Sunday 1 August 2010

Gregorian Chant: the Paradox - why people hate chant. Plus ca change...

Courtesy of Jeffrey Tucker's magnificant new blog Chant Cafe (do yourself a favour and read it regularly), we have this telling piece about how, without Gregorian Chant, the Catholic people have no voice, coming from Father Ruff at Pray Tell.  It could have been written yesterday.  But it wasn't; the date is 1936:

Orate Fratres

February 22, 1936 NO. 4


IT is a well-known fact that the chant of the Church is not appreciated. Everyone who has been connected in some capacity or other with its restoration will bear witness to this statement. But no one really likes to admit it. It seems strange that, thirty-two years after the demand of the saintly Pius X for a return to the sacred chant, such wide-spread prejudices still prevail. This is the more painful, because Catholics are decidedly slower than non-Catholics in realizing the value of a treasure in their keeping.

Whereas here and there (and at that oftener than one would surmise) those outside the fold are curious to know about it, those of the flock are in general very reluctant to show any genuine interest. While a "Guild of Protestant Organists," or the department of music of some secular university, or again some musical group, will professa sincere eagerness to penetrate the charm of Gregorian melodies, Catholic institutions and societies (not to speak of parishes), have ignored the fact, sometimes even contemptuously, that there is such a thing as an art called Gregorian. Some readers who have not gone through the hard grind of introducing the chant, wonder, perhaps suspiciously, at this frank statement; but it would be convincingly vindicated by all teachers who have tried in some way or other to labor in the barren field. No illusion can prevail against such an acknowledgment; and it will serve the restoration of liturgical music better than a proud denial of guilt. Remedy can begin only where there is consciousness of the evil.

Why should it be within the Church herself that the chant is today mostly discredited? If there is an intrinsic value in Gregorian art, we have utterly failed to make it one with our religious concepts and our actual religious experiences. And thus we ask ourselves if the problem of the chant is not just as much of a religious as of a musical nature? This has long been our personal conviction. In other words, if our people cannot give vent to their inmost religious sentiments through the chant, it is because these sentiments have taken a direction entirely estranged from the inspiration of the chant. A break between the chant and our religious sentiment does not prove the chant wrong; it proves that we are wrong. For the chant was the most authentic utterance of religious experience in the early centuries.

It is deplorable that so far nothing has been able to overcome the prejudice against the chant, at least to a marked degree. It has, indeed, been welcomed in a few places; but in the majority of churches and chapels there is not even heard the faintest echo of its wondrous strains. We can by no means say that the chant is the general vehicle of Catholic devotion; in very few places indeed has its authority prevailed to the point where it is made the main source of inspiration in Catholic services. The chant was perhaps by "mission" the "voice of the Church"; it is not any longer the "voice of the people." And having lost its tradition, the people have truly no voice at all which can be claimed Catholic.

The most intruding vulgarity has invaded the temple, and holds fast against the most courageous attempts towards the restoration of the chant-attempts which, indeed, have been multiplied during the past twenty years. Many came to the rescue of the dishonored chant; paleographic science has vindicated its glorious authenticity and its unique place in the evolution of musical art; men of genius and taste have marvelled at its simple beauty; schools have opened their portals to students eager to learn about its beauty and form; demonstrations have proved that it can enhance, by its own power, the greatness of our liturgical services. But the choir loft has remained estranged.

Although the authority of the Church is unchallenged by the opposition, both of these have been traveling in parallel ways without ever meeting in open clash. While the decrees of the Holy See and the ordinances of the ordinaries have repeated or interpreted the principles of the Motu proprio with an ever increasing clearness, choir and people alike have been drifting along carefree and forgetful. And perhaps sheer authority will never give back to the faithful the voice which they have lost. Chant is not to be confused with a matter of faith. Were it such it could be enforced through penalty; but such is not likely ever to be the case.

Pius X was the first to realize this difference. This he expressed in his introductory letter to the Cardinal Vicar of Rome, when he insisted on having obedience prompted by the knowledge of the motives which command a reintroduction of the chant into Catholic life. Undoubtedly Catholics do not like it because they do not appreciate it. And until they are educated to like and enjoy it, it is unreasonable to hope that they will sing the chant.

Therefore, instead of deploring sine fine this sad lack of appreciation, let us survey the groups which make up Catholic opinion in the matter. After we have studied them, remedial plans can be suggested. Proceeding from the altar to the choir-loft, we will meet the clergy, the children, the congregation, and the mixed choir.

