Thursday, May 24, 2007

Sacred Music and the Vatican

Hi, the following article copied and edited from the original author's contibution have sparked off a raging debate and a fight in the choir I sing. This is given below for you to read and arrive at your own conclusions (it would help if you are aware of the situation).

I could call this article as "What ails The Lukeharmonix?" but this is the general state of many Catholic church choirs today.

"...Musicians fulfill an important and necessary function in the sacred liturgy. But whether fully trained professionals or ardent amateurs (amateur: translation: one who does it for love), all must remember that the purpose of the music is to implement the liturgy, not to entertain the faithful or glorify themselves. The motto of all ought to be: Non nobis Domine, sed nomini tuo da gloriam! (Not to us, Lord, but to your Name be all glory!)

The Second Vatican Council mandated that the choir be an integral part of the liturgy team: "Choirs must be diligently promoted" (Constitution on the Liturgy,
Sacrosanctum Concilium, §114).

Too many of today's pop-style hymns are now appearing in their true format: solo songs with back-up group accompaniment. That is, the keyboard -- and the intended instrument is the electric keyboard, not pipe organ -- is given an accompaniment that has nothing to do with the melody. The part fits in nicely with strummed guitar, drums, etc. The part, however, can not lead a congregation; it is a back-up part for a soloist, the style in pop or commercial music.
Here we discover the true nature of the musical accompaniment: it is suited for back-up groups behind crooning solo singers in supper clubs and lounges, and not for congregations at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. This further allows the soloist up front to, well, to be a soloist. Slurring and scooping, ornamenting and excessive stylings are common. In our area, many soloist cantors sing in that throaty style that is just under the pitch, sliding into notes and taking liberties that absolutely mitigate against the congregation being able to keep up. And of course the microphone is turned up almost to feedback level.

Music in most Catholic parishes today has strayed from the original intent of the Council Fathers, who stressed "active participation" of all the faithful. If the goal of music at Mass were to have a soloist or an entertainment group, we have succeeded rather well. If, however, the goal is the participation of the people in the pew in authentic worship through sacred music, we are failing.

Part of the problem stems from the fact that music in Catholic parishes is seldom in the hands of well-trained liturgical musicians. Committees, liturgy directors, or priests usually select music for the Mass according to their own taste, or worse still, following recommendations of "liturgy aid" publishers on "what is popular" (i.e., their own stable of composers and performers). The result has been banal music. And this has led many professional musicians with expertise in sacred music to seek employment elsewhere.

In many such churches, the organ sits mute. It does so by choice of the back-up group performers, as it is unsuitable for the pop-style secular music thrown at us by so many publishers today. This has helped lead to a shortage of organists.

The pipe organ is the instrument named by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council as the traditional instrument for our worship.
Vocal soloists were not envisioned by the Council; choirs were. And the choirs were to be led by the most suitable instrument to lead a congregation:
... the pipe organ is to be held in high esteem, for it is the traditional musical instrument which adds a wonderful splendor to the Church's ceremonies and powerfully lifts up man's mind to God and to higher things. (
Sacrosanctum Concilium, 1963, chapter VI, #120).

Pope Paul VI's 1967 Instruction Musicam Sacram repeats this. And in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), once again the pipe organ is reaffirmed as the instrument to be afforded first place. And "it is appropriate that.... the organ be blessed according to the Roman Rituale" (GIRM §313). So important a part of the church is the organ that the instrument has its own special blessing rite!

So why do we have electric keyboards, jazz and rock groups and an abundance of guitars instead of the pipe organ or a good pipe organ facsimile?

Protestant churches have rightfully held title to strongest congregational singing. These churches have known for centuries -- as have Catholics -- that the organ is the best way to lead a congregation in song.

Instruments are mentioned in the Old Testament, particularly in the psalms. In the temple's Holy of Holies, however, music was provided by specially trained priests. When the temple of Jerusalem was destroyed, and synagogues became the only center of worship, the human voice alone was retained for praise. While this is still true of Orthodox Jewry, today the organ can be found in Reform and some Conservative synagogues.

In Christianity, too, only the unaccompanied voice was used in worship for several centuries. Early gatherings were, by necessity, small. But as Christianity grew and emerged into society, larger houses of worship were built. The larger congregations did not stay together well when it came time to sing.

Sometime between 600 and 800 AD the pipe organ was introduced into a monastic house. The immediate response of the brothers was... revolt! The early instrument was a noisy, wheezy thing: the keys were large and had to be struck with the fist, and in the absence of electricity, the bellows had to be pumped by hand. The brothers felt it covered the sound of their singing. Well, it did, but it also gave a strong lead for the congregation, who could hear it in all corners of the larger churches, and a tradition was born.The organ is still the very best way to lead a congregation. It can be powerful and authoritative in a way no other instrument can. It can play all the voice parts simultaneously from soprano through bass, thus encouraging all voice parts to sing.

