An appeal to musicians

I wish I was more talented as a musician than I actually am.

The issue of the settings for the new mass came up at our parish this morning. The head of the music group announced that the parish was seeking a setting which would “suit the specific needs of our community”. Afterward I asked her if she was aware of the standard chants that actually being printed in our new missals (all the chants and recordings can be accessed here; Dr Geoffrey Cox has written an organ accompaniment that has yet to be published). She wasn’t.

The fact is that these chants are being provided as the universal “setting” for the new translation of the mass. They aren’t designed to fit “the specific needs” of one given community, but of the whole English speaking Church. More than that, they are based on the actual chants for the Latin mass in the Third Typical Edition of the Roman Missal in Latin. In that sense, they are truly universal.

What concerns me is that a lot of parishes simply won’t bother to learn them and to make them the standard “setting of the mass” in their “community”. I have nothing against using other settings, I just think that it would be to the immense benefit of the whole Church if, as a whole, we had a way of singing the mass which was truly universal.

Many will find the chant setting “boring”. That has been said pariticularly of the chant for the Gloria in Excelsis. And yet it is a very easy chant to learn, and, I think, quite beautiful in its simplicity (that should please some readers!).

Here’s where I would like to make an appeal to the musicians out there – and to offer a challenge. Dr Cox’s accompaniment to the chant will, I think, become a standard, and that’s as it should be. But for variety, how about a few extra, more imaginative musical accompaniments to the chants that involve different kinds of settings and different kinds of instruments? I am thinking here of the many successful editions of various Gregorian chants you can get on CD’s these days that include very modern, even jazzy, musical backgrounds? I think this could be done. The people don’t have to learn new melody lines, but the musical accompaniment would provide the variety that they are looking for.

What do you think? If I were a proper musician, I would have a go at it myself. Any ideas from any readers who are musicians?

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to An appeal to musicians

  1. matthias says:

    Chanting would make a change from the boring ,repetitive Hillsong inspired “hymns” i have to out up with at my church.

  2. Uncle Pat says:

    Talent as a musician is not required if one is to assess “church” music.
    Watching Compass last night on the re-building of Bunbury cathedral reminded me that I didn’t need talent as an artist to appreciate the new type of window paintings that adorned the walls of such a liturgically sensible building.
    All I needed was to view them with an open mind and let them – inanimate though they be – let them speak to me.
    We need to approach “church” music in the same way.
    What the Pope and Bishop Elliott have said/written about “church” music is culture-bound. Their response to music is the result of their education/their social background/their way of hearing things/their emotional life.
    It seems to me that when men and women are stretched, when I am stretched anyway, whether in prayer, in conflict, in sport, in love, indeed in any activity that involves getting deep inside oneself, we turn to music/singing to express that inner experience. Words fail us. As Bishop Tutu said when Apartheid ended in South Africa: “I want to laugh. I want to dance. I want to sing. I want to praise the Lord.”
    Poetry has been described by Willaim Wordsworth as the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; it takes is origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity.
    This doesn’t mean all Wordsworth’s poems are pleasing to the ear or enlightening to the mind. And Wordsworth, I think, would find it hard to see most modern poetry as fitting his description
    Music, like poetry, is an evolving art form. By all means preserve and modify the monastic chants of the past but please don’t let them smother the efforts of our contemporary musicians and song/hymn writers as they try to convey the ineffable mysteries of our religion through their craft in a manner that expresses our desire to praise, reverence and serve God.

  3. I think the less instruments the better!

    Save maybe organ, because I play the organ. :-D

  4. In all seriousness, to be honest, I find chant to be a generally wonderful change from the usual banality of the settings which they use in parishes in my area. It has a special place in the liturgy. Let me provide a few quotes from Sacrosanctum Concilium, since the constitution can probably say it better than I could:

    “The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services.”

    “Religious singing by the people is to be intelligently fostered so that in devotions and sacred exercises, as also during liturgical services, the voices of the faithful may ring out according to the norms and requirements of the rubrics.”

    “In the Latin Church the pipe organ is to be held in high esteem, for it is the traditional musical instrument which adds a wonderful splendor to the Church’s ceremonies and powerfully lifts up man’s mind to God and to higher things.”

    Of course each of these statements is open to genuine exception in some cases. But it seems that chant, sang by the faithful, accompanied by organ, should be the genuine norm. As you say, it should be universal.

  5. John Nolan says:

    If it’s a sung Mass, then everything that can be sung, should be sung (although there is a case for reciting the Canon in a subdued voice.) If it’s not, then no singing at all, please. And if you’re going to sing chant settings of the common, sing them in Latin. This applies particularly to the Credo and Pater Noster. If you want to sing a hymn, sing it at he end. If it’s ‘Faith of our Fathers’ we can all belt it out lustily. If it’s ‘I the Lord of Sea and Sky’ the more discerning of us can make a dash for the exit.

