Monday, July 27, 2015

Sing to the Lord

The USCCB published Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship in 2007 in order to provide guidelines on the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy, particularly the music in the sacred liturgy. Various musicians, religious, and members of the laity have criticized the document on numerous grounds since its release.

One issue that has received considerable criticism is the document's emphasis on congregational singing. The critique relates to the Second Vatican Council's emphasis on active participation of the faithful during Mass, which has been widely misinterpreted to mean that the congregation must be physically active at all points, but especially in singing.  (Sing to the Lord is certainly not the only church musical guide to receive this critique.) As is well known, this interpretation led to considerable changes in the music of the church. For example, we've seen a musical selection based on accessibility rather than artistic quality, the loss of contemplative and prayerful devotion in Mass in exchange for a focus on the visible- to-the-eye community of  individuals singing together, the general decline in the quality of the liturgy that takes place when individuals are forced rather than compelled internally to sing, and the distraction caused when individuals in the congregation sing loudly or poorly.

The purpose of this post is not to repeat the lengthy and numerous arguments about active participation or more broad critiques of church music. Rather, I want to highlight just a few questions that the official musical guidelines like Sing to the Lord seem to fail to address, at least to a non-musician like me. The list below is far from exhaustive and is preliminary.

1) The purpose of sacred music "is the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful" (Sacrosanctum Concilium).  At what point does congregational singing hinder these purposes?

a) One can easily imagine that bad or loud singing of others becomes a distraction from the prayer of the Mass, thereby hindering the glory of god and one's sanctification.

b) A considerable risk exists that singing can easily turn into showmanship, where the purpose of singing is showing off to other members of congregation rather than singing to the glory of God.

c) Reading a hymnal can be distracting, in that one is reading notes and words without having time to understand their meaning or having the moments needed to allow the musical art to affect one's devotion and prayer. In addition, asking the congregation to read hymnals assumes a basic ability to read music; those without musical training may be further distracted by the musical notation and the frequent errors in singing that occur when unable to properly read the music.

Both points a) and b) are supported by commentary on Matthew 6:6, which is relevant to the extent that we believe that the Mass is a prayer. "The Holy Mass is a prayer itself, even the highest prayer that exists" (His Holiness Pope St. Pius X).

The commentary:

Pseudo-Chrysostom: "We should not pray to God with loudness of tone...but with a silent heart, for three reasons." The third reason is that "because if you pray aloud, you hinder any other from prayer near you."

He continues: "Whoever then so prays as to be seen by men does not look to God but to man."


Participation must also be external, so that internal participation can be expressed and reinforced by actions, gestures, and bodily attitudes, and by the acclamations, responses, and singing (Sing to the Lord, 13).

This quotation cites Sacrosanctum Concilium but leaves out a key sentence: To promote active participation, the people should be encouraged to take part by means of acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons, and songs, as well as by actions, gestures, and bodily attitudes. And at the proper times all should observe a reverent silence.

In addition, the reasoning given for the conclusion that participation must also be external is that internal participation has to be expressed and reinforced by various actions. This reasoning seems to contradict the omitted sentence from the Sacrosanctum Concilium quote, assumes without qualification that internal participation is expressed and reinforced by external actions rather than hindered by them or unaffected by them, and seems to ignore the role of stillness and silence as essential to internal participation.

The quality of our participation in such sung praise comes less from our vocal ability than from the desire of our hearts to sing together of our love for God. Participation in the Sacred Liturgy both expresses and strengthens the faith that is in us.

The first sentence in this quotation ignores the effect that singing has on the quality of others' participation in the liturgy. It also mentions a desire to sing together, rather than an individual's desire to sing himself. How does one know the desires of others at Mass, and why should we be thinking of others' desire to sing?

The second sentence does not mention if the participation refers to sung participation or just the concept of participation. It is also vague in that participation needs a qualifier, such as "quality participation" expresses and strengthens the faith that is in us.

