In the post on the hymn “Jesus so tenderly calls me” Ephrem surfaced the issue of the emotional life of Catholic sung prayer.
(C)an we sing about the joy of salvation? How delightful it is to be brought into Communion with the living God? That is what statuary and devotions give people an opportunity to do, and what most of our current art, including music, gives no opportunity for: delight in the joy of salvation. This hymn is at least a step in the devotional direction.
It seems to me that songs give the composer or singers two opportunities to express this. The text, obviously: “With joy you will draw water at the fountain of salvation,” (Isaiah 12:3) Psalm 98 and numerous other examples. And the music itself.
As westerners, our ears are more used to communicating mood through harmony. A small sliver of Catholics might recognize the distinctiveness of the modes and melodies of plainsong, but if we were looking to music to express or communicate mood, including affective joy, we would first turn to harmony. Clearly Catholics have done so, as very little devotional hymnody is plainsong.
Ephrem continues with an important point:
Devotional means affective. We love God. We don’t tolerate God or answer His call as servants. God wants our friendship. He draws us, actively, as affective and thinking persons, both within the Liturgy and outside it.
If you want to see really distant, non-relational language, look at most present-day Church music. Or at the “optional” collects of the Mass, the ones that were composed in English. If you want to see intimacy and tenderness, look at the Introits.
I might quibble that devotional life is not only affective, but it also implies a committed life. If my spouse or child is ill, I care for them with devotion. But my love for them is expressed more in concrete acts. In my case, “guy” things: dishing out ice cream, running a warm bath, fetching an extra blanket from the linen closet, going out to the pharmacy at an inconvenient hour, stuff like that. Not really joyful stuff. Unless you’re a guy, it doesn’t seem very affective. But I would submit that many Catholics don’t approach their devotional lives with joy. They say their prayers, do the “procedures” from a sense of habit and commitment. And that’s a good thing when balanced with Ephrem’s suggestion of the importance of joy and emotion.
Which brings me to the point of the essay. I suspect that much modern liturgical music lacks the “emotional” connection of pre-conciliar vernacular hymns for a few reasons:
1. Much of it is based on Scripture. And while the examples of Luke 1:46, Isaiah 12:3, Psalm 122:1b express joy explicitly and in context, the Biblical sources also express other human considerations, not always positive emotions.
2. Contemporary church music has been often criticized (by Anglicans) as happy-clappy. Whether a fair condemnation or not, many musical styles suggestive of happiness, joy, dancing, are in use. Willard Jabusch pioneered them with his English-language hymns. Good musicians want to be “serious” musicians, and I know that many composers over the years have suppressed their affective sensibility in composition as their style matured.
3. Emotions are seen as an individual kind of thing. Composing for liturgy always brings the potential pothole of writing something that fits the emotional appeal of a smallish subset of people, and alienates lot of others. One has to go no further than the bile-driven discussions on Marty Haugen and David Haas to see that most conservative Catholics who object, object to these guys being wussies rather than over-intellectualized Palestrina-wannabes.
4. Most white composers have avoided sentimentality, at least overtly in the texts. Tom Conry might be an extreme example. LifeTeen music, however, uses the medium of music to communicate the emotion. And there’s no doubt that the celebrity-driven aspect of Catholic music publishing focuses on the emotional appeal of the guru, sometimes above the content of his (or maybe her) music.
5. Probably the one aspect that many contemporary musicians have been drilled in is an avoidance of individualism. It is part of the “progressive gospel” that the Church, especially in the US, is too focused on “me and Jesus,” and doesn’t center enough attention on building community. There was a time when I avoided any literal use of first-person singular in my own compositions. I wrote two settings of Psalm 91 in the 90’s, and in each one, I altered the ICEL refrain from “Be with me …” to “Be with us, Lord, when we are in trouble.”
6. Yet Black Gospel music embraces the “I” and the “me” of communal prayer. In progressive circles, one doesn’t usually criticize Gospel music. But then again, you don’t see too many white folk imitating it.
My sense is that Ephrem is on to something with the need to recover the affective side of music. Outside of the monastery, I don’t see chant as a leading player in that. But by the same token, I don’t see mining the scrap heap of devotional hymnody as being the best territory for enrichment. A good parish music director would probably take the emotion factor into consideration when planning or shaping an entire repertoire.
What do you think?