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CNP Feedback -
But no organ music ... ALL of Lent?

Q. Dear CNP:

I just read with interest your commentary on the use of the organ. This has always been a curious issue to me since, on the one hand, the Church declares the inherently musical nature of the liturgy and then, during this important season of the year, seems to say that liturgy will be enhanced by the omission of instrumental music. There is so much wonderful seasonal music that, if the instruction is taken literally, would never be played in a Catholic church. When else, if not during Lent, could you play the Brahms chorale on "O Sacred Head," (or any of a host of other great pieces I could think to name)?

In many churches during my career, I've noted that they played preludes and postludes, even during Lent. In fact, I've even seen a Good Friday organ concert prior to the Celebration of the Passion. I believe their reasoning is that the liturgical documents apply to the liturgy itself; preludes and postludes, by definition, are before and after the liturgy and, therefore, not effected by the rule.

Although I'm normally something of a stickler for trying to adhere to the liturgical norms, this is one issue where I find myself feeling truly at pains to understand the mind of the Church. I can understand placing some restrictions on the character of the music to be played, but the outright prohibition of something which the Church otherwise proclaims to be inherent to the nature of liturgy is curious.

Many thanks for your thoughts and all your good work at CanticaNOVA.

A.N. Organ-Fast

A. Dear Mr. Organ-Fast:

Thank you for your considered and thoughtful response to my recent article. I'm happy to continue the discussion with someone who cares so deeply about the Church's liturgy.

First a comment about your remark: "the Church declares the inherently musical nature of the liturgy and then, during this important season of the year, seems to say that liturgy will be enhanced by the omission of instrumental music."

Most of the "inherent musical nature" of the liturgy that the Church has in mind is choral music. A look at the documents from Rome (not the US bishops' documents) suggest that liturgical music is, first of all, Gregorian chant and polyphony, and only secondarily something else. There is an immense tradition and repertoire of chant (see the EF Liber usualis and the OF Graduale Romanum) and Renaissance to Modern settings of the proper texts (Introits, Sequences, Offertories, Communions, etc.). This really is what is at the heart of the Church's liturgical music. Nowhere does it say that organ music is "inherent to the nature of liturgy." It's easy to have a perfectly sound and proper liturgy with only a cappella singing. It's much harder to imagine that with only organ music and no singing.

However, the Church does highly esteem the pipe organ, not only for its ability to efficiently accompany sung music, but for its magnificence in presenting the treasures of its own repertoire. The documents, though, are much less specific about organ music than about the details of text and setting for propers. As my article noted, the rubrics ask us organists not to play solo music during Lent. Why? To emphasize the penitential nature of the season, to "fast" from a legitimate and beautiful form of music, to accentuate the organ's stupendous return at Easter.

When we look at the situation of the wealth of Lenten-themed music in the repertoire, we need to keep a few things in mind. First, it's quite dangerous to expect the Church to base her teaching on what exists in the world. Because many Catholics avoid Confession does not mean that the Church should alter her teaching about it. Because there's a massive repertoire of Lent-themed organ music, of itself does not mean that the Church should allow it to be played. Secondly, of the many Lenten organ pieces which you or I could name (like the Brahms "O Sacred Head" or the Bach "O Mensch bewein"), how many of them were written by Catholic composers for Catholic liturgy?

Do organ preludes and postludes constitute a part of the liturgical experience at Mass? I've always argued that for the congregation, the "sacred moment" begins when they walk in the door of the church. I cannot justify separating the prelude from the rest of Mass, as if a switch was flipped in everyone's mind at the Entrance Chant. "Before was secular ... now it's holy" — doesn't make sense to me. This is dangerous, very dangerous reasoning. If preludes are exempted from the rubrics, what's to prevent every sort of drivel and nonsense to be demanded by brides, youth groups, pastors, parishioners? "But it's before Mass begins," they'll insist. Very slippery slope!

Perhaps a better argument can be made for "loosening" the restriction during non-liturgical services, like Stations of the Cross. But even this has its drawbacks, in my mind at least. In another article, I wrote a Feedback Response to an organist whose colleague asked him to play Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus" within a talk to be given after Stations one Friday, because the Resurrection would be mentioned. He asked how extensive was the ban on "Alleluia" during Lent. He was hearing an argument from the colleague that it "only applied to liturgy." My response was that the Church tightly controls her liturgy and issues documents and rubrics as instructions. Non-liturgical services are less regulated, but should maintain the sense of the season as well. Advent events shouldn't use Christmas carols and Lenten events shouldn't use Alleluias. It makes no sense to me to sing "Alleluia" up and down the Stations of the Cross, or a Lenten Novena, and then ban the word "at Mass." I suppose down deep I feel the same about organ music.

You commented: "There is so much wonderful seasonal music that, if the instruction is taken literally, would never be played in a Catholic church." The rubrics further state that the ban on solo organ music is lifted on Laetare Sunday (4 Lent), which would make this Sunday special, particularly if your clergy don't care to wear rose-colored vestments. There is also organ music on feasts and solemnities, in order that we might celebrate them well, even during Lent. We can play all the organ music we want (Prelude, Offertory, Communion, Postlude, recital, etc) on 4 Lent. What about making that an "organ only" Sunday — no choir, no Offertory hymn — just beautiful organ selections. There are ways to work with the rubrics! In fact, sometimes March 19 (Solemnity of Saint Joseph) or March 25 (Solemnity of the Annunciation) fall on Fridays of Lent. I would plan to play a prelude and a postlude at Stations of the Cross that evening, and the reason would be announced. People should know that the Church holds these solemnities to be special!

You mentioned that during your time in Catholic church music you noticed that the organ was played throughout Lent and even was heard in a recital on Good Friday. I cannot speak for the music and liturgy directors in those parishes, nor do I know what their pastoral reasoning may have been. Were I in charge of music there, I would put into practice an "austerity" program for organ during Lent, perhaps using Laetare Sunday as the date for the Lenten Recital. I would let the absence of solo music (using the organ just for accompaniment) during Lent and the total abstinence from any organ music from Gloria to Gloria of the Triduum speak in a very loud silence about the spirit of this season.

You know, too, I'm sure, that the majority of Catholic parishes overlook (for whatever reason) this Lenten organ ban. It will take many years of simply educating organists before any motion might be seen. It has taken decades for parishes to begin to accept Gregorian chant and to understand these things called "propers"; we are just now moving out of the "education" phase and into the implementation phase, where more and more parishes are starting scholas and actually singing Propers in Latin or in English. In like manner, CNP will continue to put forward the "official line" on organ music during Lent, hoping that organists will pray and discern about it. I can assure you that the decision on my part was anything but easy. I love all the Bach Lenten chorale preludes!

In an analogy that only fits to an extent, we don't let the fact that there are oodles of scrumptious meat recipes color our abstinence from meat every Friday of Lent (or even beyond, for many people). Pressures building up behind the dam don't call for the dam to be knocked down, but to be strengthened. And the Church, in her wisdom, allows for the momentary opening of the floodgates (Laetare Sunday) to prevent all us itchy organists from scratching our wounds.

Please don't think that my rather rigorous stance precludes all "contemplating" on my part, such as you've already expressed. For example, perhaps "official liturgists" have not sufficiently thought through the musical implications of Palm Sunday. The beginning of that Mass is truly triumphant and festive! Could there be a boisterous prelude, and glorious singing and playing during the solemn procession, echoing the crowd's shouting and merriment during the Lord's entrance into Jerusalem? As Mass continues with the readings, particularly the Passion, the mood changes distinctly. Maybe this is the time to return to the rigors of Lent, after allowing organ and instruments until this point?

We do need to be careful that our pondering is based on valid liturgical principles though, not just for our own desires!

Gary Penkala
CanticaNOVA Publications

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