2015: a musical retrospective

Reader Vincent kindly asked what happened to the promised follow-up to my post on religious music.

Turns out it’s just over a year since I wrote The rise and fall of religious music, and while I recall researching the issue further, I have to admit that 2015 was an awful year and the promised follow-up was just one of many casualties.

So while I did offer a brief reflection on the Buddhist analog to Gregorian chant in Monks with guitars, and pondered whether we might conceivably blame the Irish for Catholic musical failures in Australia and the New World, these offerings are poor substitutes for the promised reflection, viz:

Why have we ended up with Easy Listening/folk/pop-inspired liturgical music? Why are parishes so hostile to Gregorian chant, to Latin, to the musical heritage of the Church?

Since I’ve recently wound up my involvement in a parish choir that had attempted to implement elements of chant into its liturgy, now might be an opportune moment to complete my observations, for what they’re worth.

Too old

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”L.P. Hartley

It’s no secret that the culture of the post-Vatican II Church looks askance at significant portions of its own heritage. Regardless of the mixed intentions of the Council and the final wording of various documents, the popular interpretation of Vatican II  resonates with that familiar theme of “getting with the times”.

I’ve argued elsewhere that the post-war era was marked by a loss of faith in tradition and authority generally. The so-called “Spirit of Vatican II” fits perfectly in this counter-cultural context, a context profoundly at odds with the tradition and authority of the Church itself.

Subsequent generations have inherited the mythos of a Church finally embracing the progressive genius of the modern world, and casting off the dead weight of the past. The Enlightenment worldview has no room for mysterious rites, ancient liturgies, “dead” languages, or the deference for tradition exhibited to varying degrees by pre-Enlightenment societies.

To put it simply, many Catholics are hostile to Gregorian chant because it is old, it is not modern, it stands apart from the familiar and contemporary. Being unfamiliar, they find it difficult to learn, difficult to follow, and difficult to appreciate. To make matter worse, Gregorian chant is in Latin, a “dead language” that symbolises the pre-Conciliar Church standing aloof from the people, apparently caring more about the maintenance of its traditions than for the communication of its teaching in a language the people can understand.

Too hard

The characteristics of Gregorian chant make it intrinsically more difficult for congregations to learn than the average, metrical, accompanied hymn. Gregorian chant uses free rhythm, rather than fixed. Its melodies are free-flowing and not usually repetitive. There are assigned chants for every Mass, and they change every week. It is ideal for a cloistered community or dedicated choir willing to practice extensively, but for congregations accustomed to a ‘stable’ of hymns, the diversity of the chant may prove overwhelming.

The use of Latin further increases the difficulty level. It is not necessary to understand the language, merely to pronounce it correctly.  But even this can be a hurdle for many people.

In other words, Gregorian chant is liable to be viewed as elitist and exclusive. It asks too much, and offers too little in return to congregations cultivated on more emotionally engaging music.

Too foreign

Gregorian chant recordings may be popular among general audiences, but to many in a congregation the sound is so far removed from their daily experience that it may sound foreign or even alien.

Have a listen to the first Introit I ever learned, and consider how strange it might sound at the beginning of a Mass to hear this in the place of a metrical, repetitive, English hymn.

But the foreign aspect of chant goes deeper than the mere sound. Some of us appreciate chant because it is different, and we recognise in its difference a unique liturgical role fostered by the Church.  Gregorian chant is a unique form of music because it arose and developed in a unique religious context. It makes sense that the chant should not sound like other music, and vice versa.

Yet the congregations that have survived to the present have done so despite and in some cases because of an entirely different musical environment. It would be too much to expect people in the pews to suddenly appreciate the liturgical significance of a musical tradition quite foreign to their experience. Rightly or wrongly, they’ve been getting by without Gregorian chant for generations.

Might as well try to convince the general public to listen to the pipa for leisure.

There’s a great deal more that could be said about the development and change in religious music, even on the relatively minor scale of Gregorian chant in the past century. I’ve left a lot unsaid because it’s too complicated, too involved, and probably a little too depressing as well.

The simple story is sufficient: Gregorian chant belongs to the past, it’s difficult and unsettling, and it’s not what we’re used to. The same can be said of many great arts and skills spurned or just forgotten by the majority.  It’s sad to think of congregations lovingly or half-heartedly pounding out decades-old ditties while New Age dilettantes listen to CDs of Benedictine monks exhibiting their daily practice of centuries-old chants.

I’ll leave the final word to Pope St Pius X, whose efforts to restore Gregorian chant were echoed by each of his successors, apparently to no avail:

“These qualities [sacredness, beauty, universality] are to be found, in the highest degree, in Gregorian Chant, which is, consequently, the Chant proper to the Roman Church, the only chant she has inherited from the ancient fathers, which she has jealously guarded for centuries in her liturgical codices, which she directly proposes to the faithful as her own, which she prescribes exclusively for some parts of the liturgy, and which the most recent studies have so happily restored to their integrity and purity.

On these grounds Gregorian Chant has always been regarded as the supreme model for sacred music, so that it is fully legitimate to lay down the following rule: the more closely a composition for church approaches in its movement, inspiration and savour the Gregorian form, the more sacred and liturgical it becomes; and the more out of harmony it is with that supreme model, the less worthy it is of the temple.

The ancient traditional Gregorian Chant must, therefore, in a large measure be restored to the functions of public worship, and the fact must be accepted by all that an ecclesiastical function loses none of its solemnity when accompanied by this music alone.

Special efforts are to be made to restore the use of the Gregorian Chant by the people, so that the faithful may again take a more active part in the ecclesiastical offices, as was the case in ancient times.”

“In order that the faithful may more actively participate in the sacred liturgy, let them be once again made to sing Gregorian Chant as a congregation.”

Tra Le Solicitudini

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