Sunday, May 4, 2014

Chanting on the Cheap

In an idling moment, we came across Vatican Television’s broadcast of the 2 Pope Canonization Duo, last Sunday. It certainly was impressive to see the millions filling and overflowing Vatican Square, the Via della Concordia and beyond.

Adding to the impressiveness was the fact that the “crowd” included the royal and the grand from the Catholic world

There is something arch-typical in seeing a monarch curtsy.

Not so impressive, however, was the gastric-moaning cum muzak-angelicus which, since Vatican II, now passes for Roman Chant. 

This week's canonization began with a "new-chant" litany which can be contrasted with the one from the Sixth Century given below.

Now,  it has to be said that all religious chant is, up to a point, monotonous; for, that is what chant is: a mono-tone.   This is the result of what the poet ValĂ©ry might call le son et le sens of liturgy.  To the extent that liturgy entails a litany — or mantra — its purpose is to repeat an idea and focus the mind into a concept.  Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison, Kyrie Eleison is the most paradigmatic, if short, example.

10th Century Gregorian Chant

"Let that beautiful custom of all the provinces of the East and of Italy be kept up, viz., that of singing with great effect and compunction the 'Kyrie Eleison' at Mass, Matins, and Vespers, because so sweet and pleasing a chant, even though continued day and night without interruption, could never produce disgust or weariness". (Council Vaison, 590 A.D.)

In this case, mono-phonic repetition underscores a singular ideonic repetition so that one’s “presence of mind” becomes infused with a focal constancy from without and from within. 

Sixth Century Roman Litany of Rogation
Often a "pure" litany like the Kyrie is used as a refrain in a sequence of petitions or invocations whether in prayer or procession.

This is, perhaps, the fundamental  premise of chanting.  It is a form of meditation or dedication (giving of one's self) to a mental object.

Mozarab "Sanctus" (12th cent. Spain)

But all things imply or call for their opposites.   So it is, that the "monotony" of chant is infused with dynamic modulations and inflections which supply variation even if it is might not be heard at first.   The training scores of old Gregorian Chant sometimes contained worm-like squiggles over the notes, which served to indicate the increase, fullness or declension of the breath in the sound.   Without such devices chant would quickly become unsustainable.

Arabic Byzantine (Greek) Orthodox (Syria)

This general (and certainly non-technical) description applies to and audibly connects other species of chant within a common genre, be it Muslim

Muslim Call to Prayer

or Buddhist or any of  myriad other religious chants.

Thai Buddhist

But mantras are not everything.  In other liturgical situations the purpose of sound is to underscore and assist a narrative be it a creed, a confession, a prayer or an adulation.

Greek Orthodox Prayer

Here, the music has to serve as a fulcrum between the dynamic of changing ideas and the desire to maintain a stasis or  constancy of a psychological posture.

Russian Prayer

The “narrative” is limited by its own internal logic. For example a confession, which has as its core idea “sorry” will proceed to list the ways, manners and circumstances of transgressions.  Similarly a hymn of praise might list the ways and manners in which the deity is beneficent of magnificent.  There is both constancy and change.

At times the "narrative" will shift between core ideas. This often happens in the psalms which might begin with themes of shame or sorrow and end with praise and gratitude.  Here, both the sounds and the sense have to closely collaborate so as to produce a seamlesness of progression from one idea to its unfolding other.   In Platonic terms, music provides the ergon (energy or work) to the abstract logos of the ideas.  On might call it “opera” without jolts and surprises.

 19th Cent. Anglican Chant (Psalm 149 [Atwood])

From the Roman and Orthodox perspectives, "chant" is the official sacred music of the liturgy.  The ergon of tonality is secondary but integral with the logos of the text.   Together they comprise what can perhaps be called expression within a prescriptive discipline.   All other music  -- including Hayden and Mozart masses -- was regarded as popular religious music, allowable as appropriate in the way painting, sculpture and architecture also serve as tangible expressions of faith.

As is well-known, both the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, sought to make a greater accommodation for "popular" religious music.   In the Roman ambit, the radical result was the polyphony of Palestrina.

