Singing the Mass 1, the voice

Why we sing?

1. God has bestowed upon his people the gift of song. God dwells within each human person, in the place where music takes its source. Indeed, God, the giver of song, is present whenever his people sing his praises.

2. A cry from deep within our being, music is a way for God to lead us to the realm of higher things. As St. Augustine says, “Singing is for the one who loves.” Music is therefore a sign of God’s love for us and of our love for him. In this sense, it is very personal. But unless music sounds, it is not music, and whenever it sounds, it is accessible to others. By its very nature song has both an individual and a communal dimension. Thus, it is no wonder that singing together in church expresses so well the sacramental presence of God to his people.

12. (…) “In a culture which neither favors nor fosters meditative quiet, the art of interior listening is learned only with difficulty. Here we see how the liturgy, though it must always be properly inculturated, must also be counter-cultural.”

Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship (USCCB – 2007)

Southern California, 2020. So much noise around us. Planes, cars, motorcycles, appliances… Mechanical, digital noises… It was not always that way. Our ancestors heard a lot less noise. It was easier to find silence. Therefore, their sense of listening was finer than ours. Noise came from nature: weather conditions, animals… Some scary, like the steps of an invisible large animal in the dark forest. Some enchanting, like the song of the nightingale (please notice en-chant-ing).

Understanding liturgical chant requires first to (re)discover silence. Chant grows from silence.

Silence is not the exile of speech. It is the love of the one Word. In the opposite direction, the abundance of words is the symptom of doubt. Disbelief is always talkative.

“The Power of silence” by Robert Cardinal Sarah

And then, there was human speech.

Speech is an answer to our environment. Growing children show us an analogy. First, in answer to something they see, or hear, they voice words that sound like “Tah-Tah” or “Bah-Bah” and support a primarily gestual communication. The language becomes than more varied in sound, more precise, and less gestual. Reading and writing come last.

The reading and writing civilizations are a recent development for mankind. For now, let us date them with ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. How was the memory of the culture transmitted in “oral” civilizations? Marcel Jousse, SJ, spent his life answering that question, and stated that “gesture is the living energy that propels this global whole that is the Anthropos”.

Man went from corporage to manuelage to language, as global language was progressively concentrated in manual language -the sign language of the hands- and in laryngo-buccal language- that of the phonatory system, a gesticulatory reduction explained by a concern to economize energy and to free movement for purposes other than communication.

Edgard Richard Sienaert “Marcel Jousse: the Oral Style and the Anthropology of Gesture” Article (1990)

The Gospels were written several decades after early Christians learned them through “oral” tradition. Marcel Jousse described how the mnemotechnical efficiency of this tradition is rooted in the body, how the the movements of body and voice contribute to the shaping of thought in a memorizable form. When we chant the liturgy, we reconnect to this “oral” tradition.

(Besides Edgard Sienaert’s article mentioned above, you can read at this link the excerpt from Jean Hani’s “the Divine Liturgy” for a developement of these ideas).

Another useful reading, developed in our “Singing next week’s Mass” workshop are the paragraphs “Ritual is Art” from Joseph Gélineau’s book “Voices and instruments in Christian Worship” (1962) :

What is Gregorian Chant?

A corpus of vocal monophonic melodies for singing the Catholic liturgy, formed during the Carolingian period. Gregorian Chant is first and foremost vocal and liturgical. Therefore, the Graduale Romanum (Roman Gradual) is the privileged path to discover this tradition.

What is this Gregorian chant? How many times have I been asked this question! Yet I still find it difficult to answer it. What to say? It all depends in the first place on the level of the conversation. You must first understand what the questioner already knows on the subject. For the majority, it is a song in Latin which brings to mind a monastic aesthetic. For those who have attended the preconciliar liturgies, this is all that is recorded in the “Liber Usualis”, or, more precisely, the melodies recorded in the authentic Vatican edition of 1908. Some still sincerely believe that Pope Gregory has composed most of these melodies, as the official historiography of the Church has taught in recent centuries.

