I’ve mentioned ‘discontinuity’ a few times in recent weeks. This is what happens when a tradition like monastic life or liturgical music suddenly takes on a strikingly different form than what came immediately before. Why does this interest (or concern) me? If you are allergic to long quotations, you probably can read the first and last sentence of what follows, and still get the gist:
Articles under Music
If you are in the Chicago area this Friday night, I hope that you will come by the monastery for Solemn Vespers at 7:00 p.m. The service will last for about 45-50 minutes and will feature the exquisite motet Tu solus, qui facis mirabilia. Unlike the version in the embedded video, however, our Schola will be singing it as a part of the liturgy, and your hearing it will be as part of the publicly assembled Church at worship! Also scheduled: Magnificat by Palestrina and Gustate et videte by di Lasso. And finally, we will be debuting a piece composed just for this celebration of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Auctor beate saeculi by Kevin Allen.
I spent Monday morning at the Regenstein library at the University of Chicago, in the forlorn area of the stacks where rest the a cappella liturgical compositions of the 14th century to the present. I was enjoying myself browsing, hoping to discover some long-overlooked masterpiece (I found several dusty books of obscure pieces–we’ll see whether they turn out to be masterpieces). After about an hour of browsing, I was struck by the almost complete gulf between the music of the sixteenth century and that of the seventeenth. Compare, for example, a Magnificat by Orlando di Lasso (ca. 1532-1594):
…and a setting by Giovanni Gabrieli (ca. 1554-1612):
So these are two composers separated by one generation. Gabrieli is thought by many to have studied under di Lasso, which is why I chose these two in particular. In di Lasso, one can hear already some incipient Baroque elements, to be sure. And he was a much more prominent composer of secular music than was his exact contemporary, the hallowed Palestrina. But Gabrieli moved in an entirely new direction (Mind you, I love Gabrieli’s music!). He was not alone. Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), a priest, was the most celebrated figure of the revolution from Renaissance to Baroque style. Significantly, he was one of the pioneers of the new secular humanist entertainment, opera. His opera L’Orfeo is the earliest opera still in the repertoire.
Back to my Monday experience: what we see in liturgical music of the seventeenth century is precisely the importation of these secular humanist elements into liturgical music, necessitating a break from tradition. For example, the tradition of alternating chant and polyphony in the singing of the Magnificat, is almost always dropped, so that the whole text is set for the choir and orchestra. Also quickly gone is the association of the Magnificat with a particular ecclesiastical mode (or scale), drawn from the proper antiphon of the day (On Friday, we will sing Palestrina’s Mode 1 setting because the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart uses the antiphon Ignem veni mittere in terram, “I came to send fire upon the earth…” which is in the First Mode). Practically speaking, this means that in the new style the monks, canons or nuns, whose job it is to pray the liturgy, are squeezed out in favor of the professional musicians. The particular consecration of specific men and women for the performance of the liturgy is obscured. I will leave an exploration of the consequences of this obfuscation to a later post.
There are many other similar consequences. That these were not apparently felt at the time is somewhat surprising. Why? I mentioned Palestrina’s name with hushed, respectful tones above. He was the greatest composer in Rome at the time of the Council of Trent, and he took it upon himself to forward the Tridentine reforms. Among these were calls for the simplification of liturgical music. Some council fathers had been prepared to restrict liturgical music to Gregorian chant, and legend has it that Palestrina himself rescued polyphonic music for the liturgy with his composition of the sublime yet direct setting of the Mass for Pope Marcellus II:
So within two generations of the council, it seems that liturgical music was largely going its own way, quite contrary to the expectations of many at Trent.
I wrote last week about discontinuities in monastic tradition and the difficulties that these pose for the recovery of a vibrant monastic tradition. Here, I suggest, is a similar discontinuity in liturgical music, one that is probably as radical, in its way, as that which happened after Vatican II. On the other hand, it has more in common with the hidden discontinuities in the broader intellectual tradition of the West, in the sense that it was not clearly perceived as such at the time. And when it was perceived as at least a change, this change was celebrated by those in the know as a liberation from hidebound tradition and a recovery of ancient models of music, which it was not–this was pure propaganda of the sort that Renaissance thinkers excelled in.
Next time: the specific problem of discontinuity and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s brilliant remedy of the Hermeneutic of Continuity.
