Saturday, October 21, 2006

Were strophed hymns historically foreign to Catholic liturgy?

The Center for Theology at Lenoir-Rhyne College recently hosted its 14th annual Aquinas-Luther Conference, this year on the subject of "Spirituality, Holiness, and the Saints." Conference speakers included Dr. Regis Martin (Franciscan University), Dr. Amy Schifrin (St. Peter's Lutheran Church, York, PA), Dr. Ronda Chervin (ret. Loyola Marymount, Los Angeles; currently Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Lenoir-Rhyne College), and Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon (Senior Editor of touchstone Magazine, A Journal of Mere Christianity and Pastor of All Saints' Orthodox Church in Chicago). Here is an online Conference Schedule with titles of their presentations.

My purpose is not to review the presentations of the Conference, which were excellent, but to address a question that one of the presentations raised in my mind in subsequent reflection. Amy Schifrin's presentation addressed Martin Luther's hymnody, and, in the course of her fine presentation, she made the point that Luther decisively shaped the 'Western Rite', as she put it (she was thinking of the Reformation traditions, of course), by his particular use of strophed hymns. However, she went farther, suggesting also that strophed hymns might be seen, now at least, as essential to the liturgical worship of God.

Now, coming from a Protestant background as I do, I have reason to be inclined to be sympathetic to this view. It's common knowledge that most Protestant traditions have historically rich hymnodies and that Protestant congregations -- especially of the more evangelical or conservative end of the spectrum -- sing very well. Like many from Lutheran, Baptist, Presbyterian, Anglican, Mennonite, or Methodist backgrounds, I was raised in a home where we were taught to sing four-part harmony. My parents ran a boarding facility for missionary children in Japan, so we had plenty of voices, which naturally divided into a range from sopranos, and altos among the women to tenors and bass among the men. It was surprising to me when I started going to a Catholic church back in the 1980s that the hymnals did not show printed parts for four voices, but only the melody line. It was also surprising to discover how poorly Catholic congregations sang, and never in harmony, except for the choir (and that was sometimes debatable).

But here's my question: were strophed hymns historically foreign to Catholic Mass? I knew there were great hymns in Catholic tradition, such as the Te Deum, and it's more recent pre-Vatican II strophed hymnodic forms, such as "Grosser Gott, wir loben Dich!" or "Holy God, We Praise Thy Name." But then I ran into the following remark by Martin Mosebach:
Luther's Reformation was a singing movement and the hymn expressed the beliefs of the Reformers. Vernacular hymns replaced the liturgy, as they were designed to do; they were filled with the combative spirit of those dismal times and were meant to fortify the partisans. People singing a catchy melody together at the top of their voices created a sense of community, as all soldiers, clubs, and politicians know. The Catholic Counter-Reformation felt the demagogic power of these hymns. People so enjoyed singing; it was so easy to influence their emotions using pleasing tunes with verse repetition. In the liturgy of the Mass, however, there was no place for hymns. The liturgy has no gaps; it is one single great canticle; where it prescribes silence or the whisper, that is, where the mystery is covered with an acoustic veil, as it were, any hymn would be out of the question. The hymn has a beginning and an end; it is embedded in a speech. But the leiturgos of Holy Mass does not actually speak at all; his speaking is a singing, because he has put on the "new man," because, in the sacred space of the liturgy, he is a companion of angels. In the liturgy, singing is an elevation and transfiguration of speech, and, as such, it is a sign of the transfiguration of the body that awaits those who are risen. The hymn's numerical aesthetics -- hymn 1, hymn 2, hymn 3 -- is totally alien and irreconcilable in the world of the liturgy. In services that are governed by vernacular hymns, the believer is constantly being transported into new aesthetic worlds. He changes from one style to another and has to deal with highly subjective poetry of the most varied levels. He is moved and stirred -- but not by the thing itself, liturgy: he is moved and stirred by the expressed sentiments of the commentary upon it. By contrast, the bond that Gregorian chant weaves between liturgical action and song is so close that it is impossible to separate form and content. (Martin Mosenbach, The Heresy of Formlessness, pp. 40-41)
Then, in the latest issue of Adoremus Bulletin (October 2006), one finds this: "St. Mark's -- A Liturgy Without Hymns," an article by Dr. Joseph Swain, Professor of Music History at Colgate University for 22 years and author of the forthcoming Dictionary of Sacred Music (Scarecrow Press, December, 2006). The printed edition of the article carries the headline: "Is the Liturgy at this great Venitian Basilica what the Council Fathers had in mind?" The article is fascinating. One thing Swain points out is that the current liturgical fixation on "four songs" -- at the beginning of Mass, at the offertory procession, after the reception of Communion, and at the very end -- is a product of a mostly German pre-conciliar tradition. He writes:
This peculiarity derives from a mostly German pre-conciliar tradition of singing congregational songs and hymns at a “low Mass”, that is, a Mass entirely spoken with no music, at those points where Mass Propers would ordinarily be chanted by the choir at a more solemn liturgy. The celebrant would say the prescribed texts while the congregation sang a versified paraphrase in the best conditions, or just a familiar devotional song otherwise. The tradition, dating from the 18th century at least, was an outlet for the natural desire of congregants to sing in praise of the Most High at Mass. The Second Vatican Council, in the interests of such “active participation”, charged the congregation with singing the actual liturgical texts, but Proper chants are not easy, and so bishops seized upon the more elastic clauses in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy and its subsequent instructions and allowed easier and by now much more familiar hymns to substitute.

With one exception, “the four” continue to act as placeholders for the texts prescribed in the Roman missal for particular feasts, that is, for the Proper texts of ancient tradition: the Introit or entrance antiphon, the Offertory antiphon, and the Communion antiphon. (They are all “antiphons” because it is thought that in ancient times these were not sung by themselves but in response to the verses of entire Psalms.) The exception is the modern recessional or closing hymn, which stands in for nothing at all, but merely satisfies our modern aesthetic need for the big finale as in an opera or Hollywood movie.
But note what Swain says about this in view of the Council:
Nevertheless, our fixation on “the four” stands in some contradiction to the exhortations of the Council. “To promote active participation, the people should be encouraged to take part by means of acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons, and songs...” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Art. 30). Songs are last in priority. Preconciliar documents on sacred music Mediator Dei (Pope Pius XII, 1947) and Musicae Sacrae (Pope Pius XII, 1958) and American guidelines such as Music in Catholic Worship (1983) set the same priorities, sometimes in more specific detail. But in a typical American parish, when resources limit the music, congregations will not sing Psalmody and Mass Ordinary settings (e.g. “Glory to God”) to the exclusion of “the four”, but rather the other way around.
But read the whole article, which is actually more interesting for Swain's detailed account of the liturgy at St. Mark's Basilica in Venice where he lived for five months as directer of an off-campus study group sponsored by Colgate University. His analysis of the liturgy shows that there is singing aplenty, but not of the kind one finds in "the four" strophed hymns in contemporary liturgies. And this is what makes the practice at St. Mark’s so interesting and instructive, as Swain points out. At the half dozen solemn Masses he attended there, there was but one hymn, a Marian entrance song to the tune “O Sanctissima” for the Vigil of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Otherwise there was no music that Americans would call congregational songs or hymns, and yet the active participation of the people in a richly varied liturgical music was both frequent and fervent.

In fact, this reminds me of the antiphonally chanted plainsong Mass discussed and proposed by Fr. Samuel Weber at the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars at Kansas City in September (see "Back from Kansas City," September 26, 2006).

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