Singing The Mass

Peter Nixon’s post this morning continues a dotCommonweal series on sacred music. I direct your attention to that web page, and your memories to my views on contemporary sacred music. In sum, we’re not where we need to be, but we’re a lot closer than the critics think we are.

The notion of “singing the Mass” is not new to contemporary Catholicism. NLM didn’t invent it. They’re not the first to promote it. Many of the “lesser” composers currently in the publishing vogue have promoted it. The big push, as I remember it, was in the seventies and early eighties to adopt Mass settings and the responsorial psalm as consistent and predictable aspects of parish music repertoire. From the publishers were selling us LH settings, music for funerals and RCIA, and combined rituals for the Gathering and Communion rites.

For its other faults, the Mass of Creation emerged on the scene as the first “major” Mass setting designed for post-conciliar Catholic worship. The main thrust in those days was to bridge the gap between the organ loft and the guitar group. Marty Haugen and/or his publisher discerned that a certain unity in parish musical repertoire was a good thing. Guitar group singers and instrumentalists were probably ready to produce sounds off the manuscript page. While Haugen’s later Mass settings each eclipse this seminal opus in quality, we find ourselves “stuck” with this other setting. There might be reasons why, if we care to look past our turned-up noses to see them.

The push for quality in liturgical music is undeniable. That push falters in practice more often with new pastors and changing staff priorities than some 2AM basement dark rituals brainwashing whole parish populations into chaining their hearts to their missalettes, their four-hymn sandwiches made up of three-chord ditties.

The much-maligned St Louis Jesuits did more to restore the antiphon and psalm format than any NLM tract. Few of their compositions are actual hymns. “You Are Near” is a long antiphon plus verses from paraphrased Psalm 139. “Blest Be The Lord” is a long antiphon plus verses from Psalm 91. “For You Are My God” Psalm 16. “Jesus the Lord” Philippians 2 canticle. “Be Not Afraid” Isaiah 43.

(What about those paraphrased texts? When I spoke with publishers in the late 80′s and early 90′s, I was encouraged not to use the actual translations from the USCCB or ICEL. Half the royalties would go to someone else. Alter the text slightly as you adapt for metered music, they said, and you get full songwriting credit and full royalties.)

Kathy said at dotCommonweal, “Ask the music director at your average parish what the Introit of the day is, and they’ll look at you like you have two Latinate heads. But Vatican II indicated that the Introit is the first, better choice in most cases.”

Well, not quite. I always use the antiphons as a guide for music repertoire, and while she might think my big head counts as two, there’s still only one neck protruding above my shoulders. It’s the GIRM that provides musicians with choices about introits, songs, and hymns.

There’s a very good reason why introits aren’t used in mainstream parishes: the very high learning curve imposed on a congregation. Seasonal songs and hymnody are an option. Quite frankly, they’re a better option more often than the introit is, unless you have a faith community praying daily or many times daily.

US parishes are doing better in more places with singing the Mass today than we were fifty years ago. The repertoire is improved greatly from past decades. Chant has always been in the consciousness of the better church musicians. Even the published composers of “ill” repute–Ray Repp recorded it in 1978, Michael Joncas in the early 80′s, Marty Haugen in the mid-80′s, just to name a few of the complainers’ favorite figures.

If you’re coming to the table with medicine for curing the Church of poor music, I think you need to have an accurate diagnosis for what ails. You’ll also need practical, local medicine to assist with problems–and I just don’t see a new Vatican department helping. If anything, it could do harm, reinforcing the illusion that higher authority will do what some people choose not to do for themselves.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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One Response to Singing The Mass

  1. Pingback: Learn Guitar » Singing The Mass

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