Arts & Entertainment
Singing the Mass
Sacred Music Editor Talks About Church Music and the New Missal
BY Trent Beattie
January 2-15, 2011 Issue | Posted 1/7/11 at 1:03 PM
Jeffrey Tucker thought he had heard it all in the world of music. Then he attended a chanted Mass.
Unlike the secular music he was used to, the simple chant he heard raised his mind and heart to God. This life-changing experience facilitated his conversion to the Catholic faith in 1985.
You’re a convert to Catholicism. How did your conversion occur?
Every time I tell the story, it is different. I recently realized why: Conversions are too big for full cognition. Too many influences hit us from too many directions to make sense of it all, and there is the element of the divine that surpasses consciousness. So I’m at the point of realizing that I do not and cannot know how or why it occurred.
However, I do know this: Music played a role. I had been a lifetime musician, playing in symphonies and jazz combos and everything in between. But there was something about hearing the Mass chanted with just a few small notes — by an older priest with a tired voice — that transformed me completely. I was about 22 years old, and I had never heard anything so beautiful. The total absence of ego and the total absorption in a purpose beyond time enthralled me. I think that these notes unlocked my mind to understand and opened my heart to a kind of love I had never known. Looking back at it, those small notes had a more powerful effect than the shelves of books and the endless hours of studying the faith.
How did your newly found interest in sacred music proceed from there?
That chant in Mass that I heard from the late Father Urban Schnaus at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception exposed me to something completely new, something words and argument alone could not express. The context mattered too: This wasn’t a music history class. It changed everything. My whole aesthetic outlook changed. Instead of looking for truth and beauty in the avant-garde, I found it in music that was unbound from the temporal world.
From the chant, I moved on to listen to Renaissance polyphony, in which I heard a level of sophistication that I did not hear in much modern music, which seemed strangely superficial and simple by comparison. It’s like comparing a medieval cathedral to a trailer home. Gradually, chant and polyphony took over my brain, and hardly any other music mattered anymore.
Of course my fascination with it began as purely artistic, but when I realized that there was a reason for its structure and sound, my appreciation grew. I realized that it is all a form of prayer, and the musical structure amounts to an attempt by mortals to touch a realm of immortality. It was all an attempt to somehow capture and characterize what the ancients called the “music of the spheres,” which is something like a heavenly sound that might be worthy to be presented by angels at the throne of God. The composers and the tradition heard something true and beautiful, and the liturgy absorbed it as its own.
It goes without saying that secular music doesn’t attempt this at all. It is designed to flatter the performers, indulge the composers, entertain the audience, or whatever. There is a place for this approach in the culture at large, but sacred music has a different purpose. To me, to begin to understand liturgical music is to realize this central point that appears in Christian writings from the earliest age: There is a difference between sacred and profane. Many people deny this today, which just amazes me. I consider it so axiomatic that it is not worth debating, only explaining.
Why do people deny it? It has something to do with an embedded agnosticism born of deconstructionist thinking. There is no intrinsic meaning in anything, this view says, so how can we really make such distinctions between what is sacred and what is not?
But you are more than a student or listener; you’re also a practitioner and a director.
I became interested in sacred music as a practitioner because the tragedy of its loss is so undeniably obvious to any practicing Catholic. Given our heritage, given what Catholicism has done artistically through the ages (we invented music notation, for example), given what Vatican II called the “treasury of sacred music,” it is shocking how absent it is from our parishes. But that’s only the beginning of the problem. The real core is the loss of the ideal, the near absence of an understanding that musicians have any serious responsibilities to the ritual. So far as I can tell, this is an unprecedented situation, and it cries out for change.
Many people have noted what a dramatic contrast the reality is from the hope of the Second Vatican Council, which called for the Gregorian tradition to assume first place at Mass. Many Council Fathers hoped for a liturgical reform that would put an end to the pre-conciliar practice of vernacular hymnody dominating the Mass. They wanted to universalize the high Mass with music that is native to the ritual. It didn’t turn out that way, for a variety of reasons.
For many years, I sat by and wished someone would do something about the problem. Then one day I realized that I had a responsibility to step forward and do something myself. I realized that it is not just a matter of selecting the right stuff to sing, but there is training required, and massive personal sacrifices are necessary. There were political, pastoral and logistical obstacles to overcome, so the change would not be easy. It required an infrastructure and a long-term outlook.
Colleagues in the Church Music Association of America felt the same way. Under the leadership of Dr. William Mahrt, good things are happening. Really, a new renaissance is under way. Our annual colloquium trains hundreds of people each year and turns away as many as it accepts simply because there is not enough room.
What are the most common misconceptions about sacred music in the mind of the average Catholic?
I’m not entirely sure that the average Catholic is as confused as the nice people who attempt to provide music in our parishes from week to week. If you ask the average Catholic what kind of music is integral to our liturgy and ritual, most will mention Gregorian chant. They are right. The music of the Church was taking shape around the same time as the books of the Bible were being chosen; the faith and its music grew up and took shape together. Just as Scripture continues to speak to us today, the music of the faith speaks to us as well.
