Thursday, March 1, 2012

A Promising and Enlightening Little Chant Conversation

There was a little exchange during a break at my schola practice last weekend that I found promising.

I don't know much about liturgical music, though I am coming to understand more and more just how integral the chant is to the liturgy, even given my own past reservations about it and personal preference for other styles (I'm certainly not listening to chant during my free time!)

But, this is perhaps why I do have such an aversion to anything but chant in liturgy (especially things like orchestral Masses, etc) and why the Church only ever really allowed varied settings for the Ordinary, not the Propers: the music is not something just added to the text, as if Low Mass came first and Sung Mass was just jazzing it up. No, the music is really the life behind the text, and just as much a part of the experience of the "tradition" of the liturgy as the words. When people pass down a song, the melody is integral to that experience! It's not as if they're passing down merely a text and the melody is just an accidental vehicle. And the whole liturgy is song.

So, the director of my choir and several of the members seem to be quite knowledgeable about the scholarship regarding chant, the manuscript traditions, the various evolutions of pieces in different traditions (say, of different religious orders); from what I can glean from them talking, it almost seems to happen in Darwinian fashion, with little mutations and minor variations accruing in different pieces over time in different localities or traditions, with some cross-pollination, etc.

Another interesting fact: the chant books are probably the one place where newer is better, liturgically. Even if you use the pieces in the context of the old rite textual cycle, the music itself is probably a better restoration now (thanks to improved scholarship with the manuscripts and all that) than if you were to simplistically insist on sticking to mid-20th-century Graduales, etc.

Anyway, last weekend they started discussing the Tract, because of how the First Sunday of Lent has the longest (took us about 15 minute) piece in the whole Gregorian repertoire, really. The theory is that this may be a preserved "full" (or almost full) Tract.

In the liturgy of Late Antiquity and the Dark Ages, things were a lot less "vestigial" than they are under the Tridentine regime. Indeed, I've argued for restoring fuller forms on this blog before. For example, it is well-known that the Introit, the Offertory, and the Communion were actually used as antiphons between verses of psalms during the corresponding liturgical processions; our choir uses the Offertory verses found restored in the Offertoriale, and verses for the Communion too (though we've never yet had occasion to use additional Introit verses, though they are available in the same volume with the Communion verses).

This concept is general straight-forward enough, though the liturgy preserves a few idiosyncrasies suggesting that at some places there may have been variant practices. For example, at Requiems the Communion is in the format of a Responsory (otherwise confined to the Office in the Roman Liturgy; though my choir often sings a Matins/Prolix Responsory after the Communion to fill more time). This is taken by some scholars to suggest that at some locale in the early Middle Ages
(a given cathedral, monastery, etc) whence the Requiem Propers (or at least the Requiem Communion) descended to us, all Communions may have been Responsories instead of a psalm/antiphon format at that locale.

The Alleluia has a bit more complicated a history, but it may have been used during something like a Gospel Procession at one point (it also seems that Sequences evolved from drawing out the melisma of the "jubilus" of the Alleluia, in a manner somewhat similar to how the Kyrie used to be "troped" as well.)

However, the Gradual (and the Tracts) were known to not have been used in processions. The Gradual was essentially like the modern "Responsorial Psalm," and was sung for it's own sake after every lesson before the Epistle, with the ministers having nothing else to do but sit and listen as with readings, with a soloist cantor (or, perhaps later, even a group of cantors or choir) alternating verses with the congregation singing the antiphonal refrain. As now preserved, the Gradual in the books has a first section that is essentially an "R" (though the R is not always included), and then a section marked "V" probably indicating the original antiphon and the first verse sung with it.

The Tract, on the other hand, sung after the Epistle, was always a Psalm sung by a soloist or group of cantors or choir straight-through, not in a call-and-response format like the Gradual (in fact, it is suggested that this is what the name "Tract" means: sung straight through). As Tracts are preserved today, this is why they are marked at every verse with "V" indicating verses of a Psalm, but don't have any "R" or equivalent. It used to be a whole psalm, but what we have preserved are abridged verses except a few days a year. Probably, at one point, they were all as lengthy as the First Sunday of Lent.

Additionally, there used to always be a Tract even when there was an Alleluia also; the principle of a Psalm after every reading originally held even when the Alleluia started being proclaimed before the Gospel or during the Gospel Procession. Eventually, the Tract came to drop out on days the Alleluia was used (some days, especially in Lent, Eastertide, and on Ember Days still have strange combinations of Gradual, Tract, and Alleluia, or one "missing" where it might be expected, for historical reasons).

Anyway, learning all this helped me understand the liturgy better. It also made me question my own "restorationist" urges a bit, as I'm not sure how possible it actually would be to, say, restore full Tracts for all the days of the year. I'm not sure the manuscripts exist to do that, for example (as, by the High Middle Ages, must of the abridgement we're familiar with had already taken place). And there is something neat about having these vestigial "remnants" whose origins are sort of a mystery, whose ancient use we can speculate on, still preserved even if in an abridged form.

However, the most promising part of this conversation came at the end. Someone was talking about the cantor soloists for the psalms, and someone brought up how at this stage, everywhere was still improvising their liturgy, both in text but probably especially in music. There was an ancient (even Apostolic) structure to the liturgy, but in terms of the actual cycle of texts it was all still organically evolving, and different in many different locales, and not fixed by force of legislation or anything like that.

And then I was very glad to hear a lot of support expressed among the choir members (traditionalist Catholics mind you, including some seminarians and religious) for the old organic growth and local diversity. A real regret was expressed for the Carolingian standardization of the Liturgy and Trent further quashing local diversity and ossifying the liturgy as if in amber.

Of course, as one rather more reactionary member said, "Well, that's all well and good when the whole world is Catholic, you can trust people to improvise in a thoroughly Catholic way. With the rise of Protestantism, can we really trust people to?" And, of course, he has a point; I certainly don't want priests today making up their own liturgy, it would almost certainly be dreadful and often heretical, or at least tinged with Protestant aesthetics, not thoroughly Catholic (or Catholic in an inappropriately private devotional as opposed to liturgical sort of way). I even then pointed out that the Novus Ordo basically was what happened when you let moderns start making liturgy again.

And yet still, the choir director himself then said, "Yeah, it's tragic though, because you can't go on defining yourself as against things forever. That becomes just reactionary. When the Church really is something in itself, then the liturgy can bloom." Coming from a traditionalist choir, I thought hearing positions like that (rather than unnuanced support for the Tridentine rubricism and ossification and top-down standardization of liturgy)...was very promising.


Mark of the Vineyard said...

I take it the schola you belong to sings at the old rite?

Have you heard this:

Fr. Kirby talks a lot about the Propers on his blog, especially their sung significance.

Agellius said...

"... the music is not something just added to the text, as if Low Mass came first and Sung Mass was just jazzing it up. No, the music is really the life behind the text, and just as much a part of the experience of the "tradition" of the liturgy as the words. When people pass down a song, the melody is integral to that experience! It's not as if they're passing down merely a text and the melody is just an accidental vehicle. And the whole liturgy is song."

I knew the "songs" in modern liturgy were just sort of tacked on, in a sense. But I never expressly thought of it the way you put it here. Good stuff.