The restoration of the chant depends largely on the stand taken towards it by the clergy. We take this opportunity to mention this attitude though our doing so requires respectful criticism. Would it be offending in any way to say that the clergy at large does not profess an enthusiastic admiration for the chant? Is it not true that priests in general are not crediting Gregorian melodies with being the "supreme form of liturgical music" and doubt very much its practicability? Such a skeptical attitude has its excuse: most members of the clergy never received a good foundation in the knowledge of the chant, and many have been quite disgusted with the failure of their loyal attempts to introduce it in their churches.

However, one would not be bold today in asking the following questions: "What would eventually be the vote of the clergy, should a free poll be organized on the question of restoring or rejecting the chant from our liturgical services?" "Can it be said that a concerted effort' has been attempted by an organized priesthood to bring about the restoration commanded by the Holy See?" "Is the study of Gregorian chant still a side-line or rather (what it should be) a main feature of the program of education in our minor and major seminaries?" Whatever answer you give, blame or excuse, it remains evident that the lack of efficient leadership among the clergy in this matter is apt to have a disastrous influence on the opinion formed by the laity. And this is sufficient to diagnose the most important cause of the great difficulties encountered in the work of restoration.

Close to the sanctuary we meet the children. And what they feel about the chant is a very important matter. Their opinion is likely to be free from unjust prejudice, and everyone is conscious that it has an important influence on the future. American children show a delightful openness of heart towards the chant. You may call to the witness-stand all those who have ever worked with them in any State and none will deny this optimistic affirmation.

Exception made for rare, forlorn places, and even there, they always respond to an intelligent presentation by a soulful rendition. Children never dislike the chant, and are prompt to express both their lovely appreciation of it as well as their sharp criticism of vulgar sacred music.

This attitude calls to mind the ex are infantium of the psalm. More than once we had to learn from the little ones what our sophistication or indifference had forgotten and sometimes forsaken. Before the children discovered for us the chaste beauties of the chant, they brought back into the world true Eucharistic life. And their spontaneous return to charming Gregorian songs was preceded by their intimate friendship with Jesus in the divine Eucharist. Now then, we have the experimental proof that like or dislike of the sacred chant is more a religious than a musical problem.

The congregation presents a more complex attitude: it is neither "likes" nor "dislikes." It is the same apathy into which the loss of liturgical cooperation has brought them. How could they be expected to sing with pleasure the musical expression of a prayer which has no longer any meaning for them, especially since they have been gradually reduced to mere onlookers and listeners? This attitude is more or less passive; but all pastors who have tried to overcome it know how hard they have to fight and how many times they have to retreat before a new effort. However, the faithful in the pews appreciate the chant. It has been a repeated experience with the writer that if you do not advertise Gregorian chant with the undiplomatic publicity that it is the music imposed by the Church, but just prepare a service well with a group, many comments will attest that the congregation is pleased. And they all will emphasize that "it was very prayerful and soul-stirring." We have had so far but a single inscance to the contrary; it came from a "high-society center."

It is in the choir-10ft that the enemy is entrenched as in a fortress. Oftentimes the pastor looks on his choir as his crux, and rightly so, though he may at times forget the good will, the regular attendance, the fidelity of many members. The choir members are not to be blamed; the institution itself is the deep-rooted evil. It has grown and outworn itself into a spirit entirely opposed to the essential objectives of a liturgical choir. It is neither religious nor musical. A religious, a liturgical, a parochial spirit are usually well-nigh impossible with the mode of enrollment, the lack of religious functioning, the location for singing; a musical spirit cannot be formed with the usual repertoire of vulgarities or secondrate music which has been for so long the lot of Catholic choirs.

Add to that the sore fact that many of those who assume (or have to assume) the mission of directing the choir are not prepared to exercise a real authority to educate their group. Their musicianship and their knowledge of the liturgy are too elementary. Unfortunately, improvised musical directors, unless they be humble enough (and some are indeed), will either discredit the chant which they do not appreciate or will ruin it by lack of real presentation. And even when they do fulfill their task, they will encounter many difficulties which at times look insuperable to the most courageous pioneer.

From the examination of groups which make up this criticism, as well as from general considerations, we may sum up the reasons why the chant is not liked, or positively disliked:

1. The loss of that special spiritual feeling which comes only with the experience of liturgical life.

2. The lack of positive leadership impossible to many priests who did not have the opportunity to study the sacred chant welt

3. The passive attitude of the laity in the liturgical services.

4. The incomplete formation of many of our choir-directors.

5. The deformed spirit of our mixed choirs.

The picture looks dark. Perhaps it is well to see it thus. But there is a very bright spot among the shadows, and so the situation is much more hopeful than is our description of it. It will be the object of the entire series of these articles until next Advent to propose remedies. We ask the reader patiently to wait for them.