Universalis, your very own breviary in pixels...

Tuesday, 28 October 2008


That would be I. That would be me?
I have already espoused one heresy as far as many of your typical church musicians and Catholic liturgists are concerned: I think there should be some Masses with almost* no music. And with the state of music as it currently is in most parishes, (including mine,) when on the road, I am very grateful to find a Mass with not a note played or sung. I know I am not alone in this, some very fine musicians feel the same way.
But now, I realize that I break ranks with most of those of my colleagues who are taking Catholic Church music praxis in the right direction, with my mentors on the subject.
Bring back the low Mass.
With and without hymns.
Warning: loopy Food Analogy ahead.
I shall be eternally grateful for the happy accidents that landed us within driving distance of St John Cantius in Chicago, and that arranged for an audition of Himself's to be held in the building next door, and that planted one of my favorite guilty-pleasure-restaurant in the same environs.
Because of... oh, the rest of my life, I only attend Mass, other Liturgies, and Devotions there sporadically, and seldom with any pattern, (and often coupled with the bribe of a suggestion to Himself that we indulge in a cholesterol binge, and the promise that he will hear Mozart.)
But it is only thanks to this that I have experienced superbly conducted rituals of many different kinds, often not that which I would have chosen, given my musical proclivities and liturgical tastes (and I do mean tastes, not judgement or beliefs,) were I my own mistress, (or my own Master of Ceremonies.)
After a mid-week jaunt, once, to what I expected to be a Missa Cantata and which turned out to be a nearly silent Mass, I was disappointed, (sore aggrieved, as Himself would style it,) but I have since found that I understand the form of the Usus Antiquior much better than I had.
So, that's good, right?
And grand and glorious and moving and uplifting and inspiring and life-giving as some Solemn Pontifical High Mass with an orchestrally accompanied High Baroque Ordinary and perfectly sung Gregorian Propers except for, maybe, a polyphonic setting of the communio, and a procession afterwards with flabella, and the Bruckner Te Deum and a newly converted Diane Bish making the pedal sing with her flying feet on some postlude that cracks the foundation of the building next door, and the second coming of St John Chrysostom delivering the homily would be ....
Well, even Papa Ratz must do things a little more simply in his private chapel every morning, don't you think?
And I find myself thinking how nice that almost silent low Mass would be once in a while, (or whatever the equivalent in the ordinary Form is.)
Whether I as a member of the laity prayed the entire think in silence or began and ended with some fine, sturdy English hymn (which reminds me, apropos of nothing, "To Jesus Christ Our Sovereing King... Lord and Commander?" Kewl...)
And I find myself thinking that sometimes, in Man's desire to re-invent the wheel, he likes to ignore the fact that some things that seem too far from perfection developed for a perfectly good reason.
And it is not being disloyal to Thanksgiving dinner and your Mother's mad skills at de-glazing a pan, if sometimes you .... just want one perfect pear.
Or even, a beautifully chocolate-chip cookie.
Because that is the key -- while it doesn't always need to be a banquet, it shouldn't be a bruised pear, or a stale cupcake.
And it must never, ever be unwholesome sweet, or insufficient for your nutritional needs, or poisonous (Good Night Sweet Jesus, Let There Be Peace on Earth or Sing a New Church Into Being, respectively.)
I understand the problem, (I think,) it's not that I don't know y'all have a point, that liturgical fast-food was allowed to become the default "in the bad old days." And in the bad days, the prevailing defaults have led to abundance of Masses with surfeit of salt, over abundance of sugar, and excessive calories, while yet providing virtually no nutritional value.
So THERE'S the trick -- to understand the need for and to permit options, simpler repasts, without ever forgetting what the ideal is, and striving toward it, and making that the default.
But not every Mass needs to be the groaning board of Thanksgiving, not even every Sunday Mass needs to be.

In short, progressive solemnity, (in the sense the term seems to have acquired in some recent documents.)
This will only work if people can be taught again that the primary purpose of liturgical music is to solemnize. Not beautification. Not fellowship-building. Not giving people something to do. We sing sacred words to make the occasion more solemn.
And more solemn liturgies, more solemn days, more solemn times (don't forget there is a "principal" Mass,) deserve to have more of the text sung.
And less solemn can take a slightly more minimalist approach.

Okay, you can stone me now.

(*Or what most people, including too many church musicians, ignore out of hand when they consider the word "music" -- for instance, singing, all of two pitches apiece to manage, the exchange between reader and faithful, the dialogue, "The Word of the Lord.... Thanks be to God." Most would sniff at being told that was a more vital and more beautiful bit of music , for it liturgical aptness and perfectly democratic and inclusive simplicity, than either
On Eagle's Wings or the Mozart Exultate Jubilate.... THAT'S the sort of music I would always have sung, even at a "Mass with no music.")


Sir Monocle said...

I completely agree. To be honest, how refreshing a little silence can be - especially at communion. I'd rather walk back from communion to silence than sing another verse of "Be Not Afraid" every Sunday.

Dad29 said...


In the Ex/Form, the sung Mass is normative, period.

The "Low Mass" was an aberration--really, a convenience--developed in monestaries which had multiple priests who said Mass daily but for whom there was not a schola available at the time.

It remained in use for persecuted countries, wartimes, and parking-lot considerations (not all that different from wartimes...)

If you take Augustine's dictum "Cantare amantis est" seriously, then singing is not "solemnization" but rather, complete.

Sorta like the bun on a hamburger.