Monday, February 9, 2009

The Real "On Eagles' Wings" and a Neglected Catholic Tradition

Sometimes composers set music to sacred texts that become so well-known that one can hardly read the words without hearing the tune. Who can ponder Isaiah 9 without hearing Haendel's "For Unto Us a Child is Born," or who can help but to think of Brahms' Requiem when St. Paul taunts, "Oh death, where is thy sting? Oh grave, where is thy victory?" These "ear worms" stay with us and heighten our appreciation of these Scriptural passages.

Alas, not all such situations are to be celebrated. Take Psalm 90, for instance. It is quite possible that many cringe at the mere reading of that text, for it immediately conjures up the sounds of one of the most popular--and one of the most poorly-written--pieces of music in the history of the Catholic Church. I speak, of course, of "On Eagles' Wings," or, as a friend of mine--no ideologue, she--calls it, "that yoohoo song." ("Excuse me!!!" she once said, approaching Michael Joncas, "aren't you the guy who wrote that yoohoo song?" Joncas, once he figured out what she was talking about, just laughed and admitted that he really should have revised the piece.)

What most people don't realize, however, is that the Church has had its very own setting of Psalm 90 for centuries, and it is sung in the Traditional Mass every year on the First Sunday in Lent. It is an ornate, haunting melody, full of richness and beauty, and it, being sung as the Tract (the chant which replaces the Alleluia during Septuagesima and Lent), sits in the center of a liturgy whose Propers are built around this profound Psalm text.

Let us not, however, jump to conclusions and assume that in the good old days this splendid work of anonymous monks lost in history would have been well-known to Catholics everywhere. The truth is that in most places, the authentic melodies of the Propers were replaced with simple, highly-repetitious Psalm tones which are incapable of communicating musical uniqueness tied to a given feast day or to a given liturgical action. This would have been even more particularly true of the Graduals, Alleluias, and Tracts, which are the most ornate pieces of the entire Gregorian chant repertoire.

These melodious chants, especially the Tracts, also take the longest time to sing, and they are often ripped from the liturgy in favor of Psalm tones, sadly, not for reasons of necessity but for reasons of expediency. This leads us to a question that must be answered: Why should these ornate, seemingly time-consuming chants be sung? And why should we listen attentively to them?

In exploring this problem it is crucial to consult the motu proprio on sacred music issued by Pope St. Pius X, called Tra le sollecitudini. Therein, St. Pius X says that all sacred music should have three qualities: holiness, universality, and goodness of forms (in the plural). Why "forms" in the plural and not just "form"? Professor William Mahrt of Stanford University has opined--and there is much in papal documents to reaffirm this interpretation--that this crucial plural noun references the various liturgical actions that take place during the Mass, each of which requires a different kind of musical form. Indeed, even Pope John Paul II wrote that the music used at Mass must be appropriate to the liturgical action which it accompanies.

Dr. Mahrt has gone to great lengths in his work to illustrate the ways in which the Gregorian chant repertoire offers a paradigm of these various liturgical forms. The Introits, which accompany the opening procession, musically convey movement or motion, just as a procession represents movement--in fact a pilgrimage toward the Eternal Jerusalem. The Communion chants, too, convey motion, since this moment in the liturgy is also a procession. The Graduals, Alleluias, and Tracts, however, are much different. Careful listening to these will reveal the fact that in these chants there are many musical notes set to each syllable of the text. This slows down the rate at which the text is articulated, and this facilitates meditation upon these priceless scriptural passages. "Wisdom, be attentive!" they say in the Eastern Liturgy before the Scriptures are read. Indeed, we are to hear, to be attentive, and the chants of the Mass of the Catechumens facilitate this listening, this attentive meditation.

One is reminded of St. Teresa's exhortation to pray the Our Father, but to take an hour to say it. The ornate chant melodies of the Gradual, Alleluia, and Tract force us to slow down, to treat the treasures we have been given with due care. Barking them out on a Psalm tone, however, only conjures up memories of the infamous machine-gun fire mumblings in Catholic liturgies of yore. As Fr. Benedict Groeschel once said, "In the old days, the Mass was not celebrated in Latin; it was celebrated in gibberish."

