Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Dear Charlie, Sacred Music Advice Column for the Love Lorn Masses

I thought I'd share portions of an ongoing series of liturgical catechesis articles that I contribute to the  parish monthly newspaper. I asked staffers and musicians alike to ask one particular question about sacred/liturgical music via email, and then like Dear Abby ®
, I could answer them with a particular emphasis on local considerations. Enjoy.

Why do the violinists at both St, Mary's and Holy Family not have any microphones to amplify those beautiful instruments?  They should!

Interesting question, in that one has to consider is the issue about hearing the instruments or about the necessity of microphones and sound systems at use in our churches? TCCoV’s four worship buildings have vastly different acoustical properties, and three of the churches have recently renovated their public address technology. But in the 21st century, people experience audibility primarily that is amplified for live spoken or music events. 60 years ago at the LJ Williams Theater, not one Redwood High or COS musical used a single microphone on stage or in the orchestra pit. But now, not only are there huge PA systems there, but also at tiny venues like the Rotary, El Diamante or Main Street Theatre, and every performer has a personal “Britney Spears” facial microphone.
At worship, our documents actually comment upon the reality that, save for the celebrant’s orations and homily, and the reading of scriptures, “natural” acoustical sound is the ideal, especially as regards music. Now we know that ideal cannot be upheld as hearing the sacred texts of Mass, whether spoken or sung, is a necessary aspect to comprehensibility and understanding. That reality enables us to participate in many ways. But we need to ask all who address our congregations to not regard the microphone and its volume levels to solve all audio needs. Lectors, deacons, priests, singers need to learn that projection and pronunciation is a better solution than merely talking at a conversational level to hundreds of people.
With instruments like the violin, or the flute, the audio range they perform in is in the treble, or upper frequencies of musical pitches. In normal practice at Mass, if they are not heard, the likely cause is there is some unbalance between those instruments and the piano, organ or guitars. But if you amplify the violins, you alter the natural tone, or timbre of that instrument, just like a singer can whisper and croon into a microphone, which is inappropriate for singing at worship.
So my short solution for those who are more attracted to the subtle nuances of flutes, horns, clarinets and violins, sit in various different sections of each church and discover where the natural sound is easily appreciated. Microphones do not solve all audio issues, nor should we expect them to.
Is it possible to have the song during communion be quietly instrumental rather than sung?
The short answer is a qualified “No.” The reason being is that every single Vatican (universal) document from the Council of Trent, through councils Vatican I and II, and particularly those of the twentieth century from S.Pius X, Pius XII, and S. John XXIII, S. John Paul II, Benedict XVI and their curial associates have reaffirmed that the singing of certain and particular scriptural texts (primarily from Psalms) is an integral, non-dispensable aspect that must attend the “hearing” of Mass.
However, we also know that tradition and history have provided different degrees of Mass forms, from the highest-Solemn High Mass, the Missa Cantata (not completely sung), and of course, the Low Mass with or without the so-called four hymn sandwich that became normative in the 20th century. And in previous centuries the only music heard in many western churches was that of the pipe organ with no singing whatsoever. So that’s the long answer. Quiet organ music is not prohibited during the processions, but it is not normative nor the ideal. Organs cannot sing the Word, only human voices can offer that back to God.
And a three for the price of one!
Should there be music at ALL masses? Is vocal music participation any different liturgically than instrumental?

Is listening any less full and active participation than actually singing?