    • Schütz says:

      I disagree, John. The distinction between a “Low” (said) mass and a “High” (sung) mass was abolished years ago. There is no rule that says “sing all or nothing”. Neither is there a rule banning hymns during mass. Entrance, Post-communion, and exit are all allowed in GIRM – although I see nothing wrong with a hymn at the offertory if taking up the collection will take a long time. As for the chant settings, the new missal provides them in both English and Latin. In other words, I respect your preferences in this matter, but that’s all they are: your preferences.

  6. John Nolan says:

    David, while it’s true that the NO does not distinguish between low and sung Mass, the sung Mass remains the norm. Bugnini’s consilium argued that the singing of hymns at Mass was no longer appropriate as the Mass texts themselves should be sung. It might have been wishful thinking, but they surely envisaged a situation similar to that in the East where the liturgy is always sung.

    The new translation gives more emphasis to sung dialogues between celebrant and people (including the Orate Fratres, which was never sung previously). There is a strong push by church musicians , particularly in the USA, to get the Propers sung – witness the Simple Propers Project. If we merely continue with the four-hymn sandwich, which is well past its sell-by date, we will be missing the best opportunity in two generations to implement the ideals of Sacrosanctum Concilium. This has nothing to do with personal preference.

    However, there are people who for whatever reason, prefer a mass with no music, and their needs should be respected.

    • Schütz says:

      Long time readers of SCE will have heard me on this before, John. But here goes again:

      I grew up in the Lutheran Church of Australia where the liturgy as a whole was generally chanted/sung in its entirety. In many places, the clergy couldn’t chant, but this didn’t stop the congregation singing their bits – even the responses to his spoken bits (which was a bit weird). In addition to this, there was a hymn at the beginning, a hymn before and after the Sermon (the latter for the collection to be taken), three hymns or so during communion, and a hymn at the end. These were not short hymns and they were sung in their entirety. They were also doctrinally “meaty”. What we almost never had was an entirely “spoken” service, or a service without any hymns at all. So that’s what I was used too.

      So now I have experienced several other models in the Catholic Church: the entirely spoken mass without any hymns common in Catholic mid-week masses, the entirely spoken mass with 4 hymns common in parishes on Sunday in Catholic parishes, the occasional fully chanted Catholic mass with perhaps only an opening and closing hymn, the Catholic mass where the congregation sings a few bits of the liturgy and adds a couple of songs. But never have I experienced the depth of singing that we had in the Lutheran Church – fully sung liturgy with lots of hymns.

      Then of course, there is, as you point out, the Eastern liturgy which is always fully sung but with no additoinal hymns at all. What needs to be recognised, of course, is that the Eastern Liturgy has incorporated a lot of hymns directly as part of the rite itself – more than in the West.

      I grant the historical point that the Roman Rite didn’t, as such, include hymns. But the singing of hymns at Mass didn’t spring up from no-where. They were picking up a tradition that existed in late medieval Catholic parishes, although – emphasising congregational song – they did increase the part that hymns played. In the broad reality of Western liturgy as a whole these days, hymns have an acknowledge part (as GIRM shows with regard to the Ordinary Form).

      All of this is to say, I grant your points, but the options are wide and not enforced in any particularly way in general. My (and this is a personal option) general rule is: singing is a good thing. Congregations that sing – whether the liturgy and propers itself or the added hymns – display a healthy religiosity. The more the merrier, in my book!

  7. John Nolan says:

    There is no shortage of hymns in the Roman Rite (I understand the definition of a hymn to be a strophic setting of a text, i.e. a number of verses set to the same tune) but they occur in the Office rather than the Mass. The Liber Usualis, which covers Sundays and feastdays, lists over 80 of them. Many of them have been translated, by Edward Caswall and Percy Dearmer among others and set to metrical hymn tunes. They were normally sung at the extra-liturgical devotions which replaced the Office in most Catholic parishes. Most Catholics would have been familiar with a few in their original Latin plainchant settings, for example Pange Lingua, Veni Creator Spiritus and Ave Maris Stella, because of their use outside of the Office.

    Two hymns are particularly connected with Passiontide; Vexilla Regis Prodeunt and Crux Fidelis, both by Venantius Fortunatus (AD 530-609) and in both cases the chant is of outstanding beauty. If choirs don’t sing them then they aren’t Catholic musicians in any meaningful sense.

    The chant is better when sung unaccompanied. Most organists nowadays don’t know how to accompany chant. The four-hymn sandwich to which I referred is not satisfactory liturgically, and although the GIRM gives ‘alius cantus aptus’ as an alternative to Introit and Communion it is the least favoured option. It makes no sense, liturgically or musically, to sing a rousing hymn at the entrance, with a text that bears no resemblance to that prescribed for the Mass of the day, and then simply recite that great song of praise the Gloria in Excelsis.

  8. Darryn Harris says:

    A very belated reply – as for accompanying the chant with organ etc….it depends entirely on the congregation. If they prefer the organ assistance to help then sing the chant, then so be it. If they don’t like it i.e. it distracts from their ability to pray the Mass, then so be it. Its up to the musicians to work out how to maximize the musical input so that everyone’s prayers are enriched (after all, there’s no other point for music the Mass than that).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *