Friday, 8 May 2009

Singing the Mass

For some time now the New Liturgical Movement blog has been running a campaign aimed at persuading 'reform of the reform' oriented parishes to sing the propers of the Mass (Introit, etc), preferably in Latin/gregorian chant rather than use hymns as a substitute. The underlying message about the importance of the Propers is relevant to TLM communities too I think.

The importance of the Propers

As the reader who drew their latest post to my attention pointed out, sermons generally seem to focus on the Epistle and Gospels of the relevant Sunday. In fact, all of the propers often have something to contribute to our understanding of what the Church is seeking to teach us.

One of NLM's arguments though, is that the chant settings for the music are themselves aids to our interpretation. A little while back they posted this fascinating quote:

"From Dom Gajard's untranslated work Les plus belles mélodies grégoriennes:

When we were at the noviciate, we observed, while serving his private Mass, that after the introit, the gradual, the offertory, the communion – all the sung pieces, in short – he would mark a pause, not found in the rubrics, and absorb himself in meditation. One day, one of us made bold and asked why he stopped so, and he received this answer, "For the sung pieces, the missal only gives the text which lends itself to many interpretations. What interests me is to know the Church’s interpretation, and I believe that it is clearly given in the melody which dresses up the text in the Graduale. So I stop for a while to bring the melody to mind. Gregorian, you know, is the official commentary of the liturgical texts, authentically given by the Church herself."
(Trans. Denis Garneau)


Jeffrey Tucker's latest piece is about Eastertide. He suggests that:

"We are used to the idea that Easter takes place suddenly, as if we wake up and it is a done deal, so everyone cheers. And so on it goes until Ordinary Time hits us. This is what happens when choosing music for Mass is reduced to selecting hymns from a list.

The liturgical sense is different. Easter begins with a sense of awe or even fear that is the first impulse upon discovery the reality of the impossible: the dead come back to life. And it comes to dawn on people slowly that it is not only true but also offers an in depth meaning concerning our own salvation. Our death can be new life too in Heaven. Our conversion to the faith in Christ gives us new life as well.

The jubilation emerges progressively as the weeks move forward, as Christ visits and walks among the believers before his Ascension into heaven, when we look up to observe yet another astonishing reality, breathtaking in its transformative power.

If we look only at the incipits for the introits for the season, we can see this drama unfold progressively as the weeks move forward. There is the awe, the fear. Then attention turns to the metaphor of conversion and new life (Quasi Modo). On the third week we should joyfully (Jubilate). On the fourth, we reflect on the mercy of the Lord, and the great gift he has left us in the opportunity of salvation (Misericordia). On the fifth, we sing a new song about wondrous deeds (Cantate). On the sixth, evangelism: spread the good news (Vocem). Then we rejoin the historical narrative on the following week: "Men of Galilee, why are you gazing in astonishment at the sky?"

Even if you know nothing about music, you can observe the drama in the lines of notes and the shapes of phrases. I've put together this little tool so that you can see how this works. Now compare the first chant with the last one. The story is in the line of notes. "

Now in fact, the musical storyline Mr Tucker is pointing to is even clearer, in my opinion, if you revert to the traditional ordering of the sequence of Introits, in which Misericordia comes before Jubilate Deo as used in the 1962 Missal (why on earth did the Novus Ordo vandals shift Good Shepherd Sunday around?) - you need to look beyond the incipits given here to fully see the picture, but the Introits seem to me to become increasingly more upward in their initial movement, and have a wider range as we move toward the Ascension. Very cute!

For those interested in the musical word painting going on in the Propers, a great resource is the book by Dom Dominic Johner, The Chants of the Vatican Gradual, which can be downloaded from the fabulous Musica Sacra site. Regardless, pay attention as the choir sings the propers this Sunday!


Peter said...


thanks for this inspirational post.

let's hope we see more along these lines.

Peter said...

To clarify my previous comment - "more of these" - I mean articles, sermons, talks, that acknowledge and extol the rich fare that is offered by the propers of the liturgy in text and song.

(All Terra's posts are inspirational !)

Terra said...

To be honest Peter, I think this is likely to be a topic of interest to a relatively small group.

I'm all in favour of making the most of the liturgical seasons, and getting the most out of the Propers. But it requires a musical knowledge that most people don't have. And even if these texts are sung at mass, I suspect only one or two of the choirs around the country are really able to convey some of the nuances in the music (this is where we really feel the lack of a traditinal monastery as a reference point I think).

Secondly, I don't think we should rely on the priest's sermon alone to make the most of mass - perhaps each day on the week before or after we could take one of the parts of the proper and meditate it on it, or use something like Gueranger's reflections to prepare.

Thirdly, I don't think we should discount the importnace of the epistle and Gospel - in the Office for Eastertide, they are really given a lot of emphasis, particulelyar the Gosepls which form the basis for antiphons at Lauds and Vespers specific to each day of the week during this season.

All the same, NLM's work in this area is of interest and I'm happy to highlight it, and I'd be happy to be wrong about this!

Peter said...


I don't disagree. Didn't mean to discount the Gospel.

The texts themselves have much to offer.

I think it is precisely because of your point that most people won't be interested in this that I think it is important that sermons, at least some times, expound the riches of the other texts and where sensible, of the music that goes with them. This of course goes for the collects and preface as well. T

hey all contain riches and nourishment that sometimes the sheep need to be told - "yes you can eat those too, there not just for me (shepherd/choir), in fact they are really good for you"

On the music front, I myself was musing before having seen NLM's post about the appositeness of many of the chants to the feast or season versus the failure of modern settings (& I mean post 1850) of (even faithful) vernacular translations to capture or convey the character that the chant does.