Is not understanding the words being sung ie: any other language than ones own still full and active participation?
I think my answer to the quiet instrumental question above more or less addresses the last portion of the first questions. Regarding the first portion, it is not legislated that every Mass have any musical component whatsoever. Whether or not the notion of the “quiet Mass” springs from the British/Orange suppression of Catholicism in the Tudor era and since in Ireland, and was simply customarily transferred to Maryland and the rest of the colonies afterwards is a matter of history and interpretation. Where we get into difficulties is in reconciling the sanctioned Low Mass, or Missa Lecta of the Pius V/John XXIII Missal, with the reformed Mass of Paul VI. The clear intent of the council (VII) and its pro-genitors Pius X/XII, was that the Mass be engaged more fully by the sung participation of the faithful in the pews, according to the prescribed offices of who sang what when?
Second question: “No” if the heart of the listener is pre-disposed to listen actively and fully. Turning the tables on the question, a person who is singing whatever hymn, chant or song during the Mass without an equally pre-disposed heart meant for worship of God, is not de facto “actively participating” by the mere physical act of singing. One can perfunctorily sing “Happy Birthday” to someone in a massive office environment without really meaning it quite easily. Singing “On Eagles’ Wings” because it’s so darn purdy is hardly a faithful act of honest praise to God.
Third question answered by another question: You’re in Vatican City. You’re in St. Peter’s. Pope Francis is the celebrant for Mass. He, the lectors, the deacons, the choir and the ubiquitous “ALL” have and are following on ordo of an Italian language Missal. But, during the penitential rite the schola chants (with congregational responses) the “Kyrie” in Greek and the “Gloria” in Latin (de Angelis, most likely.) Do you, as an interested, pre-disposed Catholic there to partake in all of worship, feel less than involved because your primary language is English, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Tagolog or Hmong? Of course not.
But somehow, here in the plurality of the US of A, and sanctioned by the sensibilities of bishops and celebrants for decades, we think that comprehension of every slight detail as well as the whole picture of the ritual has a profound effect upon our having “actively, fully participated” in the post-conciliar Mass. Nothing could be further from the truth. The language is incidental to the ritual; we need it because it’s all we have in this “veil of tears” to offer fit praise to the Creator of language.
If we use the canard of the vernacular to be the betterment of the ritual because of comprehensibility, we’re putting all our sensory and metaphysical marbles into one basket. That’s not real ritual. That’s hedging one’s bets.
Can you tell me how the music is coordinated, by hymn, chant or song that is in sync with the liturgy? 
What the sung music of the liturgy, whether the Ordinary or the Propers (the assigned texts to be sung for the day, just like there are reading assigned to each day’s Mass), must do is be is some sort of concerted effort to understand the Liturgical Calendar of Sundays and Feasts, and the two year cycle for Daily Masses in the Lectionary, and then acknowledge that effort by choosing music that is as close to those assigned scripture passages as possible. This is the big secret just now starting to be understood by more and more priests and musicians after 50 years of wandering through suggestion pamphlets and digests.
Some progressive folk still argue that songs for the Entrance, Offertory (Presentation! Or Hymn of the Day) and Communion should reflect the liturgical action being enacted at those times. Nope! Not that such thinking is wrong, it’s just at a lower priority of discernment than the Church Herself has handed us. We’ve been given extraordinarily apt texts for primarily (as I see it) the Introit/Entrance and the Communio/Communion singing. And they exist in the three styles and others (choral polyphony/homophony) as well: chant, hymn and song.
If one wants to examine this up close and personal, look at the Entrance and Communion antiphons in the Missalette from Easter Sunday to Sixth Sunday Easter. They are in bold print without music. For 6th Sunday of Easter, you will find a reference to the apostle Phillip which only occurs in the Gospel for thay Sunday in the “A” cycle of the three years. It doesn’t get any more specific than that, and ties, unifies and strengthens the bond between the two liturgies, that of the Word and Eucharist.
So, in counseling music directors, cantors and choir leaders, I have for years now brought this reference to the foreground. We may find that our parishes will gravitate towards consolidation of this most Catholic of liturgical expressions even further in the near future.
What can the music ministry, or we, do to improve in devoting yourself/ourselves to the Lord when we sing at church?
Well, like they answer the question “How do we get to Carnegie Hall?” the answer is always “Practice.” And by practice, I mean try to improve your skills in the choir, or in the pews, intentionally and with love and patience with yourself. God doesn’t care actually what words or songs we choose and use to praise and pray to Him, but He sure cares (I believe) that we try to show Him that love, affection and trust that we would risk singing in public His majesty. Even if you’re tone-deaf, to God you just sing in harmony!