I find it striking that most non-Catholics imagine that our services are dominated by the kind of chant heard in movies and television. But the truth is that we do not hear it in our parishes. Why not? The musicians have not had their responsibilities explained to them. They do not know that the Church has assigned a specific and brilliant piece of music for every part of the Mass throughout the liturgical year. Not one in 100 Catholic musicians knows this. They’ve never heard of the Graduale Romanum, which is the music book of the Roman rite. They’ve never been told that there are ideals that extend beyond a weekly game of English-hymn roulette.
People who do know about chant are often afraid of it because the notation is different and the language is different. The rhythm is different too. So it is with the rest of Catholicism. What we do is different from what the rest of the world does. We understand the need to train in doctrine and morals, but somehow we think that such training should not be necessary for liturgical music.
We have to realize that our music is of a special type, so it makes special demands on the musician. We should not permit any music to be used in Mass without some consciousness of what it is supposed to be about, any more than we should tolerate homilies that teach ideas contrary to the faith.
What are the goals of the Sacred Music journal?
Sacred Music is the oldest, continuously published music journal in the English-speaking world. It is now on volume 137, if you can believe it. The goal is to publish scholarship, to provide news, to offer tutorials, to inspire and teach, and generally serve as a literary infrastructure for a burgeoning movement. It is going very well, but the digital presence of the sacred music movement has also been important. I’m very happy with how ChantCafe.com is coming along. The forums at MusicaSacra.com are huge and essential, helping musicians every day. The ethos is starting to change.
Do you have any projects corresponding with the new missal translation which will begin to be in use in Advent 2011?
The new translation is so much better, so much more beautiful. People will notice immediately, not just in the order of Mass but in all the celebrant parts, too. The chants are now embedded in the structure of the missal; this was not previously true. We’ve already recorded all these chants on YouTube and made them available to every singer in the world for free.
But there is something even more important. It is called the Simple Propers Project. Some background: In 1969 the Consilium [the commission established to implement Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy] stated definitively that it is not fitting that hymns should replace the propers of the Mass, that is, the antiphon text for the entrance, Psalm or tract, offertory and Communion. Of course, this statement is widely ignored today. The leap from silly songs to serious Gregorian chant is a bit large for most parishes, in part because we’ve lacked good resources to make the transition possible.
This is what the Simple Propers Project is all about. It is managed by Adam Bartlett of Phoenix. He is writing melodies that anyone can sing for English-text versions of the propers, together with Psalms. The results are stunningly beautiful, and it will enable parishes to do what they should be doing. The full book is to be published as an open-source book, meaning it won’t be copyright-protected and will be given away for free. This replicates the way music was distributed in the first 1,800 years of Christianity. I fully expect this collection will have a major impact on Catholic liturgy all over the English-speaking world, and it fits perfectly with the new missal translation.
What do you say to parish music directors who think that prescribed music for the Mass takes away from their artistic freedom?
In some ways, Catholicism in general takes away from our freedom to believe and do whatever we want, but there is another sense in which the framework itself frees us to do what is right, true and beautiful. Many art historians have looked back to see that it is not untethered freedom that has given rise to great art but rather creativity within constraints. Think of the Mass settings of the Renaissance and Classical periods. Many of the great secular composers are best known for their settings of Requiem Masses or operas with a pre-set story. Artists craved a framework to work within; it is this framework that causes an exit from the ego, which is probably the beginning of truly lasting contributions to art.
There is also the need for music at Mass to unify the purposes of the gathered community. That cannot happen if the music is all about individual preferences. Notice how even four people in a moving car cannot agree on which radio station should be played. If we leave the choice solely to individual preferences, the result will be chaos. We need to use music that draws us out of ourselves and into a higher realm that unifies us. The chant tradition provides this. It is a third way, beyond liberal and conservative hymn choices.
What do you say to people who think that “contemporary” or rock music is necessary to attract young people to Mass?
So far as I can tell, the only people who really argue this way are old people. It’s true that plenty of young people are not interested in true liturgical music, but those same people are not interested in Catholicism either. How do we draw people to the faith? By lying about it and substituting false teaching? I don’t think so. The faith draws people when it is not ashamed of itself and when it has the ring of truth.
It is the same with liturgical music. Church music uses free rhythm that always points upwards in the same way that incense is always rising. This assists our prayer. Secular styles of music, in contrast, use rhythms that elicit temporal thoughts and emotions. Rock music points to nothing outside of itself, so it does not belong anywhere near the liturgy.
We are living in times of transition, and young people seem to know this even more than older people. I don’t think there is any doubt where that transition is headed: People are discovering the sacred music tradition. If you look around at the Catholic music world, you quickly find that this is where the interest and energy is. This is the future.
Trent Beattie writes from Seattle, Washington.
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