Tradition and Ideals

I used to talk, and write, more about the possibility and need for variety, even creativity, within the music of the liturgy. I have argued for things like enculturation, and adapting the style of the music to fit the spiritual needs of the community and to enhance the evangelistic mission of the Church.

I don’t write about those things very much these days. But not because I have rejected those ideas. I have done so because they make no sense apart from the tradition of music within the Church, a tradition that too many of the champions (and foot soldiers) of the contemporary Catholic music establishment are either unaware of or are willfully ignoring.

Two online conversations recently have made me think about this matter again: Jeffrey Tucker’s short but surprising post endorsing Gospel music at Mass, and a wildly out-of-control discussion thread about various translations and adaptations of the sung Propers.

Both conversations seem to be dealing with the same underlying pair of questions:

  1. What constitutes the ideal musical structure of the Roman Rite?
  2. How far from that ideal is an acceptable point of stasis?

I think it is fair to say that most serious Catholic musicians will answer the first question with “The Proper Chants of the Graduale Romanum,” and then the implications that flow out of that for question 2 can be addressed- issues of translation, of style, of alternate settings, of polyphony and choral music, simplified psalm tones, or strophic hymn settings.

Pretty soon one starts asking questions like: Would it be better to sing a chant other the one specified (right style, wrong text) or a contemporary pop setting of the proper antiphon (wrong style, right text)?

Attempting to parse out the meaning of the GIRM rules, with its four tiers of options and apparent confusion over the difference between the Missal and the Gradual propers, results in an unsatisfying form of legalism vaguely reminiscent of the rabbinical arguments Jesus seems quite determined circumvent in the Gospels.

I see two major problems with this whole endeavor: Speaking of an “ideal” form of the Roman Rite is misguided in the first place, and attempting to find that ideal in the legislation is doubly a fool’s errand.

To speak of an ideal form of the Mass suggests that either there is some original source for the Mass music which we need to recover, or that there is some etherworldly quintessential Mass which we must strive (failingly) to emulate, or that the celebration of Liturgy developed to its intended apex at some time in the past and the job of all liturgists since that time should have been the preservation of that climactic style. None of these is acceptable, though that last one seems pretty common among various branches of tradderrie.

The first-source of the Mass, the “ideal” which all celebrations of the Divine Liturgy point to, is the sacrifice of Calvary- a decidedly unmusical event.

What we have since then is a continuous progression of divinely- inspired and human-implemented liturgical practices. Suggesting that sometime in the early Church was a proto-Mass of perfect liturgical celebration is silly, and has led to many of the more destructive practices of the 20th Century liturgical movement- as “experts” and “historians” attempted to purge the accretions of the last 20 centuries. But suggesting that the collation of the Graduale or the reforms of Trent represents an ideal apex is similarly silly, as if all Masses prior to that point were somehow deficient.

We end with stultifying museum liturgy in one instance, and destructive anachronism on the other. Worse, the spiritual damage done by either point of view constantly inspires more extreme countermeasures. “Yes, yes- I’m for some moderation in theory. But we have to do something to swing the pendulum back in the other direction.”

Surely there’s a better way.

What we have in Catholic liturgy is not an ideal, but a tradition. A culture. A language.

You cannot make rule about culture or tradition, you cannot pinpoint the ideal form. There isn’t one.

Think about this in any other context. You can’t (reasonably) say that pasta isn’t authentically Italian just because it was invented in China and didn’t get there until the Rennaisance. It makes no sense to champion cabbage as the ideal Irish cuisine and dismiss potatoes as an innovation from the New World.

How would somebody even try to make rules about this sort of thing? “All cultural cuisine in use as of April 15, 1875 is to be considered the ideal representation of each country’s national gastronomic habits.”

Well, of course you could argue (I would) that food (or clothing, or popular music) are not as important as the liturgy, and that this whole comparison is stupid. I agree they are different, but the comparison is merely being used as a thumbnail example of how tradition actually works among real human beings. If God the Son became a real human being in a real culture, and institued a Church which was to be guided by real human beings through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and revelation provided by Scripture and Tradition, I would suggest that we can’t simply ignore what “tradition” is like everywhere else that real human beings are involved. (Not to mention the fact that the history of liturgical practice is similarly messy and varied.)

I think it is better - both more useful and more accurate - to speak not so much of an ideal as of an ongoing tradition which we are a part of.

This moves the emphasis away from discussion and study toward lived experience- from the legalism of the Pharisaic scholars to the “come follow me” call of Christ.

This is why I have moved away toward a continuous championing of the Graduale Propers and Gregorian Chant. Not because I believe they fell out of the heavens ordained by God for our use, but because they represent the spiritual and artistic strivings of the cloud of witnesses which has gone before us as musicians in the Sacred Liturgy.

Gregorian Chant is not “essential” to the Roman Rite, but rather “native” to it. It is the language of the Rite itself, and - like the language of any culture - is intimately connected to it.

Does that mean that no other music is ever appropriate? By no means, and we all know this. But the tricky part, the question everyone wants to answer with some degree of legal authority is which styles of music are acceptable? Which are in keeping with the tradition?

Again - thinking about culture in other contexts - it should become clear that this question is misguided and silly. Where is the line between an authentic dish and fusion cuisine? Where is the precise difference between a “real” regional dialect and ignorant slang? How much of Elizabethan practice has to be retained for a performance to be authentically “Shakespearean?” These questions have no answers.

Anyone who is serious about any of the things “progressive” liturgists talk about - things like enculturation or an ongoing development of tradition - needs to steep themselves in the native tradition itself. That means the Propers, and Gregorian Chant, and Latin. Otherwise it isn’t enculturation or development- it’s just making stuff up.

When will Gospel music, or Praise and Worship pop styles, or anything else become a legitimate part of the musical tradition of the Church?

It will not be when some professional thinker finds a convincing argument for its inclusion, or when some piece of written legislation appears to allow it. It will only be when musicians who are deeply connected with the existing tradition of liturgical practice, who understand it in a way that cannot be set down in legislation or academic papers, find a place for it.

comments powered by Disqus