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Wednesday, 29 April 2009

"Notes Toward a Comprehensive Theory of Church Music"

A pretty thorough treatment of The Way Music In Churches Today Is , and what the main obstacles to achieving The Way Music In Churches Today Should Be from one of our episcopalian brethren, Fr Dan Martins.
His observations ring true, IME for Catholics, in this country at this time, and to my way of thinking his assessment and proposals are very balanced (but of course, if I'm unbalanced, my opinion of his thinking doesn't count for very much, eh? Ah, well....)
Notes Toward a Comprehensive Theory of Church Music
[I]in ecclesiastical wrangling... there will always be music to argue about.
.... virtually [no parish] can escape some degree of tension and ferment over what music should be used in the practice of corporate worship, who should perform it, and how it should be performed.

Music has been integrally associated with Christian worship from earliest times. And it has always generated tension. St Augustine experienced this tension within his own soul:
Thus I float between the peril of pleasure and an approved profitable custom: inclined to more (though herein I pronounce no irrevocable opinion) to allow of the old usage of singing in the Church; that so by the delight taken in at the ear, the weaker minds be roused up into some feeling of devotion. And yet again, so oft as it befalls me to be more moved with the voice than with the ditty, I confess myself to have grievously offended; at which time I wish rather not to have heard the music. (From Confessions)
One dimension of this tension concerns the delicate dance between liturgy qua liturgy, and music qua music. Liturgy is dependent on music (even though many western Christians regularly participate in “low Mass”—a celebration of the Eucharist sans music—this is a generic anomaly, and would wither without a connection to its normative template, the Sung Mass). But music is a veritable “force of nature,” and will always seek to take the lead position in the dance if it is allowed to.

Consequently, we see a cyclic pattern in history: Liturgical music, which begins as simple chant or song, very much “owned” by the assembly and its presider, grows little by little more complex, to the point where it becomes a high art form with a life of its own, reserved for skilled specialists, who perform while the main body of the assembly is mute. ...

When this happens, the liturgy eventually strikes back, and there is draconian reform. In the late 16th century, Pope Marcellus floated the idea of banning polyphony ... in1903, Pope Pius X once again attempted to reform and simplify the music of the Latin Rite in his Motu Proprio on Sacred Music, this time in reaction to the mammoth choral and orchestral Masses and Requiems of composers like Verdi and Berlioz.

In the early 21st century, this ongoing dynamic of gradually increasing musical complication leading to reactive simplifying reform still looms over our various liturgical landscapes. But we are usually too close to the ground to put our experience into this larger context.
Rather, at the moment, we tend to draw battle lines in the “worship wars” pitting various classical traditions (represented by organs, hymnals, and SATB choirs singing from anthem folios) against the “contemporary” stream (represented by texts projected on screens and “Praise Bands” singing from lead sheets). It may be tempting, but is too facile, to equate the “classical” strain with the tendency toward complication and “professionalization” of church music, and the “contemporary” strain with the reformist impulse. Reality is not so simple. There are multiple examples of liturgical music in the classical tradition that is accessible, sturdy, and meant to be sung by a congregation without formal musical training. There are also plenty of instances of “praise and worship” music that is clearly more at home on the lips of the rehearsed “Praise Team” members than on those of the general congregation.

Actually, before we can begin to fruitfully sort out the issues relative to musical style, we need to tame the beast that is Music itself—i.e. the medium that will never stop trying to become the message.....
Let the Liturgy be the Liturgy. This is to say, music (like tradition), is a wonderful servant but a horrible master.

The Eucharistic liturgy of the Church, both East and West, has a discernible shape, rhythm, and flow. Dom Gregory Dix may be in a sort of scholarly Purgatory at the moment, [?] but we nonetheless all owe him a debt of gratitude for helping us see this shape, rhythm, and flow more clearly. This is the infrastructure through which the liturgy accomplishes its work—doxologically, catechetically, homiletically, sacramentally, and eschatologically. Anything we bring to the liturgy by way of adornment, enhancement, contextualization, vestments, ceremonial, music—whatever—anything we bring to the liturgy must serve the liturgy’s own ends and not introduce some other agenda. The duty of liturgical music, in particular, is to serve these ends by revealing, clarifying, and highlighting the liturgy’s inherent shape, rhythm, and flow.