At another level of knowledge, for those who have followed the evolutions of the last thirty years, the Gregorian chant is that corpus of liturgical melodies formed in the Carolingian period when the chant of Rome was imported. It would represent the synthesis between the previous repertoires called “Gallicans” and the chant of Rome. Thanks to the political organization of the Empire and the development of several notation systems, this repertoire, intended to serve the Roman liturgy which was then imposed almost everywhere, spread throughout Europe. And the plainchant? Plain-chant, from cantus planus. For some authors of the 19th and 20th centuries this term designates monodic chants that are not Gregorian and in particular melodies composed after the Council of Trent (1545-1563). Sometimes these melodies are grouped together under the name of musical plainchant. Here we use plain-chant in its generic sense of monodic chant, commonly used throughout history. It was a flat chant, that is to say one which has no relief, in which it differed from the discantus, the polyphony in which the voices were disjointed. There was also talk of a term which also referred to a monophony and which referred to the particular way of singing used for ecclesiastical monody: with a firm, strong, unshakeable voice. The two expressions, cantus planus and cantus firmus, are often synonymous. Cantus firmus is also used to designate, in the architecture of a polyphony, the voice which holds the liturgical melody sung in long values. To understand what has happened in recent centuries and try to propose initiatives to revive this heritage today, we have chosen to present a little history of the history of Latin plains-chants. We will not evoke everything, only a few points which seem essential to us to understand the main axes of the evolution of these repertoires and the ways in which their nature was perceived. The reader will find there a small anthology of reforms, creations and restorations which over the centuries have punctuated ecclesiastical chant.

The origins: Jewish, Greek, Roman, Frankish and old Roman chant.

The 12th century: The first normative reforms that we can observe in religious orders with the Benedictines of Cluny, then with the Cistercians.

XIII century: Dominican and Franciscan reforms. The Dominican books offer us a first precise description of the interpretation of plainchant, while with the Franciscans, we are witnessing the creation of a popular repertoire in the vernacular, and the creation of Confraternitas of lay cantors.

XIV century: With the decretal letter of John XXII, for the first time, a pontifical text speaks concretely about the music of his time. We can also observe in this text the dichotomy that already existed between the written style and the oral style. The 14th century is also the century in which polyphonic masses appear.

15th century: Mozarabic chant from Toledo, transcription of an oral tradition, or for the first time composition of a new repertoire in an archaic style?

The plains-chants of the following centuries, from the end of the 16th century with the Medicean edition then those which were composed in the 17th and 18th centuries, form a whole evoked in the chapters that Jacques Cheyronnaud produced on the 19th century. We will try to determine, by concluding this work, what was concretely lost with the disappearance of the cantors.

Marcel Peres “Les Voix du Plain-Chant” (Translation Hervé Blanquart)

Liturgy and devotions

The word “liturgy” originally meant a “public work” or a “service in the name of/on behalf of the people.” In Christian tradition it means the participation of the People of God in “the work of God.” Through the liturgy Christ, our redeemer and high priest, continues the work of our redemption in, with, and through his Church.

Catechism of the Catholic Church – Paragraph 1069

How we sing the Liturgy is given to us by the Church. We are the church militant (here on earth), and we unite with the church triumphant (in heaven) and the church suffering (in purgatory) in the singing of the Liturgy. The preferred melodies given to us by the Church tradition to sing the Mass are contained in the Roman Gradual (Graduale Romanum).

Popular piety

1674. Besides sacramental liturgy and sacramentals, catechesis must take into account the forms of piety and popular devotions among the faithful. The religious sense of the Christian people has always found expression in various forms of piety surrounding the Church’s sacramental life, such as the veneration of relics, visits to sanctuaries, pilgrimages, processions, the stations of the cross, religious dances, the rosary, medals, etc.

1675. These expressions of piety extend the liturgical life of the Church, but do not replace it. They “should be so drawn up that they harmonize with the liturgical seasons, accord with the sacred liturgy, are in some way derived from it and lead the people to it, since in fact the liturgy by its very nature is far superior to any of them.”

