Sunday, September 23, 2012

To be "Pro Choice" in liturgical music? Yes, but how?

The Church has given us the music we need and it is found in the GRADUALE ROMANUM. Every piece is scripted for each part of Mass for the full liturgical year. Plus, we have new resources that enable people to sing this music in English, in much easier settings. This is what we ought to be shooting for.
Two years ago, I would have been certain that this book (LUMEN CHRISTI MISSAL) would have been far too cutting edge for American parishes. Today, maybe not. Regardless, we finally have a clear and achievable standard.

If the Psalm between readings at Mass makes your ears hurt, here is the ticket to peace: The PARISH BOOK OF PSALMS by Arlene Oost-Zinner. This one book has beautiful Psalms in the Gregorian style written for solo cantor or group, with full notated verses, for the entire liturgical year. Get a copy for every member of the choir. The Psalm is the oldest and most revered sung part of the Mass, and it deserves the right musical treatment in every parish
For years I’ve heard the lamentations. Why can’t Catholics seem to put together a decent hymnal? Our own schola in my parish does without. We now plan liturgy without any recourse to the hymnal. This has saved us endless hours of frustration over crazy music, bad theology in texts, terrible arrangements, goofy Psalms, pathetic Mass settings, and more. We are free, and now the Roman Rite speaks for itself.
I’ve not had much luck in persuading pastors of this opinion. Taking the hymn-free option does indeed require some degree of musical expertise. You have to be pretty savvy to know how to pull it off. Not everyone can do this. New pastors who don’t entirely trust their music staff still need a hymnal just to work as a filtering device, and many pastors believe that the people do indeed need something to look at during Mass.
In this case, I’m happy to report that after half a century, there is now a viable alternative. The book is the VATICAN II HYMNAL. It is published by Corpus (Christi) Watershed. This is not a big publisher. It is actually one person, and his name is Jeffrey Ostrowski. It offers an excellent selection of poetically and theologically robust hymns. And refreshingly, unlike most post conciliar hymnals, there are no self-referential pop-song imitations. The rest of the hymnal is filled out with a diversity of highly useful material.

The SIMPLE ENGLISH PROPERS provides music for the full liturgical action of these processions (Introit/Offertorio/Communio) for singers who have not previously sung Mass propers. They are designed to be used without accompaniment. They are flexible enough to be sung by a cantor alone or by a large choir that can sing in unison in two octaves or be divided into high and low voices. The people are free to join in but this is not necessary, for the propers of the Mass belong primarily to the choir.
All of these "mini" reviews were authored by the managing editor of the journal "SACRED MUSIC," Jeffrey Tucker, culled from reviews at MusicSacra Forum, the Chant Cafe and the introduction to one particular volume, the SIMPLE ENGLISH PROPERS.

The above five reviews represent the notion often mentioned (including from this author) that this era amounts to a watermark, better yet watershed(!) period in the history of our Church’s liturgical evolution. The most common expression amounts to something like “What a great time to be Catholic.” Why yes, thank you, it is.” But the difficult reality to grasp is that the five resources above, not to mention the amazing list of royalty-free resources (by and large) found at the Musica Sacra Home Page “Chant Books” section, presents the interested, then dedicated church musician with more than a plethora of options with which to fashion a new liturgical landscape, both ecology and economy, within the “normative” parish practices that can be, at the least, presumed to be antithetical at worst and apathetic often at best to yet another set of circumstances and personnel that “leadership” is convinced with result in “full, active and conscious participation” by the faithful. Long story short, pastors and parish administrators have a crew-cut vision of what all that means: it means they can hear the folks singing, period.

But those among us who’ve been “at this” for a long while know that such an assessment can be an indicator of both true and deceptively false perceptions of success.

Besides, there are finally analysis and conversations that, due to the instantaneous marvel of the internet, are laid before our eyes, ears and intellects that challenge us to reconcile the dissonance deeply embedded in our practices, i.e. “The hymn sandwich” (which doesn’t, ironically actually require the use of any formal hymns at all) and the use or abuse of the roles of the choir and cantor in modern, authentic worship music.

I won’t, in this post, elaborate further on the dilemma of choice represented by both these newer contenders for pastoral implementation in parishes above, much less those market driven and feature laden volumes that have dominated the American pew pockets for decades. But, it is important to note, in light of a very interesting chronology of liturgies directed by the eminent American scholar, Benedictine monk Fr. Anthony Ruff, currently at a conference in Europe, that the notion of unity of practice that appears to waft and have the same appealing fragrances of our ceremonial incense, may be a veritable mirage, both now, in the past and likely into the future. As I’m now in the twilight of a four decade vocation in worship music, I pray and work for coherence and consistency in the local fields with even more ardor than perhaps two decades ago, when I thought it expeditious to just cover the waterfront through eclecticism. But what I see is that the four or five decade long tenured Director of Music as exemplified by John Dunn, the late Msgr. Schuler, Roger Wagner and Paul Salamunovich, and most notably Professor William Mahrt, rare as their careers have already proven, represent a soon forgotten species. So I suppose what I’m saying is that the wisdom necessary to navigate through the above choices, their unique offerings as well as redundancies, will require not only intuitive young directors whom we have in abundance in CMAA, but those who will remain at their posts long enough to mentor generations of future, professed and learned musicians at service to the Church.

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