Indeed, when Marty Haugen’s Mass of Creation finally came on at the Sanctus, it was a moment of dignity—so much so that I want to take back all my negative comments back when I thought that this Mass setting was unsuitable for a Papal Mass.
Indeed, it’s amazing to me that so many professional musicians would not be aware of a few basic principles in playing. First, it’s about the arrangement. We can be grateful for the post-Tridentine western musical tradition for writing it all out for us. Great composers can take a simple tune and craft it into a symphony. You never hear Vaughan-Williams laid out in lavender for taking guitar tunes and turning them into pieces like Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus.
When it’s not about the arrangement, it’s about the players. The greats are great because their music is profound, and often that means it’s difficult to play. Bach in the hands of a tyro is pretty awful. And if that was all you heard of Bach, you’d probably dismiss his music along with the players of it.
I feel like I’m wearing out the word, but it really is about context. Context, context, context. Context in liturgy means prayer. And prayer is not always aligned to high levels of musical skill. In such cases, sacred music works in spite of a lack of quality, not because of it. It’s more than telling a struggling musician or assembly, “Well, your heart’s in the right place.” You aspire to excellence because the liturgy deserves it, but as one saint put it, “Do not allow yourselves to be offended by the imperfect while you strive for the perfect.”
Chant failed as pre-conciliar Catholic music for two reasons, I think. Laziness and a lack of prayer. I sang in a chant schola once and I will tell you it is darned difficult to achieve a good unison sound from a non-auditioned cross section of parish singers. I learned a lot from our director. But after eight months, I still thought we had a long way to go. If a chant advocate tells you this music is easy: just sing a line and go … they don’t know.
I think the connection of language and prayer is important. Sacrosanctum Concilium alluded to this many times, and it’s why the world’s Catholic bishops accepted the vernacular after the Council. It’s also why weak English works better than Latin for most all American Catholics: it makes a connection through perception. We’re literally praying twice: the texts as well as the music. Without an understanding of Latin, even a basic one, music with Latin texts is praying once. (Unless it’s just listening to a performance.) It’s an emphasis on the musical sound and the style of the singing. And I suppose one could sing any words, any language, any nonsense words. If nobody in the schola or pews would know the difference, what would be accomplished? The same thing, pretty much. My chant director took time with not only Latin pronunciation, but also Latin meaning and how to interpret the text with prayer.
So instead of on Haugen, I see the bile spewed on the “appalling” instruments of non-white musicians. The commentariats are bad, generally. The bloggers a little more circumspect, but still wrong-headed.
Jeffrey Tucker again:
Blues and jazz – intended to appeal to African Americans? What about those African Americans who sing in chant scholas, are accomplished singers, are working to actually compose excellent sacred music?
What about white folk and Hispanics who sing and play blues and jazz?
Just because chant musicians keep to plainsong and polyphony doesn’t mean other people don’t find great enjoyment in more than two musical styles.
The criticisms I’ve read strike me as grossly ignorant. It’s about the basic principles. Question one: was the music itself good? Most people can’t bear to affirm anything as good outside their narrow musical taste. (Yes, taste!)
Was the non-classical music arranged properly? And did the listening critics hear the authentic arrangement, or were they stuffed away in the press box or in the tv studio, or listening to a less-than-professional feed from a media outlet? I ask this last one because I don’t know. I didn’t watch and listen to these Masses. I’m not accustomed to being a spectator at liturgy. If I couldn’t go, why would I filter the experience through a tv or computer screen?
Was the music bad because the players were not top-shelf? Or were they nervous, distracted, or just mixed up? Lots of possible problems there: not getting the best people, a lack of leadership, a lack of preparation, to name a few.
And lastly, what was the context in worship? I read that Fr Neuhaus has a hissy over the music. What was he doing at a papal liturgy yapping on tv and not praying? Is this a sporting event or is it the celebration of Mass?
With the advent of American Idol as the latest in a long line of critic-driven entertainment, I think many of the reform2 crew have adopted and embraced the Hermenteutic of Criticism as promoted in the culture. A great foundation for ushering in a new age of transcendence in liturgy. Smells like Matthew 7:26-27.