Our participation in the Liturgy is challenging. Sometimes, our voices do not correspond to the convictions of our hearts. At other times, we are distracted or preoccupied by the cares of the world.  But Christ always invites us to enter into song, to rise above our own preoccupations, and to give our entire selves to the hymn of his Paschal Sacrifice for the honor and glory of the Most Blessed Trinity.

The last sentence in this quotation seems to ignore the omitted sentence from Sacrosanctum Concilium, which calls for silence. The first sentence does not state what form of participation is challenging, though the second sentence suggests that the subject is singing. The second sentence fails to instruct us what to do when our voices are less than our convictions, what to do when our voices are greater than our conviction, or what to do when our convictions are greater than our voices. Overall it assumes that singing is a cure to distraction, which is false if one sings while the mind is distracted.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Additional points related to the icons at Our Saviour

Over the past several days, many blogs and catholic news outlets have covered the grave changes occurring at Our Saviour church in New York City.

This is a very sad development. Over dinner, my wife and I were trying to understand the ideological fervor that motivates the zealous destruction of sacred art, and the sense of the sacred more broadly. We were unable to conclude with any satisfactory explanations. Mentions of iconoclasm seem incomplete in explaining the situation at Our Saviour and at many other churches.

Also, some of the coverage of this story mentions the firm hired to lead the renovation: Renovata Studios. To gauge the vision of this firm, please take a look through their website. Their work has to be seen in order to fully appreciate what some individuals think is appropriate for the liturgy and the Church. My wife compared some of their tabernacle designs to mail drop boxes--and that was generous. They also worked on a church a few miles away from my house. One feels immediately less holy upon seeing it.

Finally, I quote this following passage in full from their website, and it summarizes well the vision of this firm and the churches who hire them:

Father Doran left us with the mantra, "Think outside the box" and we worked for months with the parish to develop new designs for the worship space. The altar was moved well forward and placed under a beautiful canopy with concealed lighting. A new sacristy was created in the former sanctuary. The former sacristy was made into the Blessed Sacrament chapel. The old choir loft was removed and a new space for music and choir was made near the front of the church. The baptismal font was placed in the nave near the sanctuary and the original crucifix was cleaned of the scorched burn marks and placed upon a sanctuary cross rebuilt from the original design. Other improvements were made in addition to liturgical design changes; all new lighting design, tile and marble inlaid floor, restoration of the pews and stained glass and installation of a new air conditioning system. The result is a beautiful church with award winning designs reflecting Vatican II liturgy." - Lawrence Hoy, 10/1/03


accessed 7/23/2015

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Forkel's Biography

An early biography of Johann Sebastian Bach, by Johann Nikolaus Forkel, contains many insightful passages not only on Bach but also on art, the artist, religion, and music. Below, I present a few select quotes from this biography. I chose these quotes because they contain insights not limited to the field of music: they inspire reflection on broader topics of education and the ends of art.

Forkel is an idealist, meaning that he believes that the art of music can represent the highest conceptions of beauty. His writing reflects that belief. Forkel also writes on beauty and greatness without irony, which makes for a refreshing read for anyone who tires of reading many authors of today. 

Forkel effusively praises Bach. He idealizes Bach. Seemingly every paragraph has at least one sentence of unrestrained praise. 

Some readers are offended by Forkel's uncritical treatment. To them, Forkel writes neither as a critic nor a biographer--he writes as a fan and a champion for a cause. Experienced authors and critics cannot take the biography, and the presentation of Bach within it, too seriously. A more refined critic would put aside his or her opinions and agenda in order to objectively assess the subject. 

I agree with these critiques of Forkel. However, I prefer this idealistic portrait to vain criticism, which seeks to find fault only in order to feign objectivity or a critic's discernment. In addition, when the subject merits excessive praise--as Bach merits it--then this idealistic treatment can be inspirational. Sometimes we need a pep talk for the journey to greatness.

Of course, Forkel's intent was to inspire reverence for the old master, rather than to critically appraise him. He succeeded. 

On studying ancient masters in order to reveal deficiencies in our own time, which otherwise would go unnoticed

Moreover, Bach, whose influence pervades every musical form, can be relied on more than any other composer to correct the superficiality which is the bane of modern taste. Neglect of the classics is as prejudicial to the art of music as it would be fatal to the interests of general culture to banish Greek and Latin writers from our schools. 

