Tuesday, September 10, 2019

The Strange Decline of Catholic Hymns

The most beautiful music ever composed was composed for the sacred liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church. But do Catholics ever get to hear it at Mass? Hardly ever. We are lucky if the hymns are even Catholic. And what about replacing the Introit or "Entrance Antiphon" with a generic hymn that may or may not have anything to do with the mystery of the day. The "Entrance Antiphon" is supposed to be recited or chanted, but instead it has disappeared.  From Dr. Esolen at The Catholic Herald:
When Pope Honorius crowned the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) by proclaiming the new feast of Corpus Christi – a triduum of joy from the Thursday following Trinity Sunday to echo the triduum of Holy Week and Easter – the Catholic world responded with a burst of artistic creativity unmatched since the days of Ancient Greece. Drama came alive again, in a folk tradition which, when it merged with the learning of the Renaissance, would culminate in the plays of somebody called Shakespeare.
When the Council of Trent closed in 1563, the Catholic world again responded with a burst of artistic creativity. What the neo-classical tea-tasters of the 18th century disparagingly called the “Baroque” was born; Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Shakespeare again, Milton, Racine, Bernini, Bach; and that quintessentially Baroque invention, with its magniloquence and its passionate action – the opera. But when the Second Vatican Council ended in 1965 – what?

I used to wonder whether Catholics outside of the Anglophone world did a better job preserving their art, their music and their prayers, even if they were not in a good cultural position to create new works. We speakers of English have put up with doggerel and “I Feel Holy” jingles and the butchering of old hymns. Were speakers of other languages not so cursed with innovation? If I were to judge by the part of French Canada where we live in the summer, I’d say the destruction was universal.

I’m looking at a copy of Paroissien Romain (1956), which I found stuffed in the closet of the choir loft of our local church, Notre-Dame de L’Assomption. It is a beautiful book, 2,000 pages cloth-bound and red-edged. The wear on the tassels for keeping your place, and some pencil marks here and there, show that the books were indeed used. Paroissien Romain contains the prayers, readings and chants for Mass and for the Divine Office for every Sunday and every feast day throughout the year, and a great deal more, along with careful instructions on how to pronounce Latin, and how to perform Gregorian chant (printed in standard G-clef notation). The prayers for the feast of the Assumption are glorious. (They aren’t heard here any more, because the feast is not a holy day in Canada.)

I’m often struck by how powerful it can be merely to place a verse from Scripture in the context of a feast. For the Gradual of the Assumption, we have a tremendous verse from Psalm 45, the great marriage psalm, in Latin: Audi, filia, et vide, etc. I will translate: “Hearken, O daughter, and see, and incline thy ear: and the king shall desire thy beauty. The daughter of the king walks forth in glory, her robe is fringed with gold, Alleluia. Mary has been assumed into heaven: the host of Angels rejoice.” I count 433 notes to chant the 32 Latin words, once. The chant is extraordinary in its tapestry, its delicate melody opening out like a rose, petal upon petal, as if you could never have enough of praise, as if you could meditate joyfully upon a single word forever.

All that is gone now. I also have before me the current French hymnal, D’une même voix (2003). It’s a third the size of Paroissien Romain. There’s no instruction on how to chant. The short section with chanted prayers gives the impression that the editors are not terribly interested. “It is not fit to chant everything,” they say. “One should strive for a balance, and a liveliness in the congregation. Sometimes you should chant less, to chant better.” Those are their last words on the matter. (Read more.)


Marie Page said...

There is a stingingly humorous book that I recommend reading: "Why Catholics Can't Sing." Author Thomas Day details the downward slide--explains why the current Mass sounds like American Top 40 radio, and what he believes is the solution to the situation.

Back in the 1990s I had the wonderful privilege of studying organ under an organist and choirmaster who had been raised and taught organ in the traditional Catholic rite. Although I don't play any longer (knee problems), I agree thoroughly with your assessment of how lacking the "modern" liturgy is.

My teacher told me that the closest thing to Heaven he had ever experienced was to play a Solemn High traditional Latin Mass. I was fortunate to also sing choral music under my choirmaster, and had the privilege of learning Gregorian chant, choral Masses, sung Hours of the Church.

My teacher said that If one really listens to the chant of the Church--the soft breathing in and out of the Psalms, the choral accompaniment of the Mass, the whisper of the organ to its most full-throated peals--one can hear the whispered wisdom of the Church to the outcry of majesty to Her Lord in the fullness of time.

The most beautiful thing this side of Heaven is the traditional Latin Liturgy and the traditional Solemn High Latin Mass.

elena maria vidal said...

Thanks so much for responding, Marie. I am delighted that you mentioned Day's book. A funnier and truer book has never been written. I agree with all you say.