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Monday, 30 March 2009

Singing the Marian Antiphons

Jeffrey Tucker over at The New Liturgical Movement has a positively lyrical essay on a subject I touched on just the day before, the way the Church's great patrimony of music has an ability to connect us with the communion of saints, and with all the Church, Triumphant, Militant and Suffering, not just those with whom through accident of time and space we are sharing a pew at the moment.

(I wonder, has any study been done on whether, in the GIRM in particular, since it is the prescriptive document most often utilized in great pan-Catholic sport of rubric-flinging, "the faithful" is more insightfully read as one or the other or both or sometimes one and sometimes the other? But I digress...)

Anywho, JT puts it far more eloquently than I ever dreamed of, and then takes it up a notch, in the process giving a pep talk to all the laborers in the vineyard whose vineyard is.... a dusty loft.

Thus (partially,) spaketh the Bow-Tied One (go read the rest of it, of course,) :
Part of our ambition as a schola is to bring popular chant hymns from all ages back into the life of Catholic people. So this year, we made an effort to sing the Marian antiphon for Lent—Ave Regina Caelorum—following communion every single week. We put it in the program each week and we have sung it without fail. Today, on the fifth week, the people joined the singing as if they owned it. It is now part of their experience of the faith.

... Perhaps it will be sung quietly in their heads before drifting off to sleep tonight, and perhaps it will be recall tomorrow morning as well.

This was not true only weeks ago, when hardly anyone in the parish knew this song. Now it is a living reality in their lives, and they have added it to their intellectual and aesthetic store of understanding of what comprises the marks of the Catholic faith. This song is added to a thousand other signs, from holy water to rosary beads, of what it means to be a Catholic.

Today, we tend to regard[the Marian antiphons] as somehow high-brow music characteristic of “high-Church celebration,” but this is not really correct historically. This music might be regarded as true Catholic folk music. It has pious origins, rooted in the popular expression of our faith, sung by all Catholic people in all times, and their continued presence for one-thousand plus years, some of the dating to the Patristic period, speaks to their quality as music and as true expression of the sense of faith.

These small tunes have a special quality to unite people in a song, a point which might sound like a cliché until we consider precisely what Catholics mean by the term unite. It is [not] unity of the trivial sort, pertaining only to those present in the room at that moment. That sort of unity is rarely achieved in a parish environment in any case, given the characteristic nature of Catholics to avoid being cajoled into group-based activities. There will also be a solid quarter of the congregation that will resist singing no matter how compelling the cantor or familiar the song.

By unity, then, we mean unified across geographic and national lines, and across time, stretching back generations and generations. Our voices are united with people we do not know and could not know. This is a mystical form of unity that leaves the physical space we experience with our sense alone. We can only imagine people one thousand years ago singing the same tunes with the same words at the same Mass during the same season. We do not know and cannot imagine what their lives were like, what they wore, what they ate, how they thought and spoke, their trials and troubles, their joys and fears, but we can, after all, sing the same songs as they did. So our unity with them in song is a magnificent expression of what it means to be Catholic, to broaden our thinking and living outside the boundaries of time and space.

Thus can we understand the importance of Latin here. The tunes are written to accommodate the language and express it as beautifully as possible. To adapt them to another language is possible but it sheds an importance aspect of unity,

... why do it? It is a matter of the obligation we all have to assist in making the faith as beautiful as we can, in our own space and time, insofar as we can. We sing these songs for the same reason that we plant flowers in our front yards and window boxes. ...

Planting [flowers which will die] is a way of entering into a continuous effort, made by every generation, to bring color and brightness to the vale of tears in which we live.

I also like to think of the job of a Church musician as comparable to entering into a stream of living water that began to flow at the beginning of life of Christ. This stream grows and grows through time, and sometime falls back, but it continues to exist and move only in a forward direction. We have so few years on this earth, but we have the opportunity to become part of this stream of music and make a contribution to carrying from the past into the future.

When we sing these songs, our voices become part of the water and its continuous movement. Doing this as musicians gives our lives meaning beyond our time.
We partake in the great effort of color the world with Christian art, an art that points to the great truth that we seek and that gives our lives meaning.
[Emphasis supplied, need I add, and I may take those tid-bits in to my choir to whom I was most unlovely yesterday, on the morrow.)

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