"This is all well and good," some might say, "but I still don't get it." Others might think that such academic lines of reasoning are merely an excuse to beat up on the people who use those dreadful Rossini Propers. Are there any more practical, more down-to-earth reasons, to stand loyally by the authentic melodies of the Roman Gradual? The appropriate retort here involves looking upon singing as a sacrifice. Recall that the Psalmist speaks of the "sacrifice of jubilation." Ask anyone who sings the Church's liturgy, from priest to choir member, and all will attest that it is hard work. Imagine being a monk, singing nine hours a day! This is hardly the kind of singing that is merely for entertainment or even artistic purposes. It is hard work; it is a sacrifice. Here, ora and labora meet in a unique way.

But the listeners sacrifice, too. It comes in terms of the time spent listening (though it really isn't that much time); it is manifested in the meditation that is facilitated by the ornate melodies; and perhaps there is also sacrifice involved in learning to appreciate these foreign melodies, these unique chants which might not be catchy but nevertheless deserve a receptive posture on our part, a willingness to be taught, to learn.

This approach militates against an entertainment paradigm when it comes to sacred music, an attitude that music loses its usefulness when it ceases to tickle our ears or bring a tear to our eyes. There is more to sacred music than entertainment; there is even more to it than its ability to inspire us to become better men. Its ultimate purpose is the worship of God, and proper worship is a sacrifice.

There is no better time of year than the season of Lent to renew our offerings, to lift up our spiritual sacrifices with "full heart and mind and voice to the unseen God," as the Exultet of the Easter Vigil says. The long, Lenten tracts give way to the joyful shouts of Easter, and all along our sacrifices of jubilation anticipate the saving acts of Christ, who hears our cries and puts a New Song into our mouths, a hymn to our God, which shall forever be sung by angels and saints alike in the Heavenly Liturgy.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Jeffrey Herbert on the Liturgical-Industrial Complex

If can't beat 'em, join 'em. That appears to be the new modus operandi of the mainstream music establishment, who for the past two to three generations have been offering Catholics little more than bubble gum music to sing. Jeffrey Herbert slices and dices the issue.

h/t to Aristotle.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

S. Clement's: The Paradigm of Catholic Worship in Philadelphia

Last evening I marked the end of the Christmas season by attending Mass at S. Clement's, an Anglo-Catholic parish here in Philadelphia which I frequent from time to time and where I have a number of friends. This parish is well-known for its excellent liturgical praxis (indeed, orthopraxis) and music. One of my own schola members even came along for the experience and left impressed. "The choir was as advertised," he said.

S. Clement's uses a Mass that is essentially the Traditional Mass said in a sacral vernacular, translated by someone who was clearly literate and aesthetically sensible. It offers perhaps the solution that Rome should have pursued in the mid 20th century. Alas, I need hardly comment on how far afield we've gone from that.

While the Traditional Rite translated tastefully into the vernacular may offer a simple solution to the present liturgical upheaval, it also gets to the white-hot center of the issue: bad taste. More than once, while marveling at the beauty of a Mass at S. Clement's, I've had the thought, "We should do this: translate the authentic Roman Rite into good English, and everything will be fine." But soon my delightful daydreams are rudely interrupted by the recollection of this bad taste problem which will in most places inevitably invade any liturgical rite. I, being the snot-nosed kid that I was, used to think less of Thomas Day's book _Why Catholics Can't Sing_ because it wasn't academic enough and didn't seem to offer many concrete solutions, but recently I have come to admire it as one of the most important books on the liturgy, precisely because Day fearlessly tackles American Catholicism's knack for the liturgically insipid and ugly.

Bad taste. It's such an easy problem to state, not difficult to summarize, but nearly impossible to solve, for it is a function of pervasive ideas in the minds of what Albert Jay Nock called the mass man, and these are not easily overcome. In fact, one wonders about the wisdom of systematically trying to overcome them. It seems far better to start small, convinced communities who believe in the importance of the liturgy, and then let them perform their mustard seed-like miracles. There are two such parishes in the Diocese of Camden, and there is one in South Philadelphia that looks like it's on its way.

