Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Is congregational singing doomed?

In all the hubbub in the past 100 years about encouraging congregational singing at Mass, I have yet to run across a serious investigation into a fairly obvious question: If it did used to be the norm for the congregation to sing everything, then why did someone think it was a good idea to move away from that practice?

The standard, off-the-cuff answer might attribute it to some kind of malfeasance on the part of bishops in the early Church, “taking away” from the people that right to participation that was duly theirs and placing it selfishly in the hands of musicians who selfishly wanted to display their talents with more and more ornate music. This certainly is a theory.

I wonder, though, if there isn’t a different way to look at it, and more importantly, I wonder if history isn’t repeating itself.

The Western music tradition is marked by a dichotomy of performer-and-audience: there are music-makers, and there are music-hearers. This is quite different from many non-Western traditions, where making music is a communal activity in which all (physically) participate. I’m told that in some cultures, “singing” and “dancing” are the same idea - try that one on a violin section in an orchestra! :) I wonder if this performer/hearer dichotomy didn’t develop at the same time as the singing at Mass became more the propriety of specialists than of all the people. Regardless, the tradition of “schola chant”, music to be sung by specialists, has had many centuries now to engrain itself upon our collective liturgical consciences and to erase the early tradition of “lector chant”, music to be led by a cantor and sung by congregations.

Had it not been for the Protestant tradition of congregational singing, I imagine the movement to have congregational singing at Mass would never have happened. This Protestant tradition is well-developed to foster the singing of everyone present through simple, memorable melodies that repeat several times: think of “A mighty fortress”, “Praise to the Lord”, “Wake, O Wake”, and all the other Protestant hymns we Catholics imported after Vatican II: these are not complicated, but simple melodies that stick in your head.

There is an inherent conflict, though, between this tried-and-true tradition of congregational singing and the proliferation of publishers putting out new music intended for Catholic congregations. New music is not a strange idea for John Q. Pew-dweller; he buys new CDs and downloads MP3s of his favorite music all the time. He listens to radio stations that try their darndest to have the fewest repeats, the most new music. (At the same time, these stations have to be careful to give enough play to the tunes people want to keep hearing, at least for a while.)

But learning new music is something quite different for John. He buys the CDs, and he might learn how they go, but he doesn’t necessarily sing along. If he does, he certainly is more reluctant to do so in the company of lots of other people, whom he may or may not know. And the music he does sing along with in the company of other people is probably not the most complicated stuff he listens to....since there’s a greater chance of “screwing up” with more difficult music. (Not that John necessarily pays attention to what music is more difficult to sing: he just knows what he “feels like” singing.)

Spirit & Song and other such hymnals are to standard hymnody what schola chant was to lector chant: they appeal to people’s sense of what music they like to hear, but they are more difficult kinds of music to sing. In essence, this goes along with our culture - not just the style of the music itself, but the idea that it is to be sung by specialists and heard by all.

I see the tradition of congregational singing waning during the next few decades. If the “reform of the reform” is successful in re-establishing Gregorian chant to the status it had before Vatican II (and which Vatican II intended, at least in writing, to maintain), then by necessity the congregation will sing less, since most chant would ideally be drawn from the Propers in the Graduale Romanum, which change from week to week. (The Graduale Simplex, I know, is intended to be a way to have our cake and eat it, too, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of attention given to it, and its only unofficial English translation is marred by faulty gender-neutral language.)

There may be a sustainable element in an arrangement where specialists sing the Proper (and/or the Proper is sung responsorially by all), and the whole assembly sings the Ordinary. But how long will that last? Will history repeat itself, and even the Ordinary will once again be given to the choir/cantor?

It seems that both the “new reformers” and the “Spirit-&-Songers” are advocating a decreased amount of congregational singing. (Congregations do not, and will not, sing S&S at all well unless they’ve listened to the recordings in their spare time.) The next question is: is that a bad thing?

I go back and forth here. It’s a pretty awesome experience hearing a whole congregation (or even a lot of people in the congregation) sing to God together. At the same time, the Gloria of the Pope Marcellus Mass is pretty hardcore, too, and it’s a shame that more people don’t have the opportunity to hear this music except in concerts and on recordings.

I do, though, reject Karl Rahner’s assertion that art has no place in worship. (Or something to that effect is what he said.) There is, and must be, a place for the glory of God to be shown through the genius of art music....as well as great paintings, murals, statues, and the like.

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