The pipe organ is not only powerful and authoritative because of its depth and volume, but because it mimics the human voice, a fact alluded to by Pope Saint Pius X. That is, air is pumped through pipes (organ pipe/human windpipe) via a wind chest (lungs and diaphragm) and follows a nice straight path out the round opening (pipe opening/human mouth). This means that, like a singer, a pipe organ can actually breathe.

A well-trained organist will lift his or her hands at the end of each phrase, resulting in an obvious silence and a clear indication to the congregation that they can all breathe together at that spot. Strummed guitars, drums, and other percussive instruments cannot do that. And again, the organ can provide several lines of music simultaneously: melody, harmony, descant, etc. While playing, an organist is a whirl of hand and foot activity.

The Three-Way Training of an OrganistAn organist is trained for three situations: to be a soloist, to be an accompanist, and to lead a congregation.
As a soloist, the organist is free to interpret. Preludes, postludes, meditative pieces at Communion: these are individual, solo pieces. While the organ is a difficult instrument -- not for the timid -- there are many fine pieces by well-known composers that can be played successfully by beginning organists. Composers have given us no end of suitable pieces for this instrument, pieces that are sacred in nature, pieces that can draw us to meditation, and thus, to God. Of course, we speak here of the traditional pipe organ, not the theater organ, with its bells and whistles, an instrument designed to entertain.
An organist is trained to be an accompanist. This involves an empathy with the soloist, for the accompanist is trained to follow. The organist shifts into this mode when accompanying a choir and following a director, or when accompanying a soloist. Of course, the very term "soloist" means no one else is singing, unlike the soloistic cantors. If a soloist pulls tempo, skips a phrase, or does anything else, the accompanist must follow, and must play softer than the soloist is singing. Now, in a situation in most Catholic churches where the keyboardist is trained and the cantor is not, this results in a disastrous tug-of-war. If the soloist (cantor) is followed by the accompanist, and the cantor as soloist is untrained, then the soloist is probably going to be wrong sometimes, perhaps often. The organ, playing softly to accompany the solo cantor, cannot steer the congregation. The congregation will be led astray.
The physical distances between cantors and organists are also a concern: communication is impossible, and can lead to stressful situations. We have all heard cantors begin a third verse after the organist has decided that two was enough -- or the other way around. Or the cantor may sing the wrong verse, further confusing the people in the pews. Or change tempo. Or skip beats. There can only be one person in charge in a solo-accompaniment situation. This is another reason why the cantor should not be a soloist during congregational music.
The third part of organist training is as leader. Here the organist is trained to set the tempo, give the breaths, etc. By strong, authoritative playing, the organist will pull the congregation along -- and the average singer in the pew is less likely to be intimidated by sound of his own voice, hence more likely to sing out.

A good organist knows that the introduction to a hymn should sound like the hymn, not a creative improvisation that has nothing to do with what the people will sing. The introduction -- sometimes an entire verse -- must be played in the same tempo in which the people are to sing. This cues the congregation: "Here is the music you are going to sing, and this is how fast you will sing it".
The organist as leader will determine breathing points, and will signal this by lifting his hands very briefly from the keyboard at the end of phrases, while keeping the tempo. This helps to keep everyone together.

There is an old saying about organists that says: the better the training, the louder one plays! This may come as a shock, even evoke a few complaints, but it is a proven way to get the congregation to sing!

To restore the use of the pipe organ (or a good equivalent) in our churches, we must also restore chant, polyphony, and traditional hymns -- as mandated by the Councils and popes. This is a priority. Songs that sound like secular pop tunes naturally employ the keyboards and back-up groups. The result may be entertaining (if it is skillful); but it does not inspire worship.
Music that is entertaining is, by its nature and style, appealing and popular; but it is not sacred music. Mariachi bands, kazoo groups, rock bands, and the like are definitely not "suited to the grandeur of the act being celebrated".

What about Guitars?In my own parish, a guitarist is hired for one of the weekend Masses. He sits in the sanctuary and plays his guitar as he sings. The gentleman has a nice singing voice, but the congregation, usually a good singing congregation, muffles itself when he performs. They try not to out-sing the soloist, or drown out the guitar.