Puebla Cathedral

Even more radical was the polyphony of Gutierrez Padilla whose Spanish roots and Mexican circumstances led him to produce something which might be described as polyphonic counterpoint with Arab or Aztec syncopations.   Depending on how he is sung ("slow" or "fast") his liturgical music hearkens back to Palestrina or points forward to Bach.   But from the perspective of chant, Padilla is a kind of playful folkish baroque.

Although incorporating popular singing into the liturgy was a core project of the Protestant Reformation, it is something of a myth that Protestants were off singing like happy frogs while Catholics were mumbling into their rosaries.  Both branches had full and rich repertoires of “popular” liturgical music which included the sublime B-minor Mass or Missa Solemnis as well as what can frankly be called religious commonplace, otherwise known as "familiar hymns". 

Nevertheless, the stereotype of protestant croaking versus catholic mumbling cannot be stripped of all truth.  The ordinary low mass, which formed the great majority of daily roman rite services, was spoken and not sung.

This stereotypical distinction arose from a theological divergence concerning the significance of the Eucharist. For Protestants, the Eucharist was a commemorative, communal meal in which Christ was present “spiritually” (whatever that meant) whereas for Catholics it retained the character of an actual sacrifice in which Christ was really present corporeally (whatever that meant). 

This divergence was reflected liturgically in the fact that just as the Catholic low mass “forgot” the music, low Protestant denominations forgot the daily, weekly or even monthly Eucharist so that the ordinary service became a species of weekly lecture accompanied by communal singing. 

After the World War, rectifying reform proceeded in earnest in both camps.  Anglicans in particular re-emphasized the centrality of the Eucharist within a by now rich and eclectic musical tradition.   After Vatican II, the Church sought to re-involve the laity in liturgy, and this, primarily, meant singing.  The reformers' over-riding imperative became,  “Sing Everyone Sing!

However, this move to “update” the Church presented serious theological difficulties which remain unresolved.   Simply put: if the mass is an actual sacrifice of a living God, it must at least be something of an awe-filled event.  Strumming guitars and smiling-on-your-brother does not work.

I recall that when Vatican II’s reforms were going into effect, the seminarians down the road -- no doubt bored with  chant in the Beatle's Era -- strummed, clapped and swayed to a "pre-communion"  tune called Sons of God

The problem with what I dubbed the Werewolf Song is that it made explicit what is best left as a "signified mystery,” the prototypical expression of which is found in Saint Mark's account,

"And as they were eating, he took bread, and when he had blessed, he brake it, and gave to them, and said, ‘Take ye: this is my body.’  And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave to them: and they all drank of it. And he said unto them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.’" (Gospel of Mark  14:22-24.)
 Earlier still is the reference to the Eucharist found in Corinthians, written around 50 A.D.,

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, "This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me"  In like manner also the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood: this do, as often as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.’ (1 Corinthians 11:23-26)
Although both versions of the core account are similar and equally open to a metaphorical interpretation,  Saint Paul goes on to explain,

"So it is the Lord’s death that you are heralding, whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, until he comes. And therefore, if anyone eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord unworthily, he will be held to account for the Lord’s body and blood. A man must examine himself first, and then eat of that bread and drink of that cup; he is eating and drinking damnation to himself if he eats and drinks unworthily, not recognizing the Lord’s body for what it is."  (Ibid 11:26-29.)

A hundred years later the doctrine of a transubstantial sacrifice is fully entrenched in Justin Martyr’s First Apology

"For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Saviour was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nurtured, is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus" (First Apology 66:1–20 [AD 148]).
Thus, from the earliest New Testament accounts and received traditions, the Eucharistic core of the "Divine Service" was understood as something more than a meal-in-common, and certainly something more than a Mac Jesse Happy Meal.

There is nothing wrong with religious or commemorative communal meals, of which the Sabbath Seder is a prime example.  Its core idea -- the breaking off from work and the blessing and breaking of bread, wine and simple foods -- is versatile and portable, performable as much in hotel rooms as homes or temples.   One can add singing, dancing, discussing or jokes au gout

However, it is not clear that Christ was celebrating a typical seder at the Last Supper.  At all times, the religious core of the sabbath is to commemorate God's Creation, Israel's Redemption and to receive a "taste" of the Kingdom to Come.   With that context in mind, it emerges with fair clarity that, at the Last Supper, Jesus identified himself with those three concepts.   In other words, he was not merely "doing Passover" because (by the accounts given) he was changing the remembrance.

