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Musical Musings: Miscellaneous

Things I Have Learned

by Yurodivi der Gottesnarr

This posting, which appeared in the May 16, 2005 forums of SperoNews, is reprinted with the kind permission of the author and the online editor.

Ha, ha! keep time: how sour sweet music is,
When time is broke and no proportion kept!
So is it in the music of men's lives.
    – Shakespeare: Richard II
One really easy way to stick your hand into the hornet's nest is to say something like, "We need to get back to real music in the Church and get rid of this folk stuff."

Let's face it: Haugen and Haas (among others) are here for the foreseeable future. I doubt even Benedict XVI is going to be overturning the moneychangers' tables [of the big publishers] any time soon. If only! I mean, the press already hates him, so he might as well live up to type by generating headlines like Panzer Pope Cracks Down! and Hardline Doctrinaire Pope Lays Down Law on Music. Believe me, I'd love to see that day.

But sadly, this music is not going away. And if you don't believe me, just take a look at the songsheets or "worship aids" at your local parish: they're loaded with the treacly tunesmithery that turns noble and ancient texts like the psalms into wanna-be Broadway showstoppers. Why? Because people actually like it.

Years ago, when I was still a Southern Baptist, a friend told me a story from her days in the mission fields of Africa. She was on a mission with her family, and one day she saw a group of local children digging beetle grubs out of a fallen log and eating them. So, being a good Southern girl, she ran into the house and convinced her mother to give up the family's only box of chocolate chip cookies so that the poor children could have something to eat. She came out and offered them to the other children. Each child politely took and ate one cookie.

Then they went back to their beetle grubs. Poor darling, she didn't know that beetle grubs were considered a treat.

Sometimes I get this sort of reaction when I suggest that we move towards more chant and polyphony in the celebration of Holy Mass. Yes, when faced with the treasures of the Church's 2,000-year history versus the latest beetle grubs from [the big publishers], the average Catholic will choose the grubs most of the time. As the quote at the beginning of the column suggests, most people have an opinion about music whether they actually know anything about it or not. (If you don't believe me, check out the message boards at American Idol, or listen to the heated discussions in your company lunchroom.)

People will give you lots of reasons why they prefer H&H to chant or (heaven forfend) Latin: it's accessible, it has a tune (and you can dance to it) that you can sing, it makes me feel good, and so on. I've actually had people tell me they wanted "traditional music" for their loved ones' funerals only to find out that what they meant was "Here I Am, Lord" and "On Eagle's Wings" (and before anyone points it out, yes, I'm aware that neither of those songs was written by either member of H&H). The trouble is, none of those reasons are good enough for a song to be performed at Mass. After all, I love the Rome Narrative from the third act of Tannhäuser, but I wouldn't sing it at Mass — especially that part where the Pope tells Heinrich he's going to burn in hell.

Let me illustrate with a little story.

Many years ago when I was a poor, deluded graduate student and a freshly minted Catholic, I was teaching a freshman-level Intro to Music History. It was an interesting group, and the discussions were sometimes lively. So, on the day we came to Gregorian Chant, I wrote upon the blackboard the melody of Pange lingua gloriosi, the chant setting of Thomas Aquinas' beautiful 12th-century Eucharistic hymn. I wrote only the notes, not the words; and I asked the class, "What is the distinguishing characteristic of this music?"

Several students offered suggestions: "It's monophonic," or "It looks like vocal music to me." But one foreign student caught the idea right away. Mind you, she wasn't a Christian; she was a primarily secularized Buddhist from a Communist country. But she recognized the fundamental, defining character of Chant:

"This is spiritual music," she said.

She was right. The Song of the Church, Gregorian Chant, is indeed spiritual music. It conveys a higher purpose and existence, and it has about it the whiff of incense and the vision of ages of Christians praying these same prayers in this same way, concentrating together to vocalize our Faith's most ancient prayers.

When we pray the psalms in this way, in fact, a good case can be made that we are praying the same way Jesus prayed them in His day, because there is strong circumstantial evidence that the early Church chanted the psalms in a way that they would have known as Jews. This makes sense: a large majority of early Christians were converts from Judaism, but Greeks, Romans and other non-chosen peoples wouldn't have had any reason to know the Hebrew psalms.

When we sing this way at Holy Mass, it lifts up the hearts of those who sing and of those who hear, and it points them toward heaven. It focuses the hearts of the assembly on what is actually going on at Mass: we witness the miracle of the Eucharist, and, if properly disposed, we can receive the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ into our mortal bodies. No other kind of music captures the miraculous, the otherworldly, in the way that the Song of the Church does.

At the same time, if I played for you a melody by Marty Haugen, David Haas, Daniel Schutte or Christopher Walker, but didn't sing the words, would you guess that it was meant to be part of a religious ceremony?

And isn't that a good reason to chant?

Yurodivi der Gottesnarr is director of music in a small southern parish where he has toiled in the trenches of ignorance for over fifteen years. He has graduate degrees in piano and voice from a large southern university.

See CNP's Gregorian Chant products
and Gregorian Chant CDs

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