The guitar can be a beautiful solo instrument. It can blend nicely into an accompaniment ensemble behind a soloist or choir. But is is not a good instrument for leading congregational singing, as most musicians observe: "What is it with you Catholics and guitars?" an Episcopalian friend asked. And a Methodist colleague added, "we only bring in the guitar for the children's group. It just doesn't work for a congregation". Indeed!
Lest I be accused of being anti-guitar, I have a large collection of recordings of Paco Peña, Carlos Montoya, Andrés Segovia. To me, this is guitar. But most people who play the guitar in our churches today are not well trained musicians. So we get nothing but a rhythmic strum-strum-strum (and not always in tune). When the untrained lead the untrained, how can we present the best to God? How can we give God -- the source of all truth, beauty, and goodness -- music that is true, beautiful, and good?

While some liturgists may try to tell us that music becomes sacred by being used for worship, the notion that function (or use) creates form (or meaning) is hardly self-evident. Most musicians, musicologists and music therapists would strongly disagree -- not to mention Cardinal Ratzinger, the popes, and Vatican directives! The nature of the thing will determine its use, not vice versa.
So what does this mean?
If it sounds like a Broadway ballad, it belongs on Broadway, not the altar. If it sounds like a "golden oldie", sing it at home. If it stirs feelings of a non-sacred nature, it does not belong in a sacred place. If sounds like a rock group or a mariachi band, then it may be fine for entertainment at the parish picnic or in the gym, but not at Mass, and not in the temple wherein the Sacrifice of Calvary is re-presented.

If the instruments used to accompany congregational singing do not lead the faithful into fuller participation in the Sacrifice of the Mass, or a deeper sense of the sacred; if instead they entertain us, or bring our hearts and minds into the world -- the mundane, secular, and sensual -- then how can they be suitable (or "made apt") for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass?
Exactly a century ago, Pope Saint Pius X's Instruction on liturgical music observed that "there is a general tendency to deviate from the right rule" that erodes a sense of the sacred at Mass. He succinctly described his objective concerning Church music:

We deem it necessary to provide before anything else for the sanctity and dignity of the temple, in which the faithful assemble for no other object than that of acquiring this spirit from its foremost and indispensable fount, which is the active participation in the most holy mysteries and in the public and solemn prayer of the Church.

In our churches in 2003, no less than in 1903, we need to banish whatever is unsuitable -- whether instruments, or styles -- and work to restore the sacred sound of music in our churches, so that we may experience the full truth and beauty of the sacred Liturgy.


Lucy E. Carroll, D.M.A., is organist and music director at the public chapel of the Carmelite monastery in Philadelphia, and is adjunct associate professor at Westminster Choir College, Princeton."

The reactions that this article among other similar ones provoked ranged from bizarre to plain stupid.

1) The opposers of the pipe organ have not seen or heard one and even worse would sound terrible singing to it (so I suppose their opposition is justified). The fact that we do not have a pipe organ or the resources to get one never struck these geniuses.

2) The most vocal exponents of change are those who cannot make out one musical note from another and have no clue about scales, tone, rythm, voice modulation and every little thing that a simple choir would deem essential. Their claim to fame is to mouth the latest pop song with the same hideous fake accents, nasal twang, slur and all.

3) Then the unmusical decide what good music is all about. People who have not been trained in church music or for that matter any music whatsoever deem that what is old is to be scorned. True Beethoven or Mozart may not have done their grade schools like our current musicians from Trinity college but that does not equate a rock and a diamond.

4) The blind lead the blind, we are lead by a shepherd whose ignorance of music is overshadowed by his fear to rock the boat

5) I was told that EGO = Exit God! And it is ego that is preventing change, the fear of frontline musicians being relegated to their rightful place behind the congregation, the fear of screamers getting overshadowed by good music that will be not popular but holy.

6) It is prescribed as the prime duty of the choir is to lead the congregation in worship and yet the argument that musicians have spent theirmoney on getting the latest instruments and this expense must be justified in turning out the kind of music that goes against all papal instructions is very hard to digest.

6) What really hurt me was the allegation that good sacred music puts people to sleep! Now if the choir is supposed to be a wake up service for people who choose to sleep when the divine sacrifice is being relived before them then I beg to be relieved from this sacrilegious duty.

My take on this is simple :

If I want to buy a gift for my beloved and I have only 5 rupees with me (for that is what I have been given) I will buy a rose for 5 rupees and give it to my beloved. But I will buy the best rose that my 5 rupees will get and just because I will get a withered rose for free, I will not get the withered rose and use the 5 rupees for something else. I love my beloevd and for my beloved I will give nothing less than the best of what my ability will permit.

Replace 5 rupees with your musical talent and beloved with God and ask yourself are you giving a beautiful rose or a withered one?



1 comment:

Crispin said...

Nice observation, and very much true. The role of music in Liturgy is not known to most of the choirs/choir leaders. Besides this, not much effort is being spent to understand the role of music in Liturgy. Here in Bangalore too, things have to change, 'little by little', in love :-). God Bless!