Catechism of the Catholic Church

When a priest, schola or congregation is not able to sing from the Roman Gradual, the pastor can authorize devotional music in the liturgy (ex: hymns,…). For more details on this order of music in the liturgy, download and read this pastoral letter from the Archbishop of Portland: Sing to the Lord a new song.

Chant orders the soul

The effect of music is the internal harmony of the soul. This notion was expanded by Boethius in his definition of the three kinds of music: heavenly music, human music, and sounding music. Sounding music allows us to order human music, the internal motions of our souls; since they may have become disordered, music provides a model of order, of internal order. But what is even more important, those two kinds of music reflect heavenly music, the so-called music of the spheres. (…)

All of this is epitomized by the order of music. Various musics represent various kinds of order: chant represents the order of human speech, especially that of the scripture, and of the order of liturgical actions. Polyphony represents the order of the cosmos in the mutual coordination of parts, as well as the internal order of the soul. But in all of these, there is a harmony implicit: in chant, the harmonious relation of the pitches of melody; in polyphony, the purposeful order in the layout of polyphonic parts in imitation; in harmonized music, the directly perceivable simultaneous harmonies. In each of these cases, the listener internalizes the perceived harmonies, modeling his affections upon those of the music. When these harmonies are intrinsic to sacred compositions and when they set sacred texts, the ordering of the “courses of the soul” is a part of the liturgy, directing us to the worship of God.

“Why the liturgy should be sung” article by William Mahrt, July 2019

How is “human music” the motions of our soul? How does it reflect heavenly music? How is chant the order of human speech? Below are examples.

The Latin word for “breath” is spiritus. Breath and spirit are intertwined. This is why every religious practice in the world involves the breath (ex: Yoga, Zen meditation,..). When we train our body to control our breath, we align our will to the Spirit. Breath support and control are at the foundation of all beautiful singing. (see also “Quotes from Lamperti“).

When we sing a melody “a-cappella” (without the help of an instrument), the musical intervals that create that melody are pulled from inside ourselves, yet these intervals recreate the proportions that God created in the Cosmos. For example, the interval called a “perfect fifth” represents the proportion 3:2 (for details, see Wikipedia on Pythagorean intervals)

When we chant the Mass, our only raw materials are our breath (Spiritus) and the Word (Logos). Nothing can be simpler, clearer, and yet full of overtones. Our speech becomes rightly ordered.

Reordering our passions and the Liturgy

If it has been made adequately clear that in the ascetical tradition the word pathos (“passion”) usually means a disordered desire, then it should be equally clear that we cannot translate its opposite, apatheia, by the English word apathy. “Apathy” has come to mean inertness or indifference deriving from a general lack of interest, and the liturgical ascetic is certainly not apathetic about the redemption of creation and mankind and himself.
This is as true for the secular ascetic who remains in the world as for the desert ascetic who leaves it. In the ascetical tradition, the passions are whatever distort the image of God in anthropos, therefore the true opposite to pathos is an undistorted, proper, ordered relationship between God, spirit, body, and cosmos. “The word itself (apatheia] is indeed taken from the Stoic philosophers, where it had a long and venerable history…. It was taken over by the Christians early, long before Evagrius. Indeed, it was used by the most orthodox of Fathers and was applied to Christ himself. Ignatius of Antioch is the first to employ it in this way.”(John Bamberger, introduction to The Praktikos) (p102)

[Maximus] is aware of the danger of an apatheia that is merely disinterestedness: apatheia must be a purified love. He seeks to prevent misunderstanding here with his very definition of passion: “passion is an impulse of the soul contrary to nature” (Centuries on Love II.16). The
passions to be expelled are those that are contrary to nature: there are natural passions that are perfectly proper. Apatheia, then, is the restoration of what is natural (that is, what is in accordance with unfallen nature). But Maximus goes further than this. For him, detachment from the irrational parts of the soul is the aim of ascetic struggle, but only so that, in their purified state, they can be reincorporated in the whole human being, itself consumed by a passionate love for God. It is not so much detachment, as sublimation: “When the human intellect is constantly with God, the desire grows beyond all measure into an intense longing for God and the incensiveness is completely transformed into divine love” (Centuries on Love II.48). (From Louth, Maximus the Confessor, 41) (p 104)

