Monday, March 2, 2009

The Sound of Silence, Revisited

March 3, 2009

Today's Word:
Isaiah 55:10-11 (God's Word shall do His will)
Psalm 34:4-5, 6-7, 16-17, 18-19 (God rescues the just from all their distress)
Matthew 6:7-15 (The Lord's Prayer)

The choir director of the Catholic parish I serve came to me before the Mass this past Saturday and told me that she couldn't play any preludes (instrumental pieces) during Lent. She said this came from a church document that, in her words, had 'been around awhile.'

Today I did a little research, and I found the document that supports what she said.

The 1967 instruction on liturgical music, "Musicam Sacram," addresses the question of the use of the organ and other instruments in paragraphs 62-67. First it says that "the pipe organ is to be held in high esteem, for it is the traditional musical instrument that adds a wonderful splendor to the Church's ceremonies and powerfully lifts up the spirit to God and to higher things."

Okay, I can buy that, at least for the moment. Catholicism represents more conservative tradition than liberal innovation, so this makes sense.

"But other instruments also may be admitted for use in divine worship, with the knowledge and consent of the competent territorial authority. ... This may be done, however, only on condition that the instruments are suitable, or can be made suitable, for sacred use, are in accord with the dignity of the place of worship, and truly contribute to the uplifting of the faithful.

"One criterion for accepting and using musical instruments is the genius and tradition of the particular peoples. At the same time, however, instruments that are generally associated and used only with worldly music are to be absolutely barred from liturgical services and religious devotions. All musical instruments accepted for divine worship must be played in such a way as to meet the requirements of a liturgical service and to contribute to the beauty of worship and the building up of the faithful." (Emphasis mine)

That's pretty loaded. Funny thing is, a musical instrument is a neutral sort of thing. Whether or not it is 'worldly' is largely determined by who is playing it and what music is being played. If a bunch of kids were to play "Amazing Grace" on kazoos and did it well, it would more than likely be uplifting. On the other hand, a crass arrangement of any piece of sacred music would make the church take on the ambiance of the Pelican Lounge, regardless of how much you tried to justify it. Music is pretty subjective; what is one person's pleasure is another's anathema; priest or peon.

"Musical instruments as the accompaniment for singing have the power to support the voice, to facilitate participation, and to intensify the unity of the worshiping assembly. But their playing is not to drown out the voice so that the texts cannot be easily heard. Instruments are to be silent during any part sung by the priest or ministers by reason of their function."

OK. Now we tell all the really good organists to ease up on the gas pedal. No wonder my friend Mike had so much trouble trying to deal with accompanying Catholic liturgy. Oh, well...Bach was Lutheran, anyway.

"Solo playing (of the organ or other approved instruments) is allowed at the beginning of Mass, prior to the priest's reaching the altar, at the presentation of the gifts, at the communion, and at the end of Mass.

"Solo playing of musical instruments is forbidden during Advent, Lent, the Easter triduum, and at services and Masses for the dead." (Emphasis mine)

There you have it. She's right. Of course, this gets muddied by the definition of the "forty" days of Lent (see my 'Doing the Math' post).

The thing that gets me about this is that a Church that touts preserving tradition (when it fits the business model, aka when convenient) rejects a large body of traditional sacred music written for the Lenten season, and for what? Austere, pristene silence? Get a life, guys. I have to remind people before each Mass that they need to silence their cell phones, and at least one will miss the announcement and get a call in the middle of Mass. The silence before Mass is relative at best. The sounds of people just moving is a distraction, let alone the fellowship (aka talking) that goes on as people come and go. You want silence? Soundproof the reconciliation rooms (confessionals) and sit there for ten minutes. Or become Quaker.

Okay, I'm a little irritated; but I'll get over it. There's almost always a song playing in my head, and I'm not afraid to meditate on it.

Update at 2:15 PM CST, 3/3/09:
It came to my attention that the two most sacred of musical instruments are: 1) the human voice and 2) the pipe organ (wind variety; the electronics of the present era substitute in the human ear to some degree but not in the audio/harmonic spectrum). I am likely misstating this to some degree, but the overall point I'm getting to is that of all the musical literature that has been developed for the Church, there are two things that have survived the tests of time and fashion. The first is plainsong chant, which was first sung by unaccompanied voice. There are several styles, but the best known is attributed to Pope (St.) Gregory the Great, and goes back about 750 years; other styles and some individual pieces go back further. The other is the literature developed for the pipe organ, and centers around the composers of the 18th Century, most notably JS Bach. There is something in the way that the voice and the organ, and the resonance that sound waves make with the human body, affect the mind, body, and spirit of the listener. If one is genuinely open (meaning all outside agendas and such are set aside), it is possible for one or the other (and sometimes both) to assist the listener into a deeper meditative state; and in so doing, encounter God in a unique way.

When taken into consideration that Jesus' sojourn in the desert was very much alone and introspective - something evident in the way the season of Lent is meant to be observed in the Catholic Church - then it is indeed appropriate that restrictions be placed on the use of enhancements through art and music. That lends itself to the removal or covering of statues or icons in Catholic churches during Lent, and the restrictions on the use of instrumental preludes or postludes to Mass. The basic idea: remove the trappings in order to get to the heart of it all.

Having said this, in the modern context it takes quite a bit to accomplish. And given the push toward more contemporary style in liturgical ambience including art and music, it is something that's languishing. Arguably, it could work either way. I'm not in a position to argue, so I shift gears from time to time.

I suppose one thing that hurts from the standpoint of my fellow musicians is that Lent is something that builds in intensity as the season progresses. As partners, we want to assist in doing that with our talents, and to be instructed not to do so is not without some pain. It is easy to forget in the moment over what comes next: the joy that knows no bounds, where all the stops are opened and the sound raises the roof a few inches.

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