One need not celebrate the Eucharist weekly or daily, but to the extent that a Christian celebrates it, it is the commemoration of a solemn and existentially changing sacrifice, the nature of which, despite being disputed and explained, remains mysterious.  In the end, one is left with a forest of words around a central clearing.

What is also fairly clear, despite theological quibbles and evolving liturgical complexities, is that at all times, singing ended before communion with the Agnus Dei — the fifth and last “sung” part of the mass.

Lamb of God, you who take away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.
Lamb of God, you who take away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.
Lamb of God, you who take away the sins of the world, grant us peace.
How one received the Eucharist, what it meant to one's heart of hearts was left to the quiet and emptiness of silence.  Bellowing out what is, at bottom, a material (and digestive) representation of an  spiritual mystery is a travesty.  If one truly believes he is biting down on the actual flesh of a living god does he sing a kindergarden ditty while doing so?  What kind of imbecility is that?  If one sings a doggerel ditty such as the Werewolf Song can he believe that he is doing anything more than having “milk and cookies” on Sunday?

This was the central problem with the “updating” reforms of Vatican II.  The more the updaters and relevancers surrounded the altar with the sounds and clapping of all-together-now singing around the “communal meal,” the more the transcendental mystery of what was supposedly a solemn sacrifice got buried under a heap of popular and usually ill-conceived noise.  At best, Catholic services became a self-conscious imitation of mainline Protestantism.   At worst -- and all too commonly -- service descended into treakle, kitsch and outrage. 

One of the ways the Church tried to back away from such liturgical doggerel was to put “chant” back into the mass.  But it was felt that real chant was too subtle and too complicated for “the average person.”  Accordingly, “chant” got stripped of its subtle harmonics and inflections so that it could be so that be sung by Ordinary Man.  The liturgical reformers hoped to retain something called “chant” as the official or core sound sub-serving the sense of the prayers while at the same time heeding the prime directive to make sure everyone sang. 

Anglican Chant was a 19th century attempt to achieve a similar result, amenable to the sonic structure of English and singable with relative ease by the layman.  But whereas Anglican chant can be said to have succeeded,  the "simplification" of Roman Chant has produced nothing but mind-numbing, ear- tiring, sing-song monotony.   If the "subtleties" of tonal inflexions and dynamic emphasis were what gave the mono-tone of chant its life, taking those subtleties out left nothing but a sonic corpse.

Although the instrumentalisation was probably not part of the above Christmas Mass, (at least one hopes not),  it actually highlights what is deadly wrong about this updated chant which is indistinguishable from the sort of "stuff" one might hear during a sentimental Hollywood Bing Crosby  Christmas saga. 

The reformers’ premise was a notion ill-begotten of professional arrogance and condescension.  Any dolt can sing chant, if he is trained.  The beautifully complex “polyphonic-counterpoints” of Gutierrez Padilla were sung by and for recently converted Aztecs for whom the musical genre was entirely new.  What is required are information and intent.   

There are people in the West who have chosen to pursue their spiritual pilgrimage into foreign faiths. They do so by way of a commitment to learn and observe the discipline  and practices of a non-Christian religion.  Would be Muslims will learn Arabic which is required to fully appreciate the Koran. American Buddhists do not expect to “chant” country-western sutras or line dance the om mani padme hum.  Why should it be different for would-be Catholics?

The reformers confused updating with dumbing down and accessibility with a subtler form of passivity which masked laziness under the rubric of easy participation. 

It is probably indisputable that our present culture has become musically illiterate.  By this I do not mean  that in some mythical by-gone era of meisters every cobbler understood music theory.  While it  is certainly true that music was almost a vernacular in Germany, Italy, Southern France, Spain and New Spain, the more important fact was that people were not deluged by a barrage of commercialized noise.  The absence of all-pervading muzak (and worse) allowed people to hear beauty when they heard it and hearing it to mimic responses.  The ear of modern man, in contrast, is dulled by such constant sonic abuse that it cannot hear the difference beauty makes the way a punch drunk man no longer feels the pain.

© Woodchip Gazette, 2014

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