As soon as music calls attention to itself, to the extent that liturgical song—be it “folk art” or “refined art”—says, “Hey, look at me!” it immediately becomes an alien and an interloper. When that happens, the liturgy has been hijacked and turned into a flatbed truck. Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s of the last century, the Eucharist was often hijacked to carry the freight of social protest, with spontaneous Masses being celebrated in front of government buildings and defense plants. But musicians of all stripes are probably the worst offenders here. I can recall a conversation with another church musician more than thirty years ago where we looked at the Christmas Eve Midnight Mass as little more than a vehicle on which we could load as many jewels of the Anglican choral tradition (which, just for the record, I believe is magnificent) as possible. More recently, I have had similar conversations with “contemporary” musicians who simply want to load different freight on the same truck. Both sorts of musician ask all kinds of important questions, like “What would most please the congregation (or celebrant, or bishop, or visiting dignitary)?”, “What will keep the choir/praise band happy?”, and “What can we do well with the resources at our disposal?” [these are all questions I have asked myself, even when I would prefer not to.] These are all good questions—even necessary. They’re just not the “one thing needful.” Unfortunately, the most important question in planning liturgical music is the one that too often never gets asked: “What music will best serve the needs of this particular celebration on this particular day with this particular congregation at this particular point in the service?” The question pastoral musicians (one bit of contemporary Roman Catholic parlance that I find quite helpful) need to be asking of the liturgy is not, “How can you help me accomplish my pastoral goals?” but “How can I best serve you today?” [Precisely! Perfect...]

...we invariably ask people to sing in church (except at those anomalous Low Masses), but church is increasingly the only place where that request is made. I think it is arguable that there is presently no vibrant (or even living) American folk music (in the sense of a genre and repertoire in which most people can readily participate) tradition. We are culturally bereft. Think about it: In movies from fifty and sixty years ago—I’m not talking about musicals, but straight dramas and comedies—it was not implausible for there to be a scene of spontaneous singing (often with someone playing the piano, also a dying skill). Aside from stylistic conventions, such a scene would be literally incredible in a film set in today’s culture. [I have been reminded my entire life how wonderfully odd my family is in this respect.]

It’s not that music isn’t important to people...But “my music” is something I passively receive, and not something I’m likely to get together with friends and attempt to spontaneously replicate. ... recorded music has become the norm and live performance the aberration—not only in bars but at weddings and funerals. (The culprits are probably legion; my candidate is the steady erosion of music education in the public schools.)

So, while in the relatively recent past, singing in church was a speciation of an activity in which people were likely to also participate in other contexts, it is now a thing-unto-itself, and an increasingly alien thing at that. This realization not only complicates the job of a pastoral musician; it is a potential game-changer in the worship wars because it suggests that both sides are fighting a losing battle. Those attached to the classical tradition (a company in which I can readily number myself) already know that. When I go to an orchestra concert, the proportion of gray heads to youth is about as alarming as it is in the typical Episcopal congregation on a Sunday morning. And when I bring up the rear of the procession into and out of a Sunday sung liturgy, the tendency to not even crack a hymnal—let along attempt to sing—is inversely proportional to advancement in years. But this doesn’t mean that those attached to the “contemporary” idiom (which my pastoral obligations have required me to make some peace with over the last twenty years) can claim victory. Just because someone won’t sing “Love divine, all loves excelling” doesn’t mean they’re going to respond full-throatedly to “Shout to the Lord.”
... My suspicion is that there in fact needs to be another reform movement in liturgical music, a movement that is populist in that it effectively calls the plebs dei to “own” its participation in the liturgy—musically and in every other way. But it must not merely be a reform that panders to popular taste, because popular taste is presently wedded to passivity and artificiality, which is to say that it is poorly-equipped to generate music that serves the needs of the liturgy, that reveals its inherent shape, rhythm, and flow. Rather, the work before us is more fundamental, more seminal. With the exponentially-increasing de-christianization of western culture, perhaps the Church is called to cultivate (once again?) a musical idiom that is distinctly ecclesiastical (rather than an unreflective emulation of prevailing secular styles, whether “high art” classical or “folk art” popular), accessible (both technically and affectively) to those gathered for worship, and, most importantly, a style that takes a following role rather than a leading role in its dance with the liturgical action.

What will such music sound like? We can only imagine. Let the imagining begin.

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