 1500 years of the Roman Church. And Mother Church has often found it indelicate and cumbersome, not to mention exponentially problematic to manage that currency, whether it be the parodies of Ockeghem or the spectacles of Classical Dom Masses in Vienna and Romantic grand opera masqued as Masses.
But Fr. Anthony rightly reaffirms the noble efforts of Pius X and most of his successors to preserve and protect the patrimony of Roman Rite music, understood commonly as those forms codified at the Council of Trent. But I think he traffics in excessive hyperbole to suggest that corrective documents such as Tra le sollectudini have, as a mighty wall, actually been a fortress keeping subjectivism, sentimentality and their vehicles, the popular hymnals and paperback missals out of the choir lofts. And the contention that such protection from centuries-old use of alius cantus (philosophical more so than practical) is a critical link in a logical progression of moral equations: “If music is wrong, the teaching is necessarily wrong, man will be led astray as their souls hang in the balance (should that soul not flee a church the moment it recognizes the opening strains of “Gather Us In.” Now, really, Father?
If provided time for more circumspection, I also believe Fr. Anthony would have not chosen the word “intoxicated” to ascribe a worshipping soul’s communion with the beauty of the chant and polyphony well performed. He proves my point by supposedly contrasting that state of being with the anesthetizing effects of classical muzak pumped into the clinical green waiting rooms of bus terminals to subdue the savage hearts present; and then the omni-irritating Europop thumping bass and electronica in the disco which, ahem, inevitably leads to chemical and biological intoxication-I’m numb, therefore I am not am, but numb. I really don’t know what to say about “Mine eyes…” or Souza marches and heart rates.
But this notion of intoxication is itself at odds with his premise of the “furious power” of sacred music to transform the soul into union with the infinite. Without deliberate, persistent and truly pastoral catechesis at the direction of every bishop through to every priest/celebrant provided every parishioner as regards the infusion of chant and polyphony (even IF in the VERNACULAR), even many “ample” Catholic minds* will likely be unable to process the paradigm shift as more than a change of musical atmosphere, thus still relegating them to “mood setters.” But instead of “cute but irrelevant, without such catechesis, we likely will have to confront charges of “pretty, but alienating.” Or “ethereal, but meaningless.” Or, as I heard from a right reverend Monsignor recently “Nice, but it doesn’t uplift me!” Gratuitous tolerance works both ways.
Speaking of ample minds recognizing that sacred music (which we have to presume from Fr. Anthony’s lexicon means that which has its roots in chant and Roman polyphony) ought to have the effect of an earthquake upon the soul- his approbation of Bishop Slattery’s contention must lead one to conclude that the use of metrical hymn texts and tunes provides a lesser magnitude tremor upon the soul. The singing of either “O God beyond all praising” or “Three Days” (text M.D. Ridge) to Holst’s Thaxted, to this soul, has the power of the caldera brewing beneath Yellowstone Park. The taking up of Lasst uns erfreuen to most its assigned texts washes over me like a tsunami and leaves me and my companion worshippers on the far side of the Red Sea, safe, renewed and prepared to give witness to the miracle of God! The majestic austerity of Crucifer ennobles this sinner to take up the yoke of Christ as well as my own crosses on my path towards my trials and sufferings. Without belaboring the point, are these not musics of “Furious Power” as implied by Fr. Anthony’s premise? And, apropos of the fact that as I write tomorrow is Good Friday, isn’t there a parallel resonance we ascribe to the text painting we find in chants such as “Videns Dominus” as is found in the spiritual “Were You There?” To tremble, indeed.
I suppose I could opt to take issue with the contentious language and propositions contained in other statements using the words “gauzy sweet nothings”…or “musical sap”…or the presumption that Kumbaya is still a hallmark of 21st century contemporary musical worship. But it’s really not necessary. In short, I found Fr. Anthony’s exhortation long on passion and “furious anger” towards general notions of laxity on the part of …. well, I’m just not sure exactly whom; and very short on specific examples and citations of actual musical forms or pieces that would sufficiently illustrate his argument. In that, his article shares a dubious similarity to the eloquent but nebulous defense of beauty apparently evident to Professor Stump in the music of the St. Louis Jesuits.
To Fr. Anthony: we get it, already. Chant and polyphony ought and hopefully shall regain principem locum obtineat universally in our Church. We’re working on it. Next time around, just say so without having to rummage around in the dustier bins of that which this particular readership (of SACRED MUSIC) have already consigned to the dumpster. But I also believe that a fundamental issue of intellectual honesty has yet to be fully deliberated in the effort to advance and restore truly sacred music in our worship- the endorsement, and that attends that, of metrical hymn texts whether from the Catholic tradition or not, and of worthy hymn or (blush) even songs that will transport them into the hearts and souls of the faithful.