Of course, many Catholics immediately turn up their noses at the mere mention of S. Clement's. In a fit of reeking, ultramontane, pious self-righteousness, they dismiss the beautiful Masses at S. Clement's as some kind of pretentious British chauvinism, not worthy of being acknowledged whatsoever. (It's worth pointing out that the same people often turn around and call for religious dialogue with churches that are theologically and liturgically much further afield than the Anglo-Catholics.) Such provincialism breeds mediocrity, for when the really excellent is hidden from view, people are kept from knowing what is truly possible if only there were the necessary dedication to make it happen. (One of my relatives calls this the "mushroom technique": Keep' em in the dark and feed 'em you-know-what.)

In the title of this post I called S. Clement's the paradigm of Catholic worship in Philadelphia, but truly this is an understatement. In all honesty, I've never seen better liturgies on such a consistent basis anywhere in this country. Rather than ignoring them, we ought to be asking them how they manage to achieve all this. (The short answer is a lot of hard work by a small group of highly dedicated individuals who probably read more in one year than most of us do in a lifetime.)

Bad taste. It's a depressing problem, and perhaps we musicians have to deal with it more than anyone else. If there is anything that can be done, I suppose the best course of action is to provide a good example of what is truly excellent, good, and beautiful, and S. Clement's is a good place to start.

Monday, February 2, 2009

A priest devotes entire sermon to sacred music

Yesterday, at the Traditional Latin Mass (What a clumsy term! It should just be called "Mass." It's the Novus Ordo that ought to have all the adjectives.) at St. Peter's in Merchantville, NJ, the pastor, Fr. Anthony Manuppella, devoted his entire sermon to sacred music. This same sermon was recently published in Sacred Music under the title "The Furious Power of Sacred Music."

I have been sitting on the organ bench and directing choirs for almost ten years now, and not once--never before!--have any of my employers devoted such a magnanimous effort toward the promotion of sacred music. I sat back in my little corner where I chill out during the sermon and got misty-eyed thinking about the implications of this. An entire sermon on sacred music! I've only ever heard one other in my entire life, that one having been delivered by Fr. Robert Pasley, the esteemed Rector of Mater Ecclesiae in Berlin, NJ, one of the finest Traditional Rite parishes in the country.

Now if all this preaching were just mere words, as unfortunately so often can happen, it would actually be an abomination, Pharisaical ear-candy for the chant enthusiasts in the crowd. But such was not the case here. I have worked at St. Peter's for a year, and I can say that our pastor sees to it that I have everything that we need to do a good job. Music is important; indeed, it is a priority.

If it wouldn't threaten my job security I'd be campaigning for Fr. Manuppella to be made a seminary rector, or something, for the importance of sacred music is not an issue that is popular in the clerical ranks, though, in a paradox of paradoxes, the Diocese of Camden seems to have more of them per capita than most.

Pastors, study sacred music. And preach on it. If nothing else, it will give your musicians sufficient energy to get through Easter twice over.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

If I walk in the midst of tribulation

The inadvertent loss of the propers is the great tragedy in the Ordinary Form, but the Offertory chant in particular is even more lost than the others, sung by almost no parish apart from a few models and ideals. Truly, there is no reason for this. The chant still appears in the Graduale, which remains the music book of the Roman Rite. Moreover, GIRM #74 specifies it: "The procession bringing the gifts is accompanied by the Offertory chant."

It is a grimly sad loss when you consider a masterpiece such as the Offertory chant for this Sunday, the 25th in ordinary time. The text is "If I walk in the midst of tribulation you shall preserve my life, O Lord; you shall stretch forth your hand against the fury of my enemies; your right hand has delivered me."

