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.