Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Now let us join...an unending hymn of praise....

This is another posting borrowed from MSF that dovetails from concerns expressed in the blogosphere about the seemingly incongruent use of a particular set of Eucharistic Acclamations during the recent installation Mass at the DC Shrine.

From the "Installation" thread I'm happy to receive Kathy's very insightful remarks, prompted by the concerns of Jeffrey and others, regarding the "problem of ownership" of the Sanctus. Her insight simultaneously reminds us of both the liturgical and theological aspects that attend the moment and performance of the Sanctus at Mass. (I do wonder if the discussion of the affect of singing the Proulx setting at the installation Mass in DC would have had such reaction and traction if the Sanctus of Mass XVIII was sung in its stead? Same question for the truncated Proulx setting of the Schubert "Deutsche Messe?" Would the liturgical moment have been more or less elevated in relationship to the ideals with those choices?)
I've mentioned elsewhere that the Sanctus from Faure's REQUIEM epitomizes that enjoining of heaven and earth in and beyond time for me. Whether or not I'm singing it in the choir or listening to it in concert or liturgy, that setting most rings my bells. Putting aside the fact that it demands a choral-only rendition, I would want to know if the affect of the Faure could be made manifest in a Sanctus that includes congregational participation as well?
I'm also putting aside, for brevity's sake, any concern about the argument for the choral/polyphonic Ordinary being occasionally appropriate in toto. I just want to concentrate on aspects that more or less that avoid pitting utility and aesthetics at odds. (A hat tip to Msgr. Mannion's five models of lit-mus.)
One of the first settings of the Holy in the post-SLJ era that captured my attention for having something similar in affect to the Faure was Bob Hurd's setting of the EA's on his collection "Roll Down the Ages." It seemed then and still now that the terraced rising of the "Holy" motive (very simple scalewise motion) partnered to the arpeggiated, semi-ambiguous major I to minor v harmonic accompaniment emulated the ephemeral beginning of the Faure. Of course the Hurd, being mindful of its utility, moves the text and musical setting along unlike the Faure. But I've interpreted the Hurd as emphasizing the power of the word "Holy" as its setting rises in intensity to "God of power and might." A new motive accompanies Hurd's "heaven and earth are filled" which is not difficult for a congregation to render at all, but is accomplished with a brief tonal center shift that Hurd then leads to another "Faure moment"- the "Hosanna." I'm not suggesting the Hurd matches the majesty of the Faure, I'm saying that it elevates the ideal, moment and cosmic unity in its own similar way. I now cease to discuss the Hurd specifically here, but my point is that I have yet to find, in most if not virtually all of the big gun publisher English settings, any other setting that resonates with the "perfection" I feel in the Faure. Like Gavin, gun to the head I'll take the Proulx "City" over his "Community" in a heartbeat; that puts me at odds with a majority of tradtionally oriented DM's already. I'll make the best of MOC (which I never use except at funerals/weddings; can't be helped) rather than the box step of the composite SLJ Mass of the 70's. I'll give props to Janco for upping the ante with "Angels and Saints" except that its repeated Michel Legrand melodic motives in 6/8 (that's Masonic? Wow, where'd that come from?) are too lugubrious and grow wearisome from incessant repetition. But that beats down the contrivance known as the "Celtic Mass" which doesn't contain any melodic motives as I recognize them at all, save for the movement that its author "borrowed" supposedly for a cantus firmus for the "new Mass on the block in the 90's.) Yikes, what a mess.
Now back to the issue of whether the Sanctus' demands of both utility and aesthetics can be met- one of the other settings I've mentioned here in the past is Rv. Schiavone's "Mass of the Holy Family" (OCP.) As he does throughout this brevis setting, he establishes a "refrain" ideal using a very decent and accessible melodic motif that he deploys for, if you will, super-moments in the text declamation. Between those moments, the choir alternates with some lovely, not profound, choral polyphonic sections. This Schiavone setting is much more successful with this integration than, say, Proulx's choral codas to popular "Amens" such as the Danish, the Dresden, etc. he published with GIA in the 80's. That set, along with some other ordinary settings I can't specifically name now at home, is analagous to putting a Dior gown on a mannequin. Another problem that has occured in modern English settings that have a sort of antiphonal construct, is that the congregational melodies that are, as I said, crafted to be "lovely" are generally set with equally lovely harmonic accompaniments. But when the choral only section arrives, suddenly the choir and organ are negotiating Bartok and Stravinsky-esque choral harmonies that obscure, if not obliterate the simple beauty that preceded it.
The word "hackneyed" comes to mind when I think of major Masses to hit the newsprints in the last two decades. And some of my own settings would so likely be regarded, in retrospect.

When the new translation texts are promulgated, I would hope that composers will remember that choirs exist not only to assist the congregation in singing whatever is rightfully theirs to sing, but to add a specific ideal of beauty to each and every musical moment. I would think that composers might benefit by studying how composers in all eras (including polyphony) treated specific textual elements and apply their compositional vocabularies to seemlessly calling forth the abilities of both congregations and choirs. Isn't that what is literally called for by the invocation to the Sanctus?

1 comment:

Todd said...

To your last question, I would say yes.

The Hurd Sanctus: yes, I haven't sung that in 21 years. I was less aware then of what you've discussed about it, but yes, I agree.

This essay certainly gives me more pause before embarking on finding better Mass settings for my parish. Thanks for giving me considerations for a higher standard.