Now, keep in mind the character of the Offertory chant. It combines the forward motion of the Introit (because it too is a procession) with the melismatic properties of the typical Gradual (because it too is a Psalm and is constructed to inspire reflection) to create some of the most picturesque and artistically evocative chants of the entire songbooks of the Roman Rite.

In this chant, we have a story that is well suited to composition. We have a walk in distress. We have the hand of God, and it is stretching forth. That hand is raised against enemies, and protects the believer, delivering him from them. How might this chant look? I submit that you could work years and not come up with some as spectacular as the following.

You can literally see what is happening here, and to hear it in liturgy would be to experience Psalm 137 in a way that would be otherwise impossible. The excitement emerges from the start and grows into one long phrase that culminates in this incredible melisma on the word life itself. The next long melisma occurs on another phrase you might expect it: extendes manum, the stretched forth hand, and here the chant reaches its highest melodic peak. But the sense of life and stretching doesn't end there. It continues to the third great melisma of the piece, which is on the words dextera tua. Putting them together we have the bulk of this chant consumed with a long life made possible by the hands of God.

It's great composition, even aside from its liturgical intention of preparing for the sacrifice at the altar.

Dom Johner comments: "Logically the first and second phrase belong together; they should therefore not be separated by too great a pause. Beginning and end of the two phrases are alike. In these two phrases, as well as in the later ones, we meet numerous fourths. These give life and buoyancy to the piece. To this must be added the strengthening of (vivifi)-cd-(bis), which gives added impressiveness to our Amen. The third phrase has a beginning similar to the first, descending like it to low d. We are acquainted with the melody over extendes from the Offertory of Easter Monday: Surrexit. In the spirit of Easter, confident of victory, the singer bursts out into a joyous strain over manum tuam. He knows what it means to have God's almighty hand resting upon him. Tuam calls for a continuation. The simple recitative et salvum me which follows, set as it is in the midst of a florid melody, has an especial solemn character and must not be sung too rapidly. Over tua the melody is to be divided into two bistrophas and a clivis, followed by an energetic pressus."

It is possible to still sing the Offertory proper even if you aren't prepared to sing the symphonic version above. Here is a setting from the Anglican Use Gradual that puts it in a Psalm tone that any choir can sing. This is a good idea. Singing the proper helps takes this period of Mass from having the feel of an intermission into making it part of the liturgical structure of the day.

Tu Mandasti

This weekend's communion chant for the 25th Sunday of the Year is Tu Mandasti, and I just have to confess that it is one of my absolute favorites, and for two reasons.

First, the chant is about how we've been commanded to keep God's commandments, which you might think would yield a chant that is solemn and stern, since we are being told about law.

But look: the chant is in mode 5, a major mode, a joyful mode, a mode that evokes a sort of carefree celebration of life. Why? Why did the monks choose a happy mode in which to set this text from Psalm 118? Well, if you know monks, you know that they are the happiest of people, quick to laugh and light in their demeanor. It must have always been that way. What liberates them from the cares of the world? The law of God, the order of their day, the rule.

The rule and the guidelines is what grants the sense of freedom: one of the greatest paradoxes of the Christian life. It is something we can all enjoy provided we cling to the rule. The law is what gives us freedom. Here it is in song.

Second, look at the second half. "That I might be firm in the ways of keeping your statutes." Now look at the way the notes are arranged on the last line. It looks like a path, doesn't it? It sounds like a path, the way you might arrange stones in your backyard, one stone this way, another one that way. It covers very little ground side to side (see the repeated use of the la te figure) but the motion is always forward, in a way that is comfortable to walk on, one foot in front of the other, sometimes almost as if skipping with glee. Here is the musical path, all the way to the end.

Wonderful, isn't it? You can say that this is my wild imagination at work, but once you see it and hear it can you forget it?

Here is a hard copy. And here is a book of communion antiphons with Psalms.

On organic development, social networking, and liturgy

Like many people, I have a Facebook profile. (Yes, I do accept friend requests. Even random ones.) And thanks to Facebook, I believe I have a bit more of an idea how people may have reacted to the radical liturgical changes of a generation past.