Two examples were in my mind:

'Glria laus et honor', the hymn for the procession on Palm Sunday vs 'All glory praise and honor'. The one is triumphant and 'marchable', the other is (to my ear) 'nice' and to be sung in your pew.

Ubi caritas at the mandatum on Holy Thursday vs 'Where there is charity & love'. The former has a warm, gentle enfolding character (to my ear) whereas the other has a slightly shrill aspect.

As you can see, I am one of the few who the theme appeals to!!

Peter said...

ps again

the sermon might even point the sheep to Gueranger or Pius Parsch ...

But then not even all those attached to Extraordinary Form are sympathetic to the aspirations of the liturgical movement.

Terra said...

I actually have some sympathy with critics of the liturgical movement. Although my own spirituality is deeply indebted to it, I think one can argue that the current mess we are in liturgically does represent the logical and uncriticqal extension of some its ideas and methodologies.

In particular it embodied within it a dangerous antiquarianism that we are now paying the price for. Its chant reconstructions for example were based on Solesmes' vies of what they thought chant should sound like - and completely ignored the living traditions practiced in the handful of monasteries that had an unbroken tradition of actually performing it. The result has been very beautiful, with a relative simplicity that makes it an attractive option for performers, but results in renditions that not always very plausibly asertive, as I think the work of groups such as Ensemble Organum illustrate.

In addition the insistence on chant only (still reflected in the constitutions of some trad monasteries which prohibit use of polyphony in church) has led to the neglect of a wonderful repertoire of medieval two, three and four part harmonised works. Notions of what does and doesn't promote participation has also led to the exclusion of the orchestral mass (good to see il papa scheduling one for Pentecost!) again rejecting a huge repertoire of wonderful works.

And Gueranger's determined rejection of all alternative rites to the Roman, which has also been continued in contemporary thinking until recently, is in retrospect to be regretted, notwithstanding that it had some rationale in doctrine in the french context.

So I'm not inclined to uncritically laud either the original, twentieth century or new liturgical movements notwithstanding the enormous debt we owe them!

Terra said...

And just to take my comments back to the substance of the post, my own view is that Dom Gajard's comments about the chant providing a definite, approved interpretation of the texts is that they are clearly an exagerration.

There were actually numerous alternative versions of chants, both due to local manuscript variants and performance practice, and completely alternative chant versions for other rites, etc.

We've become used to a very sanatised view of the chants (for example associating particular versions of the ordinary with particular times of the year) when in fact a lot of this is in fact a Solesmes construction. Don't get me wrong - they work well, and give an interpretation which is valid.

But we shouldn't get carried away with its weight...

Peter said...

While we are furioulsy agreeing over the main thrust - the liturgy contains a complete, varied and satisfying diet, we are drawing out many important issues.

Re: solesmes, I know that some of the 'supertrads' view this as THE only way, and all else as meeting the 'antiquarian' criteria. I too disagree. Perhaps we wouldn't have lost all this if it weren't for the reformation ... I agree with your analysis of the renditions. Of course for starting off you almost need to do this as those are the books that are available.

I am all for polyphony but also not for uncritical antiquarianism.

Polyphony has always seemed to me to represent a beautiful foral arrangement or garnish to add to and embelish the substance of the standard 'meal' (nb not alluding to the Eucharist per se here!)

I wonder if there are not some practical issues with orchestral Mass settings but I'm using my own deduction on that, coupled with the directives of Pius X - what's running the show for an orchestral setting that goes well beyond the normal time of the spoken (or chanted) part of the Mass?

To continue my analogy, the Catholic liturgical dining cabinet is full of many and varied vessels and cutlery, some simple and noble, some intricate and difficult, but all able to be use to great effect in serving the feast of faith.

(leaving aside some crappy additions from bargain bazaars of the last 2 centuries :-) )

Terra said...

Glad we are essentially in agreement!

I do agree that, my reservations a about it notwithstanding, Solesmes style has to be the grounding for any liturgical choir - all the materials etc are set out for it, and it is a relatively simple and practical method which will produce good results. Doing anything more is for the very advanced/professional!

I'm not so convinced about the timing issues for orchestral masses - the orchestral sections simply extend out the meditative dimension of the liturgy. And there are chant precedents for long periods of choir only activity - think for example of the fifteen minute or so long tract on the first Sunday in Lent!

Peter said...

Hmmm, I'm sort of convinced, but, ...

I remember reading an article in Sacred Music that said that the Chant of Lent is longer and more difficult - in line with the character of the season - hard work (though not necessarily distasteful). Might one say that the Tract you cite has a didactic (and meditative) function?

Whereas if you had say a Sanctus that went on faaaaar longer than the time it takes to get from "Te igitur" to 'Qui pridie" I'm not sure that is 'liturgical'?

[you don't need an orchestra for this of course - I recall one occasion where a rennaisance Sanctus setting went on a loooooong time. I've never known the actual setting but I've irreverently referred to it ever since as Missa in saecula saeculorum ...]

Terra said...

I have fond memories of orchestral masses in my youth, both in Europe and NZ - indeed Christchurch Cathedral keeps the tradition alive for Australasia, although as far as I can work out Fr Rizzo hasn't yet managed to persuade them to switch from Novus Ordo to TLM for this purpose! But you can look at their impressive program (to match their beautfiul baroque cathedral) here: