Sunday, 17 May 2009

"Sing like a Catholic"?

Yesterday, at the Anima Conference, I picked up a book from Mary Long's bookstall (from the Catholic Bookshop next to St Francis in the City) called "Sing like a Catholic" by Jeffrey A. Tucker (the link, BTW takes you to a page where, for free registration, you can download a full copy).

It is a passioned piece intended to follow up where Thomas Day's 1995 book "Why Catholics Can't Sing" with a practical guide to the restoration of the "treasure of inestimable value" (Vatican II) which is the traditional sacred chant of the Latin Rite in our parish liturgies.

There is some talk - of which I would be fully supportive - of inviting Mr Tucker to come to Melbourne to give some lectures/training sessions - but perhaps I am jumping the gun by even mentioning this in public?

His modus operandi is Fr Zuhlsdorf's "brick by brick" strategy. All it takes (all it HAS taken in the States) to begin a true revival of the true music of the Roman Rite of the Mass is dedicated and voluntary enthusiasts who have the support of their parish pastor to have a go and start learning and using the traditional chants in their liturgies. Get informed and experienced by attending training days, colloquiums etc. Download the music from the internet for free (he gives a host of sites that are now on the web, foremost of which is, form a schola of singers, and go for it. Of course there is more to it than that, but the first requirement seems to be the will to do something rather than nothing.

Nevertheless, I am in two minds about Mr Tucker's project.

1) My first mind is to say "Yea and Amen". After attending Fr Lawrence Cross's Byzantine liturgy at the ACU chapel last Friday at 12noon (something I do every now and again) I am reminded of how beautiful a liturgy can be when the music that is sung is an organic part of the liturgy itself. Although I won't say a lot more about my "first mind" at this point, let the Reader understand that I see the restoration of chant in the liturgy as "a good thing".

2) But then my second mind kicks in - primarily because my task today is prepare the music for the liturgy at our "mass centre" at the girl's Primary School for next Sunday morning when I am rostered on as Cantor. This "second mind" is what I want to give some time to in this blog.

The liturgy in our parish has been on the up and up over the last four years or so. Two parish pastors ago, what happened at Sunday morning mass was so laid back it was almost horizontal. It was a valid Eucharist (more or less), but sometimes strained the definition of "liturgy" to breaking point. The pastor had been there for a dozen years, and this was "the way things were done" in our "community". A change of pastor's saw, as ever, a change in style of the liturgy, and it was a step in the right direction. Two years later another change of pastor has brought in another giant step in the right direction, and, thanks to the wise guidance of the intervening priest, the liturgical good sense of the new pastor has been widely accepted without comment.

That being said, music is still a problem. Many weeks the mass is spoken except for tape recorded songs. The groups who do provide music put a lot of effort and skill into leading the singing of the songs, but still the choice of song material is a little sad, and the emphasis continues to be upon the songs in the classic four-hymn sandwich rather than on the ordo or the propers of the mass. For eg. only at masses for which I am cantor is there a sung psalm and Gloria.

I myself am limited. I have tried encouraging others to join me to form a small choir, but with no success (keep in mind that the congregation at our mass centre is under 100 generally). I also have no musical backup – again, not through lack of trying. I have received criticism during the singing of the psalm because "no one wants to listen to your [ie. my] voice when they come to mass". Fair enough. Why should they? So I am disinclined to use music that would have large parts of me singing solo.

So, here's what I do.

I use a good quality keyboard with midi-file programs to provide the accompanying music while I cantor. I aim to have all the usual ordinary parts of the mass sung, although Kyrie and Lord's Prayer continue to be said. I use modern settings generally rather than chant settings (although I would love to introduce the simple settings we use unaccompanied when I cantor at lunch time masses at the Cathedral). I chose three or four hymns that follow my guidelines for good hymnody for the procession, communion and recessional (the fourth being for the offertory). For the communion, I tend to favour the use of simple repetitive chants such as Taize or Michael Herry's stuff so people can sing them without having to look at the overhead screen for the words while they are moving about.

In general visitors (rather than regulars) have commented upon my choice of music favourably, and it seems that the midi-file thing works very well in the circumstances (and yes, the keyboard can do a passable imitation of an organ).

So that's the reality. I applaud Mr Tucker's ideals and wish I could see them in my time and in my parish, but for the moment it seems like the hope of heaven rather than anything truly achievable.

And my one and only misgiving about the whole project of restoring the chant (which somewhat qualifies my "Yea and Amen" in my first mind) is that it seems that this is done at the expense of hymnody. I know we have had some god-awful songs thrust upon us over the last forty years, but the Church universal also has a treasury of hymnody which could be described as "of inestimable value". The Sunday mass is about the only time when Catholics ever come together for worship, and if they don't learn to sing hymns at mass, where will they get the value of this rich treasury?

Perhaps it is the Lutheran in me, but if Mr Tucker says he wants Catholics to "sing like Catholics", why is it that what he seems to be proposing actually proposes that Catholics SING LESS in the liturgy, and LISTEN MORE to the choir or schola? Is this entirely healthy? At least in the Byzantine liturgy with Fr Cross, all those present joined in singing the choirs pieces. I don't see it as a step forward in Catholic sacred music to silence the congregation to the point of being a prayerful audience. This isn't an expression of some post-Vatican II "participation theology" at work in my mind here, it is the conviction that singing praise to God is an valuable act of worship for the soul and the Church, whether in the choir or in the pews. Of course they don't have to sing everything all the time (I am in favour of good choirs singing a polyphonic Sanctus without the congregation jumping in to spoil it all), but they need to have an opportunity to sing to God – and hymnody provides that opportunity. Hymnody and chant ought not to be seen as enemies or as “either/or”. Lutherans after all (there I go again) are capable of doing both well.

Any way, over to you for discussion.

1 comment:

matthias said...

Hey Schutz,
just got to this blog,and was wanting to ask you,perhaps i should join you Mass centre and sing in the choir-I am a baritone