Recently, Facebook developed a number of presentational and functional changes for its faithful - a.k.a. "The New Facebook." The redesign was touted as bringing extra functionality to its users, an easier-to-use interface, etc. - in short, an improved user experience.

To be sure, Facebook developers were making incremental, sometimes unnoticed, but definitely organic developments to this social networking liturgy. They opened up the platform to third-party developers to enrich it with their time, talent and treasure. Their treasury of new third-party compositions grew by leaps and bounds, and while the vast majority of them were of questionable value, others were seen as indispensable.

But the Consilium of New Facebook periti were promising so much more.

There was an ad experimentum period where early-adopters could voluntary opt-in to the new Facebook liturgy, with the option of going back to the usus antiquior at any time. The problems arose when the changes were imposed on the rest of the Facebook faithful. The outcry rivaled, and perhaps surpassed, that of the suppression, excommunication and expulsion of the Scrabulousian order from the Facebook realm.

Most accepted the new changes with resignation, sometimes resentful. Others, especially the early adopters, embraced the changes and sang their praises. Others, having lost the Facebook faith, left for other social networking sects, thereby writing themselves out of the Facebook of life.

Different groups of the Facebook faithful were formed in the wake of the changes. Some were formed merely to curse the darkness they saw in the new Facebook, while others were formed to call for the widespread imposition of the old Facebook liturgy. (To be sure, there was much overlapping of membership.) Other groups were formed in support of the changes, but these were looked down upon with disdain by those who were nostalgically attached to the old ways. To be sure, the disdain was mutual.

Recent converts to Facebook from other denominations like MySpace and Friendster were understandably confused by the rancor.

It remains to be seen whether a future leader of Facebook is to rise up and consider the possibility of both forms of the Facebook liturgy co-existing side-by-side, mutually enriching each other. Proponents of the changes probably would sneer at this notion; those entrenched in their old habits and devotions would probably view this proposal with suspicion, seeing it as a way to placate them before even the "old Facebook" finally morphs into the quasi-heretical "new Facebook."

Time will tell.

(Being open to the changes, I was an early adopter of the new layout. And while it took some time to get used to it - indeed, I haven't completely explored all of its possibilities and still get lost occasionally - overall I did view it as an improvement. The improvements were logical, rational and inspiring in their own way, and while I missed some things about the old liturgy, the new one was overall quite satisfying. But not completely.

Still, I'm not worried, since Facebook is semper reformanda.)

[Originally posted 2008.09.17 on]

Can the Catholic Church Be a Patron of the Arts Again?

Does the Catholic Church still support the musical arts? The contrast between the Renaissance and today is striking, when you take a step back and look at it. There was a time when every world-class composer had Cathedrals and Bishops competing for their attention, and the demands on their services—composition, teaching, rehearsal—were intense. Today, music for liturgy is mostly a commercial venture backed by quasi-secular outfits that create and push music through the conventional pro-profit methods that relying heavily on the copyright-royalty model.

The separation between these publishers and the needs and desires of Cathedrals regular Catholic parishes is deep. A very strange indifferentism and agnosticism afflicts the culture of these publishers, such that hardly anyone in the management structure itself really believes in the bulk of what they are doing—not the employees, not the composers of their music, and not those who are recording the music for demonstration purposes. Hardly anyone is happy with the system as it stands, and that is especially true of Catholic musicians at the grass roots level.

I'm all for free enterprise, but to what extent should purely commercial interests dictate what music dominates Catholic liturgy? There is a serious problem here. The sounds and texts that the Church asks for in her official documents are not those of the commercial marketplace. Instead, they need to be produced on the model of the university of old or the Church herself—less of a profit and loss model and more of a benefactor/expenditure model.

In fact, the other day I attempted a test of the proposition that you can know that music is not appropriate for Mass if you can find something like it on AM-FM radio. So far, I've not found an exception to the rule. There might be some commercial radio somewhere that can make a buck playing Josquin and Byrd, but I have my doubts.