One of the features of the liturgical reforms following Vatican II is the abundance of liturgical options available. The calendar, the rubrics and the readings and prayers from the Missal had been completely fixed for some time, and as times have changed, and as the Church has moved into new mission territory, it seemed sensible to offer bishops and priests more flexibility in the celebration of the liturgy.
I never gave this much thought until I became a religious superior and was responsible not only for my own choices, but that of the priests under my authority. There were several difficulties that I began to encounter. One was that when we change parts of the liturgy on a regular basis, those celebrating it become unnecessarily self-aware, focused too much on correct execution (or, frequently enough, stewing over lame execution). To use an analogy from my musician days, every liturgy feels like debuting a newly composed song, and it might come off pretty well for the audience, but the performers are sweating, counting, wracking brains to remember transitions, agreed-upon dynamic changes and the like. I recall one great compliment my old band received from a friend who drummed in another band. After we recorded our first CD, he noted that we began to play our old songs as if they were covers (familiar old songs learned from someone else’s recordings). He meant this as high praise: we were relaxed enough to mean what we playing because we weren’t thinking about it, we weren’t watching ourselves. Our songs had become old friends. We were comfortable with them. He was a perceptive enough musician to hear this difference.
It has taken me eleven years as a superior to feel as if the Easter Vigil were natural. Some things can’t be rushed and can only be learned by repetition through time. The liturgy is a bit like good wine: it improves with age…so long as you don’t grab the fermenting barrel and stir up the lees constantly.
So we had already been desiring a more stable liturgy when I became Prior. Then a new question arose. Given the number of options available, what principles should guide our selection of one option versus another? The temptation is just to have confidence in oneself and one’s pastoral instincts. But there were a few problems with this approach. First of all, I had only been a priest for three months when I started in office, and I had no pastoral experience of any reasonable kind. Second, for any argument one could make for one sort of choice, an equally compelling argument could be made for the opposite choice. My own study of the liturgy, mainly through Gregorian chant and other musical questions, led me to be wary of assuming that I understood the reasons that old customs and phrases existed in the liturgy. A restless progressivism infects most modern persons, and it would be foolish to imagine that I’m immune to this self-serving ideology that makes our own time the pinnacle of human intellectual and cultural achievement. I was suspicious of this anyway as a musician. Can it reasonably be argued that our liturgical music has progressed since the composition of chant? Since Palestrina? Since Mozart?
As he has so often in our community’s history, Pope Benedict XVI (formerly as Cardinal Ratzinger) gave us a key for thinking through this dilemma. His ‘hermeneutic of continuity‘, which proposes that we see the One Catholic Church on both sides of the council reforms offered a first principle. Where options exist, choose the one that is in continuity with the 1962 Missal, unless there are compelling reasons otherwise. This is harder than it might sound, mostly because the lectionary has been so radically changed. But it has helped to stabilize our liturgy, and also helped us to have a greater appreciation of the Extraordinary Form.
The second major influence was the late musicologist Laszlo Dobszay. Note again the fact that he was actually a musicologist and not a liturgist. I think there are advantages to being outside of the liturgical studies establishment and in the fast-evolving world of historical studies in music. In any case, his final book argues that we will eventually probably return to the ‘old Mass’ (with certain needed, but less drastic, reforms) and admit that the new was a mistake. Perhaps. I think that this is too radical itself. I personally suspect that there will be a conscious reform of the reform in maybe another two generations, once my generation is gone at least. But also it will happen at a time when critical lessons will have been learned and some agreement will have been reached about what to fix and how. In the meantime, I’ve taken it as my goal to come at this from the other direction. My question is, “To what extent does the Church’s law permit me to adopt the forms of the previous Missal so that our present celebration is more continuous with the preconciliar Mass?” Note the importance of acting within the law. Pope Benedict XVI explicitly ruled out confusing to the two forms. On the other hand, we have found that an historically-informed study of the whole of the liturgy offers all kinds of opportunities for recovering older practices that were illegitimately suppressed or just forgotten. At Kevin’s suggestion, I will write about them from time to time. But you can experience them at virtually any liturgy you attend at the Monastery of the Holy Cross, especially for Mass, but including the Divine Office and other celebrations. We have found the results to be eye-opening and prayerful, and we hope that this will make some small contribution to the strengthening of liturgical observance throughout the Church.