Tuesday, May 9, 2006

Sacred Music and the Natural Law

By Mitchell

AdoroTeDevote has been hosting a discussion over the past couple of weeks on that most controversial of Vatican II documents, Sacrocanctum Concilium. Specifically, she' s looking been what at the actually document says about ? liturgy and sacred music and, not surprisingly, finds that the document is, for the most part, quite different from what many of us hear at Sunday Mass.

Adoro's comments were quite prescient in light of the stir caused over the weekend by the use of Mozart's Coronation Mass as the liturgical music for the Saturday Mass commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Swiss Guard. Amy has links to fine stories providing photos and details of the Mass (be sure to read the various comboxes as well). I'll let you rely on the links rather than single out any particular one, except to say that they're all good.

I will admit to some satisfaction at seeing the panic some of the liberal liturgists must be in - in particular, there was one horrified commentator asking if the Pope considered himself above the GIRM. (In brief the answer was, yes, he is.) For we all know that Benedict has taken an active interest in papal liturgies, and so we assume that his stamp of approval was on this one as well.

It's also amusing to see people considering this Mass as if it were some kind of relic, considering that we hear the Coronation Mass several times a year at St. Agnes, along with orchestral Masses by Beethoven, Haydn, Bruckner, Dvorak and others.

So all is chaos. It's good to know, however, that there's at least one commentator out there who's optimistic about the future of liturgical reform:

One more aspect of this movement, which must not be forgotten, is its democratic character. For the carrying-out of the full ideal demands the co-operation of the entire people, who will no longer assist at, but take part in, the liturgy. This may not be accomplished in a day, but the Church works for the future, and already she is sowing the seeds. The little Catholic school child is learning to pray, not only in words, but also in song; not only in the Church’s language, Latin, but in her musical language, Chant; and when these children grow up, our choirs will be the whole Catholic world. While the variable and the more elaborate parts of the liturgy will demand the great genius, the great artist, the simpler parts will be taken up spontaneously by the entire congregation; producing the superb contrast of, on the one hand, the perfection of art, and on the other, the majesty of numbers. This is, indeed, nothing new: it is thus that the liturgy is intended to be rendered; it is thus that it has been rendered in the past, and is still rendered in a few centers of Catholic life. It is simply a return to the true ideal, a “renewing of all things in Christ,” a revitalizing, through art, of the spirit of Catholic democracy and universality.

Now, I should add one thing about this comment, which comes from Justine Bayard Ward. It was written in 1906. That's right - 100 years ago there was talk about active participation, "the simpler parts...taken up spontaneously by the entire congregation." In other words, Ward clearly expected that the congregation should be able to master certain parts of the Latin in a dialogue form with the priest. We know that Pius XII, for example, encouraged the dialogue in his private Masses, but for the most part there's been this assumption that the Tridentine encouraged - nay, commanded - that the congregation sit quietly during the Mass, saying their devotions while the servers handled the responses.

Ward also makes some extremely interesting comments about sacred music and the natural law (which is what I used in my Google search to come up with this article), which I think helps to explain why so many of us are turned off by the Haugen-Haas style of composition - well, that and the inane lyrics, that is. In explaining that liturgical prayer is not "an expression of individual reaching up to God" but is, in fact, "the Church praying as a Church," and that therefore a certain mesure of dignity is required in the musical setting of these prayers, Ward goes on to offer this comment:

Modern music has two scales, or Modes. Chant has eight. It is evident that eight modes gives greater variety of expression than two - an advantage for which even our modern indiscriminate use of the chromatic does not fully compensate. A mode is a manner. As in speech the speaker's manner shades the meaning of his words, sometimes even alters it, so in music the mode, or manner, determines the character of the composition. The meaning of a triad, for instance, depends entirely upon whether its manner be major or minor: lower the third, and its manner is sad; raise the third, and its manner is gay [or happy, for those of you unaccustomed to the previous meaning of the word gay]. Our present musical system is limited, then, to two manners, the major and the minor; and so Chant has the advantage of greater scope and clarity.

This reminds me of something I heard the composer Peter Schickle say once, in talking about the use of majors and minors, flats and sharps. He said that certian chords correspond to the natural rhythms of the human body, producing a sympathetic response (by which he didn't mean a sympathetic emotion, but one in which the body acted in harmony with the chord). Although Ward limits her discussion to Chant as the preferred alternative to music (in fact, she doesn't seem all that enamored with polyphony either), one can see the logic nonetheless. And it is this, I would submit, that goes a ways toward explaining why we have a visceral reaction to so much of modern liturgical music. Ward continues:

[t]he character of these two modern scales compels us to choose between a gayety almost frivolous on the one hand, and, on the other, a sorrow savoring of despair; neither of which emotions has any place in the Christian soul at prayer. The eight modes of the ancients, on the contrary, were devised to meet the requirements of prayer in an age when art was exclusively the servant of religion. They enabled the composer of the period to seize the subtle prayer-spirit, that elusive characteristic of Christianity, the rainbow tints of joy in suffering. Chant is joyful, but with the joy of the Cross, as distinguished from the joy of the revel. Chant is fervent, but with the passion of asceticism, as distintuished from the passion of the world. Prayer-sorrow is never despair, nor is prayer-joy ever frivolous. Chant is the artistic embodiment of this spirit, the minor idea nd the major idea are so interwoven, their relation is so intimate, that to disentangle them is impossible. We are never left in sorrow, yet our joy is never without a cloud. Even in those bursts of ecstatic joy of the Easter Alleluias lurks the memory that we are still a part of earth, still in the valley of tears.

Imagine that - the idea that our liturgical prayer, as expressed through Chant, actually has something to do with our understanding of our faith.

Now, there's much more that can be said about this, more that I'll include in a future post. For example, although I'm a great believer that orchestral Masses can and should be used within an actual liturgical setting, I think there's also room to discuss the outer limits of the use of such Masses, in terms of length and repetition. (There's certainly no question that operatic settings that turn parts of the ordinary into virtual arias can be considered "vulgar" in the sense of their relationship to popular culture rather than that of the sacred.)

We'll leave that for a future discussion, however; for now let's ponder the relationship of music and the natural law. Is much of our modern "liturgical music" contrary to that law? Is that why we have an instinctive revulsion to so much of it? Can you actually compose good sacred music in this day and age? And can listening constitute "active participation"? (Hint: this pope thinks so.) Stay tuned, and in the meantime discuss.

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