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Musical Musings: Liturgy

Whither Summorum pontificum?

by Kurt Poterack

This article appeared in the Spring 2008 edition of Sacred Music journal, published by the Church Music Association of America. It is reprinted with the kind permission of Jeffrey Tucker, Managing Editor.

What will the outcome of Pope Benedict's motu proprio Summorum pontificum be? What influenece will it have? On the laity? On the clergy? On the seminaries? On the Ordinary Usage of the Roman Rite? On the spiritual life of Catholics? ... On liturgical music?

This last question is the key for [serious church musicians]. I do not claim to have any certain answers. It is too early. I do wish to raise some concerns on this front, though. Already, at the time of writing — less than six months after the implementation date of the motu proprio — one thing has become apparent. There is a dearth of people trained in the official music of the Roman Rite (i.e., Gregorian chant). So, if someone wishes to do a true Missa Cantata (let alone a Solemn High Mass) with chanted propers and ordinary — and there is an increasing desire to do it right — often one has to "share" a local schola. For example, the college schola which I direct sings every Sunday during the academic year at the college Latin Mass according to the "Ordinary Usage" and then, once a month, travels across town to the local parish to sing at the weekly Mass according to the "Extraordinary Usage."

The parish has tried to begin its own schola, but for now can only draw from the few alumni of the college in the parish who used to sing in the college schola.

And herein lies an answer to this problem. Only those "schooled" in Gregorian chant — and that of course is what the word schola means — can even begin to perform this rather difficult artistic, cultic music. Of course, some chants — the responses, the hymns, and many ordinaries (some after sufficient repetition) — can be performed relatively easily by unschooled people. The propers, especially the gradual and Alleluia verses — even some offertories — are an entirely different matter (and let's not even get into tracts and sequences!).

To perform an entire set of propers well and to lead a congregation in the singing of an ordinary — for example Mass IX with its virtuosic Gloria — is no mean feat. This requires a musical culture, one in which the basics of music are taught in the early years, one in which many people practice singing as an avocation. As I have pointed out before (Sacred Music, 133, no.1), many "indult Mass" choirs were (and continue to be) similar to what many a pre-Vatican II parish choir was like: "five middle-aged-to-old women (with screechy voices) and two men singing (or better yet croaking) the Roman psalm tone proper and, maybe ... the Henry Farmer Mass in Bb."

In fact, I have before me — as I prepare the propers for the Feast of the Epiphany — an old copy of the Liber usualis that I acquired from a used book dealer and that had probably been last used sometime in 1964. Underneath the text of every single Epiphany proper — as well as many of those for other feasts and Sundays — are two inverted "V's" for every phrase. Clearly the last person (and the group in which they were singing) sang the propers to psalm tones, rather than singing the actual chants. The purpose of the inverted "V's" was to indicate the syllables upon which the mediant and final cadences of the psalm tone occurred in each phrase. The singers could then mentally supply the psalm tone, reading the text out of the book.

Sadly, this was the state of Catholic liturgical musical culture in many — certainly not all, but many — parishes in America before Vatican II. For those of us not old enough to have memories of this time it is important to repeat: there was not some high level of musical culture universally practiced from which the Church fell forty years ago. The liturgical musical culture of the Roman Rite, though it certainly continued to exist on the books and was preserved in some places — and there were valiant efforts being made to restore it — had been in decline for some time. Not decades, but centuries. To quote Professor Laszlo Dobszay,

Medieval Europe was able to create and support the corporative bodies and institutions, which guaranteed [the performance of the corpus of chant] ... An essential element of the medieval school system was the teaching of music, and so the "chorus," which assured the chanting of the propers, making them resound all over the orbis catholicus [was] ... in cathedrals and larger churches the chapter, priests, clerics, schoolboys and their instructors; in the village church perhaps no more than the priest, a teacher and three or four lads ... The available personnel made it possible to celebrate the liturgy in its entirety day after day ... Financial resources were at hand to keep the whole system alive and maintain it without interruption. The liturgical "network" was very important, efficient, and its beneficial effects also reached the congregation both directly and indirectly. As these conditions began to diminsh, the very celebration of the Opus Dei began to shrink as well ... The final stage of this evolution is the "Tridentine" silent low Mass and the priest's personal obligation to the private reading of the Breviary. [Lazslo Dobszay, The Bugnini-Liturgy and the Reform of the Reform CMAA 2003, p.104]

It is therefore a little bit disturbing when I find among enthusiasts for the "Tridentine" Mass today, those — sometimes half my age — who want to establish as normative the old silent (i.e. non-dialogue) form of the low Mass. It is precisely a culture in which both the "specialists" (the choir) and the "non-specialists" (the congregation) sing — and respond — that is a culture in which sacred music will flourish. You cannot "school" people (that is, give them specialized training) in Gregorian chant unless there is a basic interest in singing among the majority of the people. Now do not get me wrong. I know that "active participation" properly understood is first and foremost internal. I know that one can participate in great sacred music by listening. I have made all these arguments myself. However, I have attended far too many Tridentine Masses in which a huge congregation (upwards of 400 people) have been absolutely stone silent refusing to say even "Amen" or "Et cum spiritu tuo" — and even sometimes shushing people who do so.

In order to sustain a high liturgical culture with well-trained singers to perform the church's challenging "treasury" of sacred music, there has to be a large pool of singers from which to draw — many of whom will be quite average. A return to the old silent low-Mass culture will not do. It was a sign of decline. Now we have a chance to start afresh. Let us make sure we do it right.

Kurt Poterack is choirmaster at Christendom College in Front Royal VA.

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