Modern taste exhibits no shame in its preference for agreeable trifles, in its neglect of everything that makes a demand, however slight, upon its attention.

To-day we are menaced by a proposal to banish the classics from our schoolrooms. Equally short-sighted vision threatens to extinguish our musical classics as well. And is it surprising? Modern art displays such poverty and frivolity that it well may shrink from putting itself in context with great literature, particularly with Bach's mighty and creative genius, and seek rather to proscribe it.

On sound musical training being necessary for the exalted subject of church music

The models he selected—Church musicians for the most part—and his own disposition inclined him to serious and exalted subjects. The models he selected—Church musicians for the most part—and his own disposition inclined him to serious and exalted subjects. But in that kind of music little can be accomplished with inadequate technique. 

On the capacity of Bach's music to stir the listener to contemplation

Like every true artist, Bach worked to please himself in his own way, obeying the summons of his own genius, choosing his own subjects, and finding satisfaction only in the approval of his own judgment. He could count on the applause of all who understood good music, and never failed to receive it...
It was, in fact, the artist temperament that led Bach to make the great and sublime his goal. For that reason his music is not merely agreeable, like other composers', but transports us to the regions of the ideal. 

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Church Service in Bach's Time

We obtain better perspective on today's church services by studying church services of the past. By perspective, I mean noting differences and similarities--in other words, we can compare things. According to the Oxford Dictionaries online, to compare is to

Estimate, measure, or note the similarity or dissimilarity between

So that we can measure and note similarities and dissimilarities, I revisit the order of service in Bach's day in Leipzig. 

Thomaskirche Leipzig

It was no light matter to stay in the church for three or four hours, which was the time the services lasted. - Schweitzer 

  1. The service officially begins 7:00 am.
  2. The organ prelude begins.
  3. A motet is sung.
  4. Then comes the Introit, and after that the Kyrie. The latter is sung twice: once in German, once in Latin.
  5. The Gloria is then intoned from the alter, and answered either by the choir or by the congregation. 
  6. After the collect, the Epistle is read, or rather is sung in the old psalmody. 
  7. Then comes a congregational hymn.
  8. The Gospel is chanted by the priest, who also intones the Credo
  9. The organist begins to preludise, keeping to the keys which the instruments need for tuning.
  10. The cantata begins, which lasts on average 20 minutes. 
    1. Notes: The cantata was generally shorter in winter than in summer. During winter, the interior of the church could be very cold, and parishioners became uncomfortable.  The cantor kept the cantata length closer to 20 minutes so as not to extend the service length. Also of note: the choristers maintained a coal fire.
  11. The sermon begins and, according to rule, lasts one hour. Choristers of St. Thomas leave the church during the sermon, but they do not escape the sermon. They have to read one during the hour that they are not in the church.
  12. Sermon is followed by a prayer and a blessing.
  13. A congregational hymn leads to the second part of the service: the communion celebration. German hymns are usually sung during the communion. Organ improvisation is also played during communion. 
Further activities for Sunday:
  1. At 11:45 am, there is a short service with a sermon. 
  2. Vespers begin at 1:15 pm, with a motet, followed by various prayers and congregational hymns. Then comes another sermon, which is as a rule on the Epistle. After the sermon is the German Magnificat. 
  3. In conclusion, the hymn "Nun Danket alle Got" is sung. 
Further notes:
  1. "There was no specific Leipzig hymn-book; the congregation was supposed to know the hymns allotted to each Sunday."
  2. In Bach's notes for the order of service, he calls service "divine service." 

We easily observe differences in length, format, and variety of music. Let us not forget, however, the point of comparison that diminishes the importance of all other points. It is this: the music director is Johann Sebastian Bach. At least for me, I need a few minutes of quiet thought to grasp that fact.

Source: Schweitzer, Albert. J.S. Bach, Volume One. pp 126-128. Translated by Ernest Newman. Dover Press.