The nearer the saint comes to apatheia, the more he or she is at peace with creation. There is much talk these days about the sacramentality of creation, which is fine enough, but recovery of the world’s sacramentality cannot be thought to rely on cognition alone, without askesis. It will require a liturgical asceticism. The restoration of sacramentality will not come from education, it will have to come
from uprooting the passions, since creation did not cease to be sacramental to Adam and Eve because they became stupider, but because they became passionate. (p 126)

Liturgy, theology, and asceticism interpenetrate. (1) Asceticism that is liturgical-theological is a battle with the passions so that we might be prepared for theological encounter with God. (2) Liturgy that is ascetical-theological works an adjustment in the mind that prepares the subject for theological encounter with God. (3) Theology that is liturgical-ascetical is the presence of deifying power whereby we experientially know God. These are three atoms in one molecular structure: remove and will not have the same Christian molecule. And if any element is isolated from the other two, it will no longer be the same, either. When the three are connected at the molecular level, then asceticism is more than morality, theology is more than a human science, and liturgy is more than human religious ceremony. (P 163)

On Liturgical Asceticism – David Fagerberg

In our church music ministries, instrumentalists, not singers, are usually in charge. This seems paradoxical when the voice is so central to the liturgy (“the Word”). But instrumentalists are generally better musicians: they practice more. Practicing a musical instrument is a form of asceticism (from askesis, practice). To chant the Mass, singers must step up and take charge. This requires apprenticeship, then practice. A lot of practice.

To acquire this conscious knowledge of mental and physical phenomena of song demands the utmost searching introspection.
Do not listen to yourself sing! Feel yourself sing!

Giovanni Battista Lamperti “Vocal Wisdom”

Singing the Mass does not require unbridled passion for the music we hear. Rather, it requires searching introspection. Practice (askesis). Chant grows from silence.

Let the Church documents guide us

…And first, relax! This debate between plainchant and metered music in the liturgy is not new. Pope XXII (not XXIII, XXII), in 1325, wrote the bull Docta Sanctorum, in which he lamented the use of “measured time” in the singing of the liturgy.

But some disciples of a new school, while they apply themselves to measuring time, they attempt to invent their own melodies with new notes instead of choosing to sing the ancient ones, ecclesiastical canticles are sung in semi-breves and minims, are riddled with grace notes. For they sunder the melodies with hockets, loosen them with descants, trample them sometimes with three-part polyphonies and motets in the vernacular to such a degree that, now and then, they despise the fundamentals of the Antiphonary and the Gradual, ignore the foundation upon which they are building, disregard the modes, which they do not reckon, but which rather they confuse, when, owing to the multitude of these very notes, the modest ascents and the moderate descents of plainchant, by which the modes themselves are distinguished from one another, are obfuscated.

Pope John XXII bull “Docta Sanctorum” – 1325

The pope was right then. The Church documents are right now. Why are they decried or ignored? Because they state the obvious regarding the efficiency of music for the liturgy (“Participation of the People of God in the Work of God”) when music is most often discussed for its aesthetics, its ability to move us (pathos) or its socio-historical context.

Why even bother then? Because the sacramental signs in the liturgy help us open our hearts to the sanctifying grace of the sacraments. The 2019 Pew research measured that only 1/3 of U.S. Catholics are open to receiving those graces. We can do better.

Practically, in our 21st century, how do we start the re-ordering of our passions in the liturgy? First, we have to “show up”. The words “liturgical asceticism”, even properly understood as “practice”, can turn-off people away from Mass. The Church documents on the liturgy prioritize “participation”. So, yes, participation means first “showing up”. But it means a lot more.

