Sunday, December 11, 2011

Catholic Liturgical Ditties and Sacred Music

Music can trigger a wake up call for my better angels. The softer side of our selves is what makes us respond to our place here on earth and our understanding of that delicate and brief posture we show to the universe and the face of God. We might not know all about the art, the words, the tone, or the ritual taking place but we know that something we are experiencing takes us out of ourselves to someplace wonderful. We can only experience this mystical journey if we put ourselves exactly where it is possible: a library, a museum, a monument, a place of worship. We gotta go there.

Last night, I was swept up by the Nine Lessons and Carols Concert at St. John Cantius, where the works of Canadian Comper Healey Willan were performed. Healey Willan was commissioned to compose sacred music for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. The St. Cecilia Choir performed his Hodie Carol. Hodie, Cristus Natus Est. Today Christ is born- declarative, simple and elegant. Sacred.

Catholic liturgy should use music with greater care and it does not. St. John Cantius is a parish on the north side of Chicago where the stated mission is to return God's people where they belong via the sacred. St. John Cantius is the Catholic Church many of us Baby Boomer and older Catholics remember. The entire atmosphere is reverent, beautiful and sacred. The music is exquisite and the performance by the St. Cecilia Choir under the direction of a non-Catholic, Dan Robinson more than matches the musical manuscripts.

The Sacred is rare in our culture. The sacred is parodied or dismissed in public life, education, politics, conversation and child care. Why else could we as a culture embrace everything anything as disposable - books, razors, friendships, and life itself. We seem to have replaced the Sacred with Sanctioned. I am as guilty of that most hours of the day.

My friend Jim Bowman, a dedicated career religious journalist, posed this issue at Blithe Spirit quoting from an article he read on Catholic Liturgical Music and the empty pews in the light of the recent Catholic Campaign to Return Home:

A long time Catholic of bourgeois sensibilities, a man who trying to hold on to his faith but doesn’t attend Mass on a regular basis, decides that it is time to try again. He goes to a parish not far from his house. The processional says to him: nothing has changed from the last time I tried this. He grinds his teeth throughout. By communion time, he is nearly losing his mind. The recessional hymn puts him over the top. He goes out to the parking lot cursing under his breath, mad all over again, recalling why he doesn’t go that often.

The problem is the music. It is bad pop music, shabbily done by people who nonetheless seem to be pretty proud of their performance. The entire Mass, the man keeps asking himself: how does it happen that the most beautiful liturgy, the product of 2000 years of tradition, could be reduced to this? More importantly, isn't there something that can be done about it?

There is, but, like everything else, the problem is more than fifty years of neglect that needs to be addressed. The Masses composed around the Big Six (Kyrie,Gloria,Credo,Sanctus,,Benedictus and Agnus Dei) by Cavalli, Bach, Mozart,Haydn, Beethoven, Liszt,Schubert,Verdi, Rossini and Antonin Dvořák, became as irrelvant as Latin, the Memorare and the Prayer of St. Michael.

The music became the property of Sister Sally and the Electric Prunes ( yes, the lads who brought us "I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night" composed an electric guitar Mass in F Minor) and local kids who played the guitar very badly. The Mass became relevant as Hell. It was profaned. I know profane inside and out, God help me. I do and get profane, much more than necessary, and it has its place.

There have been many modern compositions that are sacred and fitting to liturgy, but these are ignored, because parish liturgists have been trained to do their own thing.

Again, from article cited by Jim Bowman:

The number one issue, in my own view that has been formed over a decade of close study, is that the musicians themselves do not know better. Most people doing music in the Catholic Church do not even have a rudimentary understanding of the musical demands of the Roman rite. They do not know what parts of the Mass constitute the ordinary structure of the Mass. They do not know that the propers of the Mass exist. They have no idea how the music is related to the word or the calendar (apart from Christmas and Easter). They have no idea what is mandatory, what is an option, what is the Church’s choice, what is the publisher’s choice, what tradition consists of, or how to tell genuine liturgical music from nonliturgical music.

This is because they have never been told. And a reason that they have never been told is that very few people actually have this understanding at all. You can attend ten national conventions, read ten books, subscribe to all the major liturgy publications, troll websites all day, talk to your pastor and grill your predecessors, and still never discover these basic points about the Catholic liturgy and its musical demands. Yes, you will come away with some slogans and with the knowledge that “the people” need to participate but do not (it’s always easier to focus on the sins of others), but that’s about it.

The core information about the role of music is not known because it is not known, and this problem is not only serious at the grass roots; it goes straight to the top. Again, it is not malice that is preventing this knowledge from leaking out; it is just that so much information has been lost during these confusing decades that there are very few around that truly get it.

Want to get it?

Here is a pretty good tutorial that helps us understand the difference.

Can you tell the difference?? from Corpus Christi Watershed on Vimeo.

That's a baby step. We need to walk into Sacred Places to experience the Sacred. You'll know it.

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