The Beauty of Music and Chant
by Luca della Libera
translation from Italian by Gary D. Penkala
This article first appeared in Il Messaggero - Online, February 27, 2003.
Yesterday the Pope exhorted faithful Catholics to return music and chant to their pride of place at Mass, but not -- he warned -- in a careless, slovenly way.
"One needs to pray to God," he said yesterday morning in a general audience at the Vatican, "not only with precise theolgical formulas, but also with dignified beauty."
"To this purpose," he explained," the Christian community must make an examination of conscience in order to restore to the liturgy the beauty of music and chant."
"We must purge," he cautioned again, "the tendency toward nonsensical styles, careless forms of expression, and unpolished music and texts, in order to more closely conform to the act being celebrated."
To categorize a universal outline of Catholic music is not easy.
The situation is very complex: to be sure; there are many churches in which the quality of the repertoire leaves much to be desired.
In many cases, the urgency to involve the congregation in the musical act has led to a banality in the resulting music, with songs that imitate the models of "consumer music."
One thing seems clear: there can be no marriage of music and liturgy without a deep immersion in the rite.
"It's a dynamic situation," maintains Father Antonio Parisi, musical consultant to the Office of Liturgy for C.E.I. [the Italian Bishops' Conference].
"In Italy, we have fifty diocesan schools that prepare cantors with courses to improve their skills: it is quiet work, but that which bears much fruit.
The reform of the Conservatories, then, will encourage classes in music for liturgy."
"The Pope's words correctly emphasize the spiritual value of music within the liturgy," says Msgr. Marco Frisina, Director of the Liturgy Office of the Vicariate of Rome and Music Director at the Basilica of Saint John Lateran.
"God must always be offered the best: the current situation is musical nonsense, because attention is not paid to the interior value of music.
We are working in our diocese on two fronts: to educate the laity in the great sacred traditions with concerts that take place each Sunday in the various churches of Rome; of equal importance, in the liturgical realm (and I know first-hand as a composer) there is need to mediate the secular musical tradition and the sensibilities of the times.
The people of God have a strong desire for the sacred, but, at the same time, there is a massive presence of 'consumer music,' which promotes the 'quick fix.'
The aim of sacred song is prayer, and thus it must be in conformity with the grandeur of the ritual action.
Many composers see the liturgy as something that snubs their language, and they live in this misunderstanding.
In reality, liturgy has room for neither banal music nor intelluctual music.
Sacred music must be shared by a community, must have a universal reach.
In this sense, Gregorian chant is normative.
Not because we must imitate it poorly in commonizing it: it is normative in the sense that it represents a model whose apparent simplicty earns it pride of place."
Gregorian chant: enormous treasure, but little known.
Things, however, are changing.
Father Maurizio Verde, chant expert and choir director, is responsible for the musical training of the seminarians of the Franciscan Friars Minor in Umbria.
"In official attitudes there is always much clarity: in essence, what rests in the cultural heritage is that which is celebrated, what the people of God live in the midst of liturgy.
I do not have the title of Musical Archeologist, for which I would need to perform only Gregorian chant.
We must not preclude new paths, which speak in a contemporary language.
Gregorian chant, in any case, fulfills a fundamental function in musical pedagogy, adhering totally to the Catholic sense of the Church and the Word of God.
I see at the core of this repertoire a constant advantage, and, at the risk of sounding 'superficial,' it encourages a certain 'new-age' style."
"The words of the Pope fill me with joy," says Gianluigi Gelmetti, Musical Director of the Opera Theater of Rome.
"Music has an enormous revitalizing power, because of which it is unthinkable to relegate music to a type of 'gold sequin.'
I am also perplexed at the practice of singing Gregorian chant in Italian translations: this leads to great loss of charm and inhibits the expressive power of the Latin text.
Composers are going to extreme lengths to find solutions in harmony with today's thinking.
On my part, I can assure you that next year the Opera Theater will work to produce various concerts of sacred music: it seems proper to do so, in a city with such strong musical traditions as Rome."
How do composers compare themselves in the area of sacred music, and in particular, liturgical music?
Matteo D'Amico is among those artists who manage in a systematic way.
Just a few days ago in Rome, his Stabat mater was performed, the Latin text of which was translated by Vincenzo Consolo, who added The Agony of Palermo, dedicated to the tragic death of the Borsellino guide.
"I find the words of the Pope to be an important glimmer of hope.
In the last twenty years I have noticed an increasing interest on the part of composers to embrace the sacred.
The dichotomy between sacred music and functional music in the liturgy has always existed, not only today.
In the 1950s sacred music was always marked by austerity and severity.
I'm happy to approach expression and the texts in an intense way, living, colorful, and always after the example of Petrassi, in the footsteps of the grand Roman musical tradition."