In any case, what is need in our time is what the Church provided in the past: support for new composition and distribution of liturgical music. A major advantage here is that this will further remove us from the copyright/royalty model of the commercial marketplace and assist in promoting music in way that doesn't tax parish financial resources. Commercial publishers have become insanely obsessive on the one topic of prohibiting piracy, so much so that they forget that the real problem serious liturgical composer in our time face is not piracy but obscurity. They need to find ways to get the word out about their work.

Todd Flowerday on a radio discussion with me the other day proposed a number of practical suggestions that I think the US Bishops should think about seriously.

1) The Bishops should use every major liturgical event to commission new pieces of music. Think in particular of the Papal Masses in the United States, and the enormous controversy surrounding the hodgepodge of music that was selected. A much better route would have been to select one of the many serious American composers in the Catholic Church today (a list would have to include Kevin Allen, Kurt Poterack, Michael Lawrence, Don Roy, Richard Rice, among many others) and commission a major setting of the Ordinary parts of the Mass or of the Propers. This action would have made those Masses not only impressive events for Catholics but would have also shown that liturgy remains an important venue for serious art as well. There are many opportunities to do these apart from Papal Masses. Corporate matching gifts can be sought. There are many creative ways.

2) Bishops should consider purchasing the rights on serious compositions suitable for general use and republishing them under a Creative-Commons-type license and making them available for free download. This would take financial pressure off parishes that end up spending thousands of dollars to pay for music every year, money which ends up not in the hands of composers but mostly in the coffers of the big publishers themselves. Putting an end to this problem would be a major contribution.

3) Continue the pressure on ICEL to make its texts free to the world, not only for free download but also for commercial use. As it is, everyone who publishes the text of the Mass has to pay very high royalties to ICEL, which, despite assurances that the money is well spent, runs contrary to the charitable spirit of the faith. I'm not sure how else to put this: there is something that is just unseemly about the idea of profiting from selling the right to print the Mass texts. If the Bishops wanted to put an end to this strange system, they could do it in one day. This one action would open up the field for new composition and for the re-setting and re-publication of older works.

The Church Music Association of America is doing its part by encouraging composers to set the new Mass texts and publish these settings under a Creative Commons attribution license. What this license does is permit the free and commercial distribution of these settings without any limit whatsoever. Fire up those photocopy machines. The only restriction is that the source music be acknowledged. This is one step short of public domain, and a wonderful model.

How do artists and composers get paid under this system? This is where commissions, benefactors, and arts patrons have a big role to play. No one is in a better position than the US Bishops to raise money for this purpose. The arts community would be thrilled, and benefactors would emerge if they knew that their support were needed. There is hardly a Catholic alive is happy with the way music is in Mass. Everyone has an incentive to make a contribution. All that is needed is an organized effort.

In the end, no serious artist is finally happy and fulfilled with the "art for arts sake" model of composition and performance. The Church needs to become their haven for producing works of immortal value, and should always stand ready to accept their gifts when they are ready to be given. But today, serious musicians are mostly not attracted to liturgical venues, simply because it seems that the Church isn't very interested. This can change with a heightened consciousness.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Friday, August 3, 2007

For Fun: Get Your Own Aristocratic Title

My Peculiar Aristocratic Title is:
His Eminence the Very Lord Michael the Unlikely of Westessexchestershire
Get your Peculiar Aristocratic Title

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Amazing stuff on the web

Listen to Spem in Alium from your desktop:

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Saturday, May 5, 2007

The First Rock Band

When I first read this story about "The First Rock Band" I thought it was ridiculous. The more I think about it, the more intrigued I am by the instrument, the period, the marketing material, and so much else. It's fabulous! I wonder if you agree.

Read, "The Till Family Rock Band"

Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Amazing Bach

The Historic First Post

It is my pleasure to post the first post of a group blog of musicians working within the Catholic liturgical tradition. Most of us have some connection to the Church Music Association of America, which is dedicated to the great music tradition of Catholicism as rooted in Gregorian chant (yes, that means Latin). As the blog evolves, it will surely expand in every conceivable direction, and recklessly so.