Active Participation and Gregorian Chant

(clink on link)

But is not chant “Western”? What about inculturation?

No, chant is not “Western”. Chant is mistaken as “Western” because it is often lumped in with the music from Mozart or Haendel in discussions by the many people who cannot differentiate them. The most common way to chant today, called the “Solemnes method” is Western only as a bridge for us to a much deeper oral tradition. This below example of the “tract” of the 1st Sunday of Lent, sung per the Old Roman Chant tradition, will probably not sound “Western” to your ears. Chant is not Western.

Tract – 1st Sunday of Lent (Old Roman Chant)
Tract – 1st Sunday of Lent (Gregorian Chant)

Also, the top Vatican official for liturgy, Cardinal Sarah, in the 2016 quoted below, clarifies for us what is “inculturation”, and what is not. The Gospel, and liturgy, are above culture. Not the reverse.

I am an African. Let me say clearly: the liturgy is not the place to promote my culture. Rather, it is the place where my culture is baptized, where my culture is taken up into the divine. Through the Church’s liturgy (which missionaries have carried throughout the world) God speaks to us, He changes us and enables us to partake in His divine life. When someone becomes a Christian, when someone enters into full communion with the Catholic Church, they receive something more, something which changes them. Certainly, cultures and other Christians bring gifts with them into the Church—the liturgy of the Ordinariates of Anglicans now in full communion with the Catholic Church is a beautiful example of this. But they bring these gifts with humility, and the Church in her maternal wisdom makes use of them as she judges appropriate.
Nevertheless, it seems incumbent to be very clear on what we mean by inculturation. If we truly understand the meaning of the term as an insight into the mystery of Jesus Christ, then we have the key to inculturation, which is not a quest nor a claim for the legitimacy of Africanization nor Latin Americanization nor Asianization in substitution of a Westernization of Christianity. Inculturation is neither a canonization of a local culture nor a settling into this culture at the risk of making it absolute. Inculturation is an irruption and an epiphany of the Lord in the depths of our being. And the irruption of the Lord in our life causes a disruption, a detachment opening the way to a path according to new orientations that are creating elements of a new culture, vehicle of the Good News for man and his dignity as a Son of God. When the Gospel enters into our life, it disrupts it, it transforms it. It gives it a new direction, new moral and ethical orientations. It turns the heart of man towards God and neighbor to love and serve them absolutely and without design. When Jesus enters into a life, he transfigures it, he deifies it by the radiant light of His Face, just as St Paul was on the road to Damascus (see: Acts 9:5-6).
Just as by his Incarnation the Word of God became like men in all things, except sin (Heb 4:15), so the gospel assumes all human and cultural values, but refuses to take shape in the structures of sin. This means that the more individual and collective sins abound in a human or ecclesial community, the less room there exists for inculturation. On the contrary, the more a Christian community and shines with holiness and radiates evangelical values, the more it is likely to inculturate the Christian message. The inculturation of the faith is the challenge of sanctity. It verifies the degree of holiness, and the level of the Gospel’s penetration, and of the faith in Jesus Christ in a Christian community. Inculturation, therefore, is not religious folklore.
It is not essentially realized in the use of local languages, instruments and Latin American music, African dances or African or Asian rituals and symbols in the liturgy and the sacraments. Inculturation is God who descends into the life, into the moral behavior, into the cultures and into the customs of men in order to free them from sin and in order to introduce them into the life of the Trinity. Certainly the Faith has in need of a culture so as to be communicated. This is why Saint John Paul II affirmed that a faith that does not become culture is a faith that is dying: “Properly applied, inculturation must be guided by two principles: “compatibility with the gospel and communion with the universal Church.” (Encyclical Letter, Redemptoris Missio, 7 December 1990, n. 54).

Robert Cardinal Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, address at “Sacra Liturgia UK 2016”

Keynote and Powerpoint presentations on themes developed in this page (part 1 of a 3-part “Singing the Mass” workshop)

Click here